essay life travel

longwood gardens

April 20, 2016

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The first few months that I lived in Philadelphia were a mess. I moved because B. was there, just starting the second year of his PhD. I had a plan. I found a place to live, a cute old brownstone with three other roommates. I was cast in a play that would pay decently with a theatre that looked fun. I had spent the previous year saving, and I headed north confident that I was doing this the right way.

When I moved into my new home, someone had punched a hole through the door of my room. The landlord, despite my repeated and increasingly unhappy reminders, did nothing about this. There was an unexpected fifth roommate living in the basement, who as far as I could tell did not pay rent. Another roommate liked to invite people she had met during her restaurant shift over for late-night parties; one night several of these strangers had too much to drink and repeatedly tried to get into my room at 3:00 AM. At 5:00 AM, I packed a bag, walked to B.’s studio apartment, and began the search for a place of my own.

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By the time I found a new place to live, the theatre company announced they were bankrupt and were cancelling their season. My efforts to find work — any kind, so long as it payed something — were unsuccessful, and I found myself with no income for the first time since I was 15. I lived off my savings. If I hadn’t been so hesitant to spend money, I might have developed a drinking problem. As it was, I trolled job listings and audition notices, wrote unsatisfying short fiction, and spent a lot of time watching B.’s Netflix account.

Things eventually turned around, as they often do, but those first months were rough. Still, there was one bright spot in the midst of the mess.

One day, fed up with my grumpy hermiting (and feeling guilty over the fact that I had moved there for him, though he would not admit that until months later) B. suggested a day trip. It was a place he had found online, “some sort of botanic garden,” about an hour drive outside the city. He thought it would be just my sort of thing, though he didn’t really expect to enjoy it himself. I objected to the cost. He said he was paying (he had a meager student stipend which mostly covered rent and a few groceries) and eventually convinced me to just get in the car, okay?

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We were thwarted in that first attempt by roads closed due to recent flooding. But the next day we tried again. And we discovered what was probably our favorite thing about Philadelphia.

Longwood Gardens, the beautiful garden center created by Pierre du Pont (oh, those du Ponts) is one of those places that is impossible to do justice with words. It’s a garden. And an arboretum. It has a really beautiful conservatory and some spectacular fountains.

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But the real point is that walking through the grounds feels like something magic — even B. fell in love that first day, perhaps even harder and more deeply than I did. We held hands. We laughed. We relaxed, as one does in nature, in a way we had been unable to do for months. We marveled at the centuries-old trees towering above us, the intricate landscaping of the formal flower gardens, the fifty-foot-high fountain display.

KatharineSchellman.com - Longwood Gardens

Our first visit was in the fall. We went back in the spring, again in the summer. Eventually we discovered that they had a property-wide Christmas display, the whole garden outfitted in shimmering lights, and that became one of our holiday traditions. We took visiting friends and family. We saw giant lily pads, performances on one of the world’s largest organs, the restoration of a sprawling natural meadow. We walked the grounds in every season, always something new to notice, to marvel at, to love.

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Even after we moved back to Virginia last summer, we kept going back, making a day trip out of the two hour drive last fall and enjoying the bright autumnal colors of the gardens. At Christmas, we drove my parents up for an evening (and a late night) of what we promised them was pure Christmas magic.

Now, with another move looming ahead of us, this one taking us further south, we’ve had to face the sad truth that Longwood will no longer be a day trip away. And so, of course, we went for one more springtime visit, meeting friends who are still up there for lunch and an afternoon wander through the woods and gardens.

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I don’t know when we’ll next go back. But I’m sure it will be just as beautiful, just as magical, whenever that time comes.

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