On April 9th I got the worst phone call of my life. My father hadn’t woken up by his usual 5am time and when my mother went to check on him she found him peacefully laying in bed at our home Tulipwood, having passed away. His heart had just stopped. He was 70.
I believe life is defined by a series of signposts. There is life before and life after those signposts. For me, this signpost is so significant that it has changed my life and I know without a doubt, I won’t ever be the same. Things that felt important to me up until that phone call now seem trivial and shallow. Any plans or ambitions I had for my work seem meaningless and unimportant. The only thing that matters is those I love.
People keep telling me it doesn’t get better but it gets easier. That it isn’t about getting through the grief but about learning to live alongside it, and accepting that you will be living with a hole in your heart for the rest of your life. Right now, it seems to be getting harder for me, not easier, perhaps because I spent the first three weeks trying to help my mom cope with the overwhelming prospect of living life alone at Tulipwood without him. And now that I’ve left her to see what it is like living there alone, to see if she can do it, I’ve been still enough to finally sit with the reality that I can’t call my dad when I wake up and chat over morning coffee. That I can’t get his words of wisdom when I want, or hear his immense encyclopedic brain tell me something new with every conversation. As someone put it in the many notes and cards we received, he was a gentleman with the soul of an artist. As someone else put it, he was an artist with the soul of a gentleman.
The day he passed away, I received two letters in the mail from him. One was a package of miniature red zinnia seeds from Tulipwood for me to grow. The other was a gift card to Red Lobster. He had, for whatever reason, begun sending me Red Lobster gift cards in the last few months, an amusing and quirky act that I never did get to the bottom of.
My dad did love food, it was something we shared along with gardening, writing, photography and so many other things. The day before he passed he prepared all of the ingredients for Julia Child’s bœuf bourguignon from Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and he had planned to make it for my mom the following night. He had peeled dozens of pearl onions, something we used to do every Christmas together when we made the stew in a big copper pot. Had had cut the bacon lardons, cubed the beef, sliced the carrot and onion, all set up in containers, his mise en place, ready for a beautiful dinner in the systematic way in which he did everything he did so well. I finished the stew for him and for my mom the day after he passed, braising the onions separately as Julia instructs, sautéing the mushrooms so they brown just so, and then adding it all back into the copper pot and finishing with chopped parsley for serving.
He was also growing an array of seedlings under sunlamps on timers in an elaborate set up in his office. My brother and I began watering them until they were ready to be transplanted outdoors, which we did in the rain–cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, zinneas, marigolds, a mix of flowers, and even vinca. And then I took to the task that my dad spent the most time on–I protected his beloved rhododendrons from the deer by updating the mesh metal fencing around them to give them more room to grow without the deer reaching their buds. My dad was a devoted member of the American Rhododendron Society and had special plaques made for each rhododendron he planted that included their latin names.
My dad and I were cut from the same cloth, and just like Grandma Pellegrini, his mother, we shared a love of creating beauty and leaving beauty in our wake. He had a profound influence on me and the direction I chose to take my life, simply by being who he was and serving as an example.
One of my most profound memories is when I was 10, and I stood in a small deli in Piermont, NY and listened to my dad give a speech to a group of people and reporters that had gathered. In a tiny space, packed in between the grape soda and hamburger buns I watched his words transform a room.
In his speech he described a fountain that a town had decided to build, a beautiful fountain that was going to cost tax payers a lot of money, but a worthwhile endeavor because of its beauty and what it meant for the town to have this fountain as the center of their community. He explained why this fountain would require sacrifice to build, what it would take to build it, how hard it would be, but why it mattered that it be built. It was pure poetry to listen to, and I stood there as a 10 year old in awe of his ability to paint with words. To this day he’s the best writer I’ve ever known. But what was so brilliant about the speech is that even though it was an allegory, and this town and this fountain didn’t really exist, some people in the room didn’t understand that. They were up in arms that their taxes would be raised for a fountain and you could feel the tension in the room rise as some people huffed and puffed and my dad continued describing the expensive fountain.
But then there were those standing in the deli who got it, as I did, and were utterly moved by the depth and vision of my father who had become the quiet and unlikely leader of the town, and been elected Supervisor.
The next day the newspaper referred to it as a ‘sarcastic’ speech, rather than an allegorical speech and I remember how hurt my dad was that they didn’t use the right term. He felt misunderstood. But to me, therein lied the brilliance of my dad. He had an unwavering compass, and was willing to say what was right, and true, even when it meant he wouldn’t fit in or would perhaps be misunderstood by those who weren’t as deep and visionary as he was.
