Branching Out – Tales Of The Traveling Twisted Willow

Baby John With His Mother, Margaret Winchurch - 1943

Eighteen years ago, my husband’s mother died. She had not been in the best of health, but her death was still unexpected when it occurred. It happened fast, one minute she was going about her life and 36 hours into a hospitalization for stomach pain, she was gone.

A few days before she died she was still well enough to be making floral arrangements for her home and had put a bunch of cut branches from a twisted willow tree in her garden, into a vase of water. The cuttings were still there when my husband John noticed them a few weeks after her funeral while stopping by to check on his dad.

Even though there was little water left in the vase, they had been there so long they were putting out roots. He picked up a handful of the cuttings as he was leaving, and took them home to plant around his house. Moving five times during the eighteen years since her death, he’s always taken a few cuttings grown from the original twisted willow that he found in the vase that day.

I loved the twisted willow that John had planted in the garden right from the beginning, at first because it was so pretty, and even more after he told me the story of how pieces of it had moved with him over the years. My grandmother was always picking up cuttings or passing them on and the story he told reminded me of how she would pinch off a piece of something I’d admired and send me off with directions on how to make it grow.

Two days ago, I was disappointed when John said that he had done a massive pruning of the twisted willow plants in the front garden. I love the way they create a green barrier throughout much of the year making our front outdoor space feel much larger and more private than it actually is. They grow so fast and thick that I know he was right to prune them as he did, but I was still sad to see the large cuttings laid out nearby.

Later that day, I was on my way to meet a friend from the village at the mobile library van and on impulse, I picked up a branch to take along to her thinking she might have a place for it somewhere. I left it outside her gate when I went on the van and forgot until I got home that I had not actually given it to her.

After leaving her a message on Facebook, another friend from the village saw it and asked if she might have a cutting too. I was delighted to share more of the twisted willow and even left another piece for a third friend in the village who then asked if her future mother-in-law might have some as well.

Today’s post is an updated version of one I wrote here, where I shared a story of how two friends I met through blogging who came to our village back in 2009. I sent them home with a small piece of twisted willow so there are more plants from the original cuttings growing somewhere closer to London now too.

Considering the amount of cuttings being passed around along with the twisted willow plants left in the ground at the five homes where John planted it over the last eighteen years, and you can easily see why I chose the title I did.

John thinks this vase is the same one he took the cuttings from after his mother died. He put some twisted willow in it this morning and I could not resist taking a quick photo to include with the post.

As focused as I am on telling the stories of my life, I can’t tell you how much it makes me smile to be able to share a sweet part of John’s story. Never having met his mother, I can’t know what type of relationship might have developed between us, but I do know that it makes me feel good to be able to share cuttings from the last plant she took from her garden before she died.

The new leaves are coming out now with the change in the season and by next spring, plants descended from Margaret’s twisted willow arrangement will be growing in gardens all around our village. I wonder what she’d think of that.


Auntie Norah’s Weed

Auntie Norah's Weed

There is a flower in our garden that John always refers to as Auntie Norah’s Weed. It’s interesting to me that as much as he knows about gardening and proper plant names that he seems content to identify this flowering plant in the way that he does.

Some of you may not know that my husband John has done a great deal of research into his family history picking up on the work done by his father before he died. He likes to tell stories of how his dad was so into genealogy that at the age of 81 he flew to Singapore and Australia for three weeks on his own to attend several conferences.

It was Auntie Norah who started it all though. In 1961 John recorded this bit of conversation between Auntie Norah and his grandmother Marie where they’re discussing some relatives and family history with him. John is only eighteen in this recording.

Here’s a bit from the website of John Winchurch:

Norah was my great aunt and her sister Marie my grandmother. They are pictured above about 1903. It was a conversation between Norah and Marie in 1961 that was an early inspiration for both me and my father to look into family history more. Dad began straight away, my research had to wait a few decades.

At this point, at the age of eighteen, I was fascinated by sound recording and had just built my second tape recorder. My family provided the material for testing its capabilities.This is one short excerpt that I am particularly glad I captured.Norah talks about ‘mother’s father’s father’ being a ‘wonderful violinist’ and ‘coming over with a German band’

Listen to Auntie Norah in forty seconds of history.  ( You can hear John at 20 and 22 seconds into the recording)

She was almost right, Francis George Sternberg was actually a generation further back and was a trumpeter with the Royal Horse Guards. He settled in Northampton, married Frances Furnivall and established himself and his family in a music retail and education business.At the time of this recording in 1961, it was two hundred years since Francis’s birth. It is an interesting example of how family information can be passed down the generations.

L to R - Alice Brown, Francis Victor Winchurch, baby John Winchurch, Harry Brown, Margaret Winchurch, Marion Winchurch, Norah Alice Brown

To finish this post which began about Auntie Norah’s Weed I want to tell you a bit more about her. John’s grandmother was one of three sisters with Norah being the eldest by three years. As Norah never married it was she who took care of their aging mother living with her until she died leaving Norah alone at sixty-six.

She worked at several jobs during her lifetime in libraries in the area and took tons of photographs over the years as an avid hobbyist. In her 80’s when she could no longer live alone she came to live with her sister John’s grandmother Marie who was by then in her 80’s as well.

With Norah crowding into the small home already occupied by her sister, John’s mother, father, and brother she had to get rid of many things during her move. With so much family in one space, Auntie Norah did a big clear out even trying to get rid of many of her family photograph albums which were rescued from the rubbish bin.

One thing she couldn’t leave behind was the yellow flower you see above. While this is not one of her original plants, it is the same type of flower that John’s grandmother labeled a weed based on the way it overtook the garden. Aside from Auntie Norah’s Weed, when I asked John what he remembered most about her he quickly said her laughter. He said she was always laughing and you can hear it on the link above that John recorded in 1961.

Sitting in my studio I can see Auntie Norah’s Weed growing across the garden in an almost direct sight line to my desk. While the garden space is compact, as lovely as this flower is I cannot imagine a time when I would ever not appreciate the brightness it adds to my daily view.

Of course it might be nice to know its proper name if any gardeners out there want to pass it on, but personally … I like remembering the laughing spirit of a woman I never knew and hope Auntie Norah’s Weed spreads its roots as deeply in the garden as she has now in my memory.