This weekend – while attending a family reunion in a rented lakeside house – I enjoyed the most amazing sight. It was just a few docks away from the one on which I savored my first cup of coffee each morning. Amid the long but narrow expanse of non-descript neighboring docks sat a garden – reaching out a hundred feet or more into the lake.
Beneath this amazing kaleidoscope display of flowering annuals was just another ordinary dock, but what the gardener had accomplished in that space was truly remarkable. Soaking up the sun and proudly displaying its many bright, bold colors of bloom; this dock was like a peacock in a crowd of pigeons.
I knew I had to meet the person behind this labor of horticultural love. I grabbed my camera and marched up the street until I came to the house with the magical garden. The dock couldn’t be seen from the street, but it was easy to tell I had the right the house. The front (although partially screened by a wall of dense evergreens) was every bit as charming as the back.
I knocked on the front door several times but got no answer. Timidly, I peered around the back of the house towards the dock. There is was! My heart raced as I pondered the thought of going ahead onto the dock without the owner’s permission. It was tempting, but as much as I wanted to see this up close, I wanted just as much to meet the gardener. So, I decided to try again later in the morning.
An impatient two hours later, I attempted the same maneuver. Again, I sheepishly knocked on the front door, but again, there was no answer. This time, I’d decided to be a bit more assertive, as I moved towards the back of the house and to the garden beyond. As I inched closer to the dock, he caught my eye.
Enjoying his breakfast beneath a canopy of oaks and cypress trees and while shrouded in hanging baskets of orchids and ferns, this gardener was enjoying paradise! I contemplated my next move. Do I seize the opportunity that might never come again? Do I retreat and allow him this glorious morning in undisturbed peace?
I rationalized that I was sure he likely ate his meals there whenever possible. Surely, it was an ordinary day for him – but not for me. This was it. It was now or never. Carpe diem, as they say! Not wanting to startle him, I called out to get his attention before I approached.
As he looked in my direction, I somewhat awkwardly walked over to this older gentleman with my hand extended, as I tried to explain my intrusion on his peaceful Sunday morning.
“Hello sir.” I said politely. “My name is Joe Lamp’l. I’m sorry for the intrusion, but I just had to come over and see your beautiful garden. I hope you don’t mind.”
With a slight bit of effort, he rose from his table and approached me. “John McNeill Sr.” he said, extending his hand and peering up to me with a slightly suspicious look. Not sure that he had heard my introduction, I repeated my words and said that it would be a thrill if he would allow me to take a closer look at his garden. I explained that I had been admiring his dock from afar, and I was a passionate gardener.
This time I knew he heard me. His face and body relaxed, and a sparkle replaced the narrow look of suspicion from his eye. Instantly, the connection was made, and two strangers were suddenly kindred spirits. Within moments, I learned he was a University of North Carolina graduate with a degree in botany. Concerned with the lack of ability to make a decent living in this field, he went on to receive a pharmacist degree, and that had become his lifetime profession. All the while, plants had remained his passion.
Without my having to ask, he graciously gave me the complete tour, frequently stopping to give me the details he must have sensed I craved. He truly was a plantsman, interested not only in the simple joy of gardening but in knowing the species and varieties that were new and adaptive to his unique environment.
As we strolled the narrow dock, he mentioned that he entertained a great deal. I found that particularly interesting, considering that this man was considerably beyond the years you would think for one to throw frequent parties. Then, I recalled that when I had first arrived and walked out onto my dock on a Friday evening just two nights earlier, this gentleman had quite a party going on. Although quite tame, his dock was beautifully lit, and his guests were laughing and having a wonderful time.
I learned that he opens his dock garden to the public every Friday evening between March and October. Guests bring a covered dish and enjoy the ambiance and beauty of this magical place with others, most having never met each other before. The only cost for such a special opportunity to enjoy great food and fellowship in this amazing setting is a requested small donation of ‘petty cash’ in the treasure chest located near the dining area.
No, these donations are not to defray the cost Mr. McNeill incurs each and every Friday night to host this event for up to 120 strangers. Like clockwork, the local children show up each Saturday morning to ‘rescue the money’ from the chest before the pirates surely find it later that day. The money is counted, noted and promptly donated to the local museum and library, unencumbered from the constraints of formal contributions.
Mr. McNeill has been retired from pharmacy for many years. At a young 88, he told me it was believed that he is currently the oldest living pharmacist in the country. He showed me many pictures, including those of his family and the pharmacy he started in West Virginia many years ago.
As we toured the house, I noticed a very large container (like those top of a water cooler) sitting upright on the counter. It was filled with a burgundy liquid and contained a single label. He must have caught my curious stare, and he took the opportunity to enlighten me.
Mr. McNeill explained that eighteen years before, at the age of 70, he took a trip to Europe with his daughter. While touring the wine country of France, she made the following observation; “Dad, you’ve served in two wars, traveled the world and raised a wonderful family. Yet, you’ve never had even a single sip of alcohol. Maybe it wouldn’t hurt to try a taste now.”
Although I believe Mr. McNeill is still a teetotaler, he now makes his own wine (white and red). He bottles it, stores it in his air-conditioned wine cellar, and offers it to the many guests who come to visit – just as he did with me.
Two hours earlier, I knew nothing of the person behind the beautiful dock garden. Now, I found myself reluctantly having to cut my visit short and just as it seemed we were getting started! I believe neither of us wanted to end our visit here, but I was sure I’d been gone for so long that my family was probably ready to call the police.
I thoroughly enjoyed my visit that morning. As is often the case with gardeners, Mr. McNeill was a stranger one minute but a dear friend the next. So, I left with a new friend, a great bottle of wine and a memory I’ll cherish for the rest of my life.