I asked him recently if he had a copy of that speech that I could read again and he looked at me astonished because he couldn’t believe that I remembered it. What he didn’t realize is that not only did I remember the speech but it defined me. The mantra that he had instilled in me from the moment I started playing music is that “mastery doesn’t create passion, passion creates mastery,” and that beauty and creativity were worth pursuing above all else, that an artists work is never done, and that while God is in the details, perfection isn’t what matters, it is the pursuit of ones passions and ones dreams that make a fulfilling life.
My dad had a way of overriding rules and rejecting conformity. When I felt panicked by how rigorous and competitive my classical music studies had become, he bought me an electric cello and signed me up for improvisational jazz lessons.
When I felt crushed by my first job after college in finance, he told me “Do what makes you happy, and the money will follow.” This was such a gift to hear from a parent, that what mattered most to him was not anyone else’s version of success but my own. That he was more proud of me for marching to the beat of my own drum than for conforming to any outside pressures.
He coined the term ‘manual literacy’ that you hear me say a lot, and taught me the importance of getting dirt under my fingernails, of pushing a fat worm onto a hook and catching trout in the creek together for breakfast. Of picking buckets of blueberries together from his blueberry bushes and harvesting the honey from his Russian and Italian bees.
He also was a wonderful editor of my three books and my many articles, and they wouldn’t have been the same without his touch. I uncovered boxes of his writing after he passed and realized in what I found that he had his own ambitions of being a book writer, that I had achieved some of the goals he had set for himself, but he had never told me that, because he wanted me to have it without casting a shadow onto it. That too, was an incredible gift.
When I look around me now, especially at Tulipwood where my family has lived for 100 years, I see a lasting legacy of creativity and beauty that he has left.
For example, I woke up the day before his funeral and walked outside in my pajamas to pick my dad’s sea of daffodils along our hillside. A year and a half ago, as we planted bulbs in the ground together and fertilized his rhododendrons, he told me to take care of them after he was gone. It was such an upsetting thought at the time to think of gardening the land at Tulipwood without him, because he is the place. And yet here I am now picking his daffodils to prepare to say goodbye to him. It seems impossible. I can’t imagine this place without him here, he is every flower, every plant, every bud on every tree. As I walk around I hear him talking, I hear the creaking of his office chair and see the wooden garden stakes he painted the night before he passed drying on the newspaper. It was our ritual to put stakes in the ground where the daffodils hadn’t come up so we knew where to plant bulbs come fall. All of his seedlings are growing under lamps in his office, marked in his distinctive hand writing so we’ll know what they are—hybrid picking cucumbers, black beauty peppers, gladiator tomatoes, zinnias and marigolds. All of his rhododendrons and heirloom fruit trees are labeled so we’ll know how to care for them. I realize now this was his legacy and he was preparing me to carry it, all this time, even when I couldn’t accept it. I don’t know how it’s possible for this place to exist without him walking the grounds and digging in the dirt. I hate that this has happened too soon.
But dad, I will hammer your wooden stakes into the ground that you left ready for us and plant your seedlings that have sprouted and are doing so well and keep planting your daffodil bulbs until the entire hillside is covered. And every time they bloom in spring I’ll know that I’m fulfilling your wish and continuing your legacy of beauty. I may even build a fountain. A big beautiful expensive one and invite all those doubters to come and see that you weren’t being sarcastic after all.
There were so many people at the church, and so many shared wonderful memories of him. About 70 of my friends banded together from near and far and financed and hosted a breathtaking reception for my dad at Tulipwood, in the same house that my great-grandfather and great-grandmother, and grandmother and great-aunt had lived in. They included some of his favorite foods and made “Daffodil punch” and set some of his photographs out that he developed in his dark room the old school way.
People came from so far, flew in, drove 12 hours in one day, some who I hadn’t seen in 25 years. My childhood friend Emmy who I hadn’t seen since I was 10 stepped out of the church to hug me for the first time since we were kids. My uncle was there, who I hadn’t seen since my 20’s until he stood up to share a memory of my dad. It was all so unreal.
And then my neighbor came up to me at my dad’s memorial reception and asked what I thought about expanding my dad’s daffodils all the way down the winding road as a way to honor him. She offered to embark on a bulb planting project with me this fall. And so right then we started the Rockland Road Daffodil Project and sent our neighbors a link to daffodil bulbs they could buy to support the beautification endeavor. A winding road full of daffodils each spring will be a sight to behold. I picked daffodils from our hillside for the memorial, and I hope next year they will be multiplied by the thousands.
I love you dad. My heart forever dances with you and the daffodils.
Many have asked how to buy bulbs for the Rockland Road Daffodil project. You can click below ⬇️ And send me an email at info [at] georgipellegrini [dot] come for the mailing address: https://www.johnscheepers.com/narcissus-gold-medal-mixture.html
When they bloom next spring, I expect they will become a tourist attraction and I will post pictures for you here.