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Their garden is still open

By D. G. Martin

“The Garden is Open” sign is still there.

The tulips and azaleas, though well past their height, still glorify the yard.

It is still worth a special trip to Chapel Hill to experience this lovely, well-planned, colorful garden.

But the twin sisters who planned every part of their grounds and inspired others to be a part of their project are no longer there.

Bernice Stiles Wade died peacefully on May 8, a few days after her 103rd birthday on May 5, joining her twin sister Barbara Stiles, who died at 101 two years ago.

Even though their garden still glows, it is not the same without them.

This spring, as in every spring for more than 40 years, people from all over find an excuse to drive down Gimghoul Road to see the garden. Hundreds of walkers and joggers from the nearby campus will pass by. When the sign is out, many will make at least a short stop to savor the colors or scents of the changing displays of flowers and plants that fill the garden. Some find the displays in the side and back yards even lovelier than the famous front yard.

A few weeks ago, just before her 103rd birthday, I had my last visit with Bernice. She knew the end was coming and was cheerful in accepting it. About the garden, she still knew where every group of tulips was growing.

But she did not want to talk about herself. “What are you doing? What are your plans? How are your cute grandchildren?” In her mind she was enjoying her life’s last moments.

Bernice and Barbara had taught us a lot about how to live.

It seems like yesterday when they were planning a neighborhood party to celebrate their 90th birthday on April 20, 2005.

Back then Bernice told me, “We will have our party a little early because the height of the garden, in our minds, comes during the second week in April when the dogwoods bloom and the azaleas are at their peak.”

“And don’t forget the tulips,” Barbara chimed in. “Tulips are our extravagance. We treat them as annuals and replace them every year.”

The twins talked of plans for displaying daffodils, forget-me-nots, irises and columbine as if they were fireworks operators getting ready for the Fourth of July. Indeed, in April, their garden explodes in dramatic colors that no fireworks show could duplicate. It happened again last month.

Although early April may be the garden’s most stunning time, the sisters made sure there was something in almost every season to bring visitors back. In the warm summer time, for instance, Bernice told me, “We try new things.” She explained how they experimented with different annuals to try to find the right combination of colors, ones that their visitors would find pleasant.

After their 90th birthday, the twins, Bernice’s daughters, and neighbors and friends began thinking about how wonderful it would be if they could live to celebrate their 100th. It did not seem possible, especially after Bernice fell and broke her hip. But she recovered and Barbara was doing well. Their 100th was extra special. Family and friends from all over the country gathered to bask in the glory of their generous spirit. There was a traffic jam on Gimghoul notwithstanding all the preparation that went into the event.

I remember asking the twins, “Why would you two work so hard all these years making a garden so pleasant and so open just for the enjoyment of whoever wants to come?”

Barbara answered smiling almost matter of factly, “That’s easy. As long as we have the garden, we’ll never be lonely.”

They were never lonely. They taught us how to live.

And how to die.

“The Garden is Open.”

Note: a UNC-TV Our State video of my visit to the sisters’s garden is available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yEz7KgRcyw0

D.G. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch,” which airs Sundays at 11 a.m. and Thursdays at 5 p.m. on UNC-TV.