WALLA WALLA -- Kathy McConnell stands framed inside the grape arbor her husband cultivated and loved, under a sky infused with the impossible blue-pink of summer evenings.
At 26 feet long and nearly seven feet high, the arbor is the dominant feature in McConnell's garden, one of 10 featured in Walla Walla Community Hospice's annual Pond and Garden Tour on Saturday.
Standing post at the arbor's entrance -- in which immature Concord grapes hang like perfect green marbles -- are steel plates on either side, remnants of the row ends from the gone-but-not-forgotten Liberty Theater, McConnell said Tuesday. "Gary worked there as a teen."
Indeed, her entire garden is a tribute to her late husband, Gary McConnell, who died in May after living with pancreatic cancer for almost four years -- one of a tiny number who live with the disease for that long.
This piece of ground that embraces her 1904 home on Bryant Avenue was a slice of heaven for her late husband, she said. His passion for working the ground meant he chose the flowers, shrubs and trees, from the ancient canning shed to the banks of Garrison Creek, which runs across the back of the property under lush willow branches.
A number of raised beds bear his imprint. For example, the clutch of sunflowers that stretches high above Kathy's tiny frame and beckons to avian passers-by. "It was important to him to bring birds into the yard," she said, the memory evolving into a soft smile.
Gary grew up in Walla Walla, leaving only to live in Tri-Cities for his job as purchaser for the city of Richland. Nine years ago, when he married Kathy -- who has directed The Kids' Place preschool for 26 years -- he moved home with gratitude and commuted, she said. "His wish is that he had spent all his life here."
Wherever he was, Gary gardened. That included collecting antique tools and lawn furniture that were used as often as needed without hesitation, Kathy explains. "When he was looking for things to collect, he thought about what he had as a child. He didn't just collect antiques, he used antiques."
Those treasures are distributed throughout Gary's garden, from the rusty hand saw to the metal patio chairs that hark back to the 1940s.
As cancer shadowed him, her husband found great solace in his plants, Kathy said. "He would wander around in the evenings and water. That was such a peaceful time."
It's apparent Gary hoped for all visitors to find peace at his home. From a huge willow tree, a wooden swing is ready to offer a prime creekside view, while a wooden bench is built into the bank for up close water play. Nearby hammocks -- for upright and supine reclining -- invite the weary.
Much of the creekside work was done by her husband in conjunction with Kathy's daughter Molly, who has just departed for the Liverpool School of Architecture in England. Gary and Molly were of one mind in the garden, Kathy said.
Including harvesting and juicing those Concords, which was accomplished one evening at a time by the family over cups of steaming Earl Gray tea and good chocolates, she said with a laugh.
The family also has a tradition of volunteering and helping with the Hospice Pond and Garden Tour. In 2010, Gary and Kathy played with the idea of being garden hosts, "but he wanted to give it one more year to add more details," Kathy remembers.
It was a year trimmed short with her husband's death. His garden, however, is alive as ever and nothing would have pleased him more than to have flower lovers wander his paths and rest where they want, she is certain. "Gary would have been delighted."
Sheila Hagar can be reached at email@example.com or 526-8322.
If you go
The Walla Walla Community Hospice annual Pond and Garden Tour is Saturday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., open to those age 12 and older. The tour includes 10 local gardens with one or more water features. Garden hosts will be on hand to answer questions and complimentary light refreshments will be served at one of the locations.
Tickets are $20 and must be purchased in advance; those are available at Bright's Candies and Gifts, 11 E. Main St.; Walla Walla Community Hospice Office, 1067 Isaacs Ave., or by phone at 525-5561.