The fairy sprite that was my sister smiled easily and often. She lifted people from their everyday lives with her exuberance and charisma. She loved children–not just her own, but other people’s children as well. She loved to sing and garden and hike and waterski and run. She especially loved to run, which she did competitively in high school. She continued running even after her body could not quite keep up with her drive to move forward.
She adored the music of Tom Petty and John Fogerty–two legendary songwriters who were born at the tail end of World War II. They both inspired people throughout the world with their singular vision. It could be argued that Tom Petty was one of the best songwriters ever–and Lisa would definitely have made that argument.
Besides her faith and family, being Lisa Stanley of Stanley’s Greenhouse was her raison d’être–her reason for living. Just a year out of high school in 1977, she married the youngest child of the founders of Stanley’s: Charles and Mary Kathryn Stanley. They had named him Roger, but he was by no means a “Roger”, so everyone called him Rocky. And Lisa adored him.
In a way of speaking, Lisa worked at family businesses her whole life. Shortly after she graduated a year early from high school in 1976, she found a job at Lay Packing Company. She worked there as a secretary for long enough, a decade or so, to be a fixture at the Lay family’s meat-packing business.
She was briefly a receptionist at the UT Medical Center, then worked at the UT College of Human Ecology for the associate dean Jim Moran. The University of Tennessee and its medical center in Knoxville were not family-owned, but they seemed as if they were since the majority of people in this part of the world act as if UT and its athletic programs are as important as family. Around here UT is more like a religion than a university.
But Lisa’s dream was to work at the Stanley’s family business, which was a thriving plant nursery built on the Davenport-Stanley Farm that had its roots in the early 1800s. Finally in the early 1990s Lisa talked Rocky into making her dream come true and he joined his family’s business where our mother Arzelia had worked since 1973.
She was in her element. She loved people; people loved her. Increasingly Lisa became the smile, the face, the voice, the image of Stanley’s Greenhouse. Not because there were not able, knowledgable, and amazing people already on board, including Rocky’s older brother Monte who is a legend for his kindness, humility, and love for his community. And there was Rocky himself who was a phenomenal grower and headed the family’s growing team. Yet, Lisa’s joie de vivre (joy for living) and naturally extroverted personality made her a natural.
It was at the greenhouse that she could be found–six days a week during the spring, fall, and Christmas season. She attended church, she and Rocky drove down to Charleston in the off seasons for vacation, and she enjoyed family birthday dinners, but her lifeblood was Stanley’s Greenhouse. She was dedicated to her customers and the business.
Stanley’s Butterfly Festival in August? Check! The fall Pansy Project Benefiting the Pat Summitt Foundation? Yes! Stanley’s Christmas Open House the first Sunday in December? You bet! The Beat the Winter Blues fund raiser in February supporting the Ronald McDonald Charities of Knoxville? A big hit!
We loved Lisa and Lisa loved us. Sure she struggled with her first round of cancer in 2010, but she beat it and moved on down the pike missing nary a beat. Was she a bit larger than life? Yes, she was. It did not seem at all fair when the cancer returned in 2019. Worse this time. More advanced.
Her faith was strong, in her oncologist and radiologist, as well as in prayer as she endured radiation, chemotherapy, immunotherapy, and the final experimental therapy that I can no longer recall. She went to church, she saw friends, she did a little gardening when she felt up to it, but it was a great loss to her that she could no longer work at the greenhouse. She needed to marshal her energies for the cancer treatment regimen. But if she was visiting the greenhouse and saw a customer who needed help or guidance, she was on it.
Today, Thursday, March 23, 2023, would have been my sister Lisa’s 64th birthday if she had not died of bone cancer on June 19, 2022. The last words I heard her say on June 17, were about hydrangeas. Hydrangeas need plenty of hydration, it’s right there in the name. They need plenty of water. Then she said, “Cultivar.” Merriam-Webster says a cultivar is:
an organism and especially one of an agricultural or horticultural variety or strain originating and persistent under cultivation.Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary
My sister was incredibly persistent under cultivation. She pressed on when there was no there left. She fought, battled, waged war on cancer, bought Christmas presents, and baked her signature red velvet cake for my husband Kurt’s birthday and holidays. And Lisa loved, loved, loved the Island Home neighborhood of South Knoxville where she lived for 45 years, first on Maplewood Road, then just across the road and down the street to Spence Place where she and Rocky moved in 1989.
