Marybeth Lonnee didn’t want her grief and heartache to fester.
But how to dissipate the gut-wrenching emotions that gripped her and her family after an allegedly drunk snowmobiler slammed into her 8-year-old grandson Alan last January, hurtling him and his father across the ice of Chisago Lake, causing massive and irreparable injuries that would claim the little boy’s life days later?
“It’s not good to hold onto all of this anger,” she said of her churning emotions toward Eric J. Coleman, who is scheduled to go on trial for third-degree murder and criminal vehicular homicide in December.
Then her friends and fellow gardeners at the Merriam Station Community Garden in St. Paul had a suggestion: Transform a weed-infested, uninviting corner of their urban garden into a loving and lasting memorial bursting with color and life. Lonnee, a retired college photography instructor with a passion for gardening that spans generations in her family, seized the opportunity.
“I started this madness on Mother’s Day,” she said of the corner plot at Prior and Gilbert avenues that she and Christine Butter — “two old hippie ladies” — filled with hundreds of donated plants over three weeks. The memorial garden to little Alan Geisenkoetter will be dedicated Sunday with singers singing, bagpipers piping and the release of dozens of balloons.
But Lonnee said she wants the garden’s impact to go far beyond her family’s pain and need to heal.
“I’m hoping to inspire,” she said. “That other communities can use space like this to make a difference.”
The memorial will, she hopes, serve as an attention-grabbing gateway to a 7-year-old community garden that, last year, donated nearly 1,000 pounds of fresh food to people in need. The goal this year, said Corey DeVorak, garden co-coordinator, is to give away 1,500 pounds. Not bad for a space carved out of Minnesota Department of Transportation land, bounded by Interstate Hwy. 94 to the south and a working railroad track to the north. In all, more than 100 gardeners and a volunteer management team of 15 have turned a space once choked with weeds and litter into an oasis of flowers and food.
DeVorak and Tom McNellis, the garden’s other co-coordinator, suggested that Lonnee create the memorial.
“When Marybeth’s grandson died, it seemed like a pretty natural fit,” said DeVorak, who added that he hopes gardeners, visitors and passersby are open to its message.
And what is that message?
“Inclusiveness,” he said. “We want people to know we are here, and we are here for the community, and we don’t just garden for ourselves.”
Staying present through pain
Molly Ruggles, a psychologist at St. Paul’s Center for Grief, Loss and Transition, works with people struggling with the sudden, unexpected loss of a loved one. A memorial garden can help people work their way through the grief process, she said, by helping people “integrate the story of their loss into their larger life narrative.” Ruggles calls it “meaning-making.”
“It allows people to stay present in what can be an overwhelming feeling of loss and shock,” Ruggles said. “Memorializing can give predictability and order and control that can make grief and sadness more tolerable.”
There are other benefits, she said. A memorial invites the larger community to share in that grieving, makes connections with those who might otherwise feel uncomfortable sharing.
(The center will hold its annual Memorial Walk for Hope & Healing Sept. 8 at Como Lake. For more information, go togriefloss.org/calendar.html.)
“Grief can be so isolating and disconnecting, particularly the death of a child,” Ruggles said. “It’s also wanting to be sure that child is not forgotten by the world. There is a strong pull for that.”
Lonnee, who’s lived with Crohn’s disease for more than 40 years and suffers from several other autoimmune diseases, had to quit working in 2000. So gardening has long been therapeutic, she said. Now that a beautiful corner garden honors the life of little Alan, it means even more.
“It’s a healing thing for me, but I think it’s also going to be a good model for other gardens,” she said. “We’re living. We’re remembering Alan and we’re thanking the people who have helped. But we also want to inspire other people to get out and do something like this.”
Walking through the garden on a recent morning as bees and butterflies flitted about, Lonnee pointed to recently created pollinator gardens and talked about how Merriam Station worked with state transportation officials, the city and the Union Park District Council to transform land on the fringe of a freeway into 105 productive plots. Water is piped to the site by the city. Merriam Station charges its gardeners $35 per plot and $20 per half-plot per year and asks members to volunteer in other parts of the garden — such as weeding and mulching — two hours per month.
(For more information, go to merriamstation.org. )
“It’s really the coolest thing to be a part of,” said Lonnee, who ran the garden’s vegetable donation program the past three years. “It creates community and improves the neighborhood and helps feed people. I want to be an advocate for all of this.”