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'It's going to be OK': LIer tears up garden to remember mom

Kathy Meyers, a lifelong Ronkonkoma resident who lost

Kathy Meyers, a lifelong Ronkonkoma resident who lost her mother, Barbara, this January. Kathy moved into her childhood home, where her mother lived, and began planting a new garden in the yard. Credit: Shelby Knowles

Full, fat slugs

advance upon moonlit roses.

Sprinkle salt on them.

It makes them ooze and die.

Morning reveals

greenish blobs on pavement;

remnants of dead destroyers.

My daughter says

she’d rather let them live.

I prefer the roses.

A smile stretched across Kathy Meyers’ face as she read the last line. “The Solution” was written by her late mother, Barbara Reiher-Meyers. She recited it aloud sitting in the garden of her Ronkonkoma home, on a recent September afternoon.

It is in her garden that Meyers has found a space to grieve for her mother, who died in January at 83.

“I was brought home from the hospital to this house,” said Kathy, 55.

Growing up, Kathy was the only girl among five brothers. So when Barbara needed a hand in the garden, she reached for her daughter’s green thumb.

“I used to always go into the front garden and weed it and then I’d go inside and say, ‘Mom, how much will you give me if I weed the front garden?’ ” Kathy remembered.

“She’d be like, ‘I’ll give you $10,’ and I’d be like, ‘OK good — because I did it already.’ ”

Barbara was a mother, a grandmother and a great-grandmother. She was a vibrant gardener, a quick-witted writer, and an avid antique collector. When her health began to fail in 2016, Kathy sold her own house in Ronkonkoma and moved back in to be with her.

Right away, Kathy got back to work on her mother’s garden. They would chat about the possibilities: turning the entire front yard into an English garden, adding a water feature, creating a pathway. Barbara told her daughter she could do whatever she wanted with it.

Since her mother died, Kathy has been expanding their garden.

“My coping mechanism is to tear into things,” she said. “So rototilling this yard or just working hard and working up a sweat, it gets out my aggression. And now we can sit here and be in the space that that energy formed.

“It’s all for her, because this is her house. This is her energy that’s making me do this.”

In addition to the potted plants and blooming flowers popping up in the front yard, Kathy created a pathway with a chopped-up tree that her neighbor cut down and added a seating area in the corner with a couple white metal chairs and a little round table, covered by a tablecloth.

Kathy feels connected to her mother through the work she’s doing, and she hopes the revamped garden will soon be filled again with life.

“I’m going to have every plant that I can think of, every plant that I can remember my mother telling me the name of,” she said. “Everything here is something that I know because she taught me.”

Now, budding hibiscus, daylilies and assorted seashells live in the Meyers garden, along with a sign that reads: “If silence is a wall, let words be a wrecking ball.”

Barbara was also beloved in Long Island’s poetry community, her daughter says — she was a wordsmith with an affinity for puns. “If you didn’t have a sense of humor, she was like, ‘You poor, sad person. I feel bad for you.’ ”

Every third Friday of the month, Barbara would emcee poetry readings at The Conklin Farmhouse and Barn in Huntington. The Walt Whitman Birthplace Association named her the Long Island Poet of the Year in 2018 — an honor she accepted before she died — and she often volunteered at its historical site. She was also a board member of the Long Island Poetry Collective and coordinated events for Northport Arts Coalition and Smithtown Township Arts Council.

Her 2004 book, “Sounds Familiar,” is a collection of mostly short poems, some inspired by her surroundings. There are a couple that refer to Lake Ronkonkoma, and one called “Sunrise Highway at Night.”

Like a white-knuckled flyer

my hands grip the wheel.

Something gleaming from the woods

too fleeting to be named;

Those tiny plastic whistles

on the bumper of my Buick

will surely protect me

from the flash and crash

of meat that            leaps across

blackness of highway.

I pray that if a deer

flies to wreck a hood,

that it will not be mine.

Kathy has been making appearances all over Long Island in her mother’s place, including at the United Methodist Church auction in Lake Ronkonkoma. “She was their best customer, and I knew she was missed,” Kathy said. She also organized a memorial for her mother at the Sachem Public Library, where family and friends gathered to read Barbara’s work.

Kathy hopes that her community will also follow her into the garden, either to pick up a shovel and get to work, or to hang out.

“All of these things I do because other people need me to, but I need to say, ‘This is how I can have her stay alive and share her with everyone,’ ” Kathy said. “I hope I come home and find people sitting here. I hope I come home and find a plant from someone.”

When she first started working on the garden, Kathy began in the area right outside her mother’s bedroom window. She realizes now that this may have been intentional.

“I feel like maybe consciously and unconsciously, I finished this area first because this is what she would see if she was in her bed,” she said. “She’d see this garden. She wouldn’t see all the ripped-up parts, she’d see what I’m doing and she would like it.

“I feel her watching me doing it and saying, ‘OK, I did tell you you could do whatever you wanted.’ ”

Share your own memories of losing a loved one and how you keep their legacy alive.

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