Island Home was where Lisa ran nearly every morning, and walked her beloved dog Plum. She planted annuals at the entrance to the neighborhood and was on the neighborhood association board. She knew who lived in nearly every home, where they had come from, where they worked. She tried relentlessly to find me a home in the neighborhood so we could live near each other, but the right property never came available. Still she persisted. As she always did.
After she died, some of her neighbors decided the gardening spot just past the entry columns of Island Home–where the trolley would turn around before making its way back to Downtown Knoxville in the 1910s, 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s–should be dedicated to Lisa. They named it Lisa’s Garden, and used their skills to perfect the space.
Longtime neighbor and able carpenter (among his many other talents) Wayne Williams made a beautifully crafted bench and placed it under a dogwood tree–a perfect choice, because Lisa loved dogwood trees. Wayne and his gardening partner Joni Morabito spruced up the area, and local artist Mitzi Congleton designed and painted the sign making the designation official. This is Lisa’s garden.
With Lisa’s birthday approaching, the celebration is different this year. On March 21, I visited Lisa’s Garden and picked up three pinecones from the nearby tree dominating the space, Wayne had placed a bed of small rocks in a wooden frame to support and anchor Lisa’s bench. I picked a coral-pink one that glistened a bit in the noon-day sun. It felt like the right one.
In the Jewish tradition, placing small rocks on the headstones of the dead signified love, veneration, respect, and remembrance. They are called visitation stones. I witnessed this act at the end of the incomparable 1993 movie Schindler’s List, directed by Stephen Spielberg. A few of the 1,200 Jewish people saved from the Holocaust by Oskar Schindler, a German businessman, placed small stones on his grave alongside the actors who played them in the movie. Tears came to my eyes as I witnessed this profound statement in such a small act.
Cemeteries have a multitude of rules about what you can place on the graves of your loved ones: Artificial flowers, yes or no? Approved vases, yes, other vases, no. Items placed on graves during mowing season: no, no, no. Christmas trees, yes or no–and if yes, how long can they remain? I have never considered such questions because I prefer to think of my loved ones as they were in life. Full of life. Losing Daddy was a huge loss in December 2016, and I did place a stone on his gravestone a year or so ago. But somehow Lisa’s death feels different, more personal, more defining, more challenging. Her death was too soon.
I drove to the highest hill of Woodlawn Cemetery, on land that we are told was once owned by Rocky’s ancestors, the Davenport-Stanley family. Rocky’s parents Mary Kathryn and Charles are buried there, and our grandmother Jerushia’s brother Charles (Uncle Charlie) Cunningham and his wife Helen rest nearby.
Lisa’s gravestone features phalaenopsis orchid blooms, one of Lisa’s favorite flowers. I placed the three pinecones on Lisa’s grave marker with the gem-like rock at the center. Since pinecones come from evergreens that do not lose their leaves in winter, they signify life, human enlightenment, and regeneration. Some sources say that pinecones symbolize immortality–eternal life. And I certainly wish that for Lisa and for all of the people I love. And I know that Lisa fervently believed just that.
It is not for me, however, to know what comes after human life is over. Does the soul soar over the earth making patterns of white against a blue sky? Do the birds cry from the sheer sorrow of it all from the barren trees? There are so many mysteries around living and dying. Life and death. With mystery comes doubt, but also possibility. Hope? The thing with feathers that can fly?
“Hope” is the thing with feathers –Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) , from her poem ” ‘Hope’ is the thing with Feathers ” (written around 1861)
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –
I recall. also the words sung by the American troubadour Nanci Griffith about a miner’s daughter who died in Tecumseh Valley:
Her ways were freeTownes Van Zandt, “Tecumseh Valley”
And it seemed to me
That sunshine walked beside her.
It seems to me that sunshine still walks beside her.
~ Anna // March 23, 2023