When Carol Wall hired a neighbor’s gardener to improve her long-neglected yard, she never imagined that the Kenyan immigrant would transform her outlook on life as well. In Mister Owita’s Guide to Gardening, Wall reflects on what she learned from their special friendship.
What did you like best about Giles Owita?
Giles was always optimistic. He always had a smile on his face. He had a deep knowledge of all things horticultural. And I always admired and envied how he was able to fully immerse himself in the work that he loved. He always seemed to give everyone and everything his full attention. And he had a way of explaining complicated concepts with elegance and simplicity. He was a teacher at heart. He taught me to have faith.
You initially resisted some of his ideas for your lawn. How did he teach you to love flowers?
Oh, how I wish he were here to answer that question himself! When I first told Giles I didn’t want flowers, he somehow managed to answer me with an affirmative response. I now understand that since he was so stubborn, this was merely his way of acknowledging my request while at the same time not acting upon it at all. When the flowers appeared that spring, they led me to examine a lot of what I’d been keeping under layers of protective covering: my childhood, my parents, my family and my illness. This probably wasn’t Giles’ intention (though who knows, he was always smarter than all of us) but that’s what happened.
This was originally a book about breast cancer, but your son recommended that you refocus it to include your friendship with Mr. Owita. How did including the friendship change and enrich your manuscript?
I was really struggling with writing this as a memoir about surviving breast cancer. For some reason I couldn’t bring myself to write in the first person, believe it or not. Introducing Giles helped me focus the narrative. His character took some of the pressure off, strangely, and made me more comfortable with sharing my experience. It’s poetic in a way—our friendship helped me embrace and accept life, and his spirit has helped me explore and accept my true feelings.
You write that he was the best professor of your life. Yet that wasn’t what you expected when you first met him. Why not?
I expected that he might simply help to improve my shabby-looking yard. I thought of him as a hard-working gardener, but assumed that we had very different life experiences. Little did I know!
What were some of the things that drew you together?
On the face of it we were as different as two people could possibly be. But it turns out we had so much in common: the unexpected similarities in our life experiences, the need to adjust to a “plan B,” the importance of faith and family, the desire to learn and to teach.
This is a book about so much—gardening, life, illness, transitions. What were some of the major life changes that you and Mr. Owita walked through together?
We both had experienced events that involved loss, fear, guilt and shame. Our friendship allowed us to share and process our experiences without fear of judgment.
What do you hope readers will take away from this story?
Giles taught me so many things that changed my life. He embraced and accepted life’s afflictions, something that took me a while to come around to. (His cane in my study reminds me of that.) In the end, I guess it’s that sometimes the loveliest secrets and treasures appear where we least expect them.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of this book.