On her first trip to San Diego, Kate Sessions took the once-a-week steamer that plied the 446 miles from San Francisco. A little more than a century after her, I make my first journey on Southwest Airlines out of Oakland, She disembarked on the docks at the foot of Broadway. I rode in an airporter to the car rental office across from the Naval Training Center, watching the unfamiliar freeway ribbons unroll, skirting downtown, and passing air- plane hangars. My only fellow passenger, a 50ish business executive in a suit, loosens up as we chat. He tells me he left San Diego when he was 19 to go to college at UC-Berkeley. He graduated in time to miss the hippies, he says. As a kid in San Diego, the drive to the beach was simple. "Now it's all freeways." He says he doesn't miss it.
To get to Coronado, where Kate had her first nursery (with two partners) and ran the florist shop at the Hotel Del Coronado, Kate would have taken the ferry. Her white horse, Charlie, who made the round trip at least once a day, got so wobbly from seasickness as soon as he stepped onto the ferry that Alice Rainford, Kate's devoted assistant, feared he'd fall down between the traces. Once on shore, he acted like a colt.
I aim my red Hyundai for the Coronado bridge. "The brightest of the band is gone. We do not know how soon it may be our turn. Oh, death thou art so mesterious [sic] & dreadful. I cannot satisfy my mind.... Death is birth."
Kate wrote that in her diary, mourning for her 19-year-old friend, Willie Clayton, who died of a gruesome, unnamed disease. Doctors finally had to amputate his leg. "After the operation the Dr. came back & took away blood & sewed it completely up & he suffered intensely," Kate writes.
The year was 1877, and Kate Sessions had lost the man who may have been the only one she loved. She was about to turn 20.
"[T]he things the town has forgotten live somewhere still...[in] the ashes of a heart," the late critic and novelist Mark Schorer wrote in A House Too Old, his historical epic novel about his Wisconsin birthplace.
In the ashes of Kate Sessions's heart can be found some truths about San Diego, her adopted home, and herself. Sure, there are cascades of newspaper clippings, affectionate profiles, plant lists, gardening columns, civic awards, tree-planting photos, diaries, letters, and citations that she and others collected about her. But they are overshadowed by what isn't there.
As Schorer warned, "The villagers...turned to old newspapers and to documents in the library, and they, they thought, found that which they were searching; but there are words never printed in newspapers, events not recorded in the documents stored in libraries, and if a forgetter comes at last to revive an ancient dream, he will not find it" without that crucial ingredient, "the words written still in a scar."
In her highly disciplined life, Kate did her best to cover over the scar. She shaped herself into a thoroughly public woman and imposed the strictest limits on her private feelings. "A waste of time," they were.
Eastertime 55 years ago, Kate was laid to rest in the earth she knew so well. As she would have expected, with a few venerable exceptions, her plantings are all but gone. Highways rip up landscapes; houses are torn down and with them the gardens that made them homes; trees are killed by bad pruning or not enough water, or they simply die of old age.
Her most visible monument has made her a staple of tourist brochures. Like an oversized statue from Soviet Russia, she looms, smooth-featured, familiar, benign: the officially sanctified "Mother of Balboa Park."
That title would make the modest Kate squirm, but otherwise she'd be pleased at how she’s been frozen in the amber of civic virtue. For her, gardening was a public act, a duty even.
Kate extended her reach well beyond the potting shed. She lobbied planning boards and posed for dedications (though she hated having her picture taken); she was a lifelong garden columnist/correspondent for the San Diego Union and later the influential San Diego-based magazine California Garden, which kept her name before the public and helped her promote her favorite plants (for which she was usually the best or only source); she cultivated San Diego’s most powerful citizens; and she single-handedly ran the horticulture programs for the San Diego public schools, landscaping the grounds outside and teaching classes inside.
In nearly 60 years of 12- and 14-hour days, she gave herself only two vacations, and both included some horticultural work. Why was she so denying of her self? “Her plants were her children” is the diched explanation. Indeed, Kate left no heirs except her nephew Milton, with whom she clashed regularly. Now 94, he is the end of the Sessions line, his own son having died several years ago.
A reminiscence of Alice M. Greer provides a rare glimpse of a vulnerable Kate, a Kate for whom people mattered more than plants. In this case, the object of her affection is Greer’s mother Mary, one of Kate’s oldest friends, whom she had known since she was 15 or 16.
“Kate in her tweeds, her big shoes, her felt hat pulled low over her eyes, and with her nape-locks beckoning to her humped back, stood by the car to say good-bye. She kissed my mother. Impulsive tears filled her eyes and her voice. ‘You have two dear girls to be with you. I never had any. Take fine care of each other.’ Alone, she stood waving until we were out of sight.”
Like so many guardians of Kate’s image, Greer fiercely defended the life Kate chose for herself. “Did we wish that K.O.S. in her halcyon...days had married and now had ‘two dear girls’ to be with her? Yes and no. Great souls are lonely souls.’