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Creating an Ideal Life
By Janet DeLee
Balboa PressCopyright © 2013 Janet DeLee
All rights reserved.
August 2010, another dreary year in the recession, and my company, Big D Commercial Landscape and Maintenance was in trouble. Like a lot of industries, we had been wrestling with a decline in business over the last year and things were getting sticky.
Commercial landscape services generated big business in our stomping ground throughout the Dallas and Fort Worth area, and Big D had gradually increased over the years from one crew to a fleet of trucks and eighty employees.
The company owner, Steve Sawyer, was a talented landscape architect who had earned a favorable design reputation throughout the metroplex, and eventually added a maintenance division which, in the landscape industry, was bread and butter because landscape maintenance was ongoing and ensured a steady stream of reliable revenue to supplement the ebb and flow of design work. Fortified with these two divisions, growth over the years had moved in a steady upward direction. I was hired for the maintenance division and was eventually promoted to account manager, and had been close personal friends with Mother Nature for the last ten years.
As a customer liaison I worked with operations to ensure that landscape upkeep programs were scheduled and performed in good order, and I also generated sales and participated in other projects like producing company newsletters and designing seasonal flower displays. Because we were a commercial landscape contractor rather than residential, my customers were mostly property and facility managers who managed the daily operations of office buildings, homeowners associations and other commercial properties. The primary goal was ensuring optimal curb appeal so that occupancy rates stayed at the highest levels. When people asked me what I did for a living, I'd tell them about being in commercial landscape maintenance, but I'd often get a raised eyebrow reaction from folks not familiar with the industry, as if I was saying I was strangely proud to be an outdoor janitor.
I've never understood that reaction because when I was growing up my Granny Sadie owned a landscape company, and to me it seemed like a fascinating way to make a living. During the summers when I was out of school, she frequently took me along with her to work. I'd be sound asleep at home when early in the morning I'd hear a tap on the window by my bed. I knew it had to be Granny Sadie, and I'd eagerly open the blinds to find her standing there grinning when the sun had barely started to light the sky. "Come on Ginny," she'd whisper loudly so as not to wake up Mom and Dad, who had laid down the law about her ringing the doorbell before their usual time to rise. "Get dressed and let's go tag some trees!"
I'd jump out of bed, meet her at the front door to let her in, (both of us tiptoeing), and get dressed in a flash. She always had a prepared note to leave on the breakfast table, such as, "I'm taking Ginny with me to Fort Worth to pick out some trees. We'll be back before supper." She never arranged these outings ahead of time, in spite of the fact that we'd both gotten into trouble about these unplanned abductions on more than one occasion. But spending a day on the job with Granny Sadie was just too much fun to be missed. This was the time before cell phones, so once we snuck out the front door the day was ours with no interruptions.
Talk about a big adventure! All day long we'd run around picking out trees and plants at nurseries in locations that seemed on the other side of the world, and stop in at various job sites to see how the crews were getting along. Her business was mostly in residential design, but she also had work with a few churches and retail businesses. Lawther's Landscape Services was a small but vigorous company which she took over from her father-in-law when he retired. Her husband, my Granddad, died in his forties, long before I knew him. Great Grandpa Gus took her under his wing and taught her the business to help her make a living. Granny Sadie was a powerhouse of energy and she loved the industry.
Later when my little brother Sam was three years old, Granny Sadie started bringing him along with us. Nothing made her happier than having her grandkids lined up in the front seat with her, chattering and giggling. We did a lot of giggling with Granny Sadie. She had a habit of tearing around, not quite entirely certain where some of the far flung nurseries were located when she was on the hunt for a rare plant. It always seemed like these special plants could only be found at nurseries located down remote country roads, seemingly in the middle of nowhere. One day, as so often happened, she was temporarily lost and was asking herself distractedly, "Now where am I?"
Little Sam piped up, "Texas!!" That tickled me and Granny Sadie to no end. The giggles were endless when we were together.
Her favorite type of job was to reconstruct an overgrown landscape, recycling as much of the existing plant material as she could. She added new plants sparingly, trimmed up the old plants, and repositioned things to freshen the look, and successfully saved her customers a boatload of money on projects. This was a rare approach because most landscape companies depended on the sale of new plants to make projects profitable. But Granny Sadie was satisfied with a modest profit and always had plenty of work as a result of her prudent approach. And besides, she loved the challenge.
"These older plants are long-lived for a reason," she'd explain as she examined plants to be recycled. "They are native to the area, and placed in the right environment can outlive most of my customers. I love the challenge of bringing order to chaos. Learn to do that, Ginny, and you'll enjoy the thrill of a genuinely creative life!"
Her residential customers were some of the most prominent citizens in the wealthiest neighborhoods of Dallas. Granny Sadie adored her customers but some of them were a bit odd. One of her best customers was Mrs. Stanbridge, the wife of an oilman, who often interrupted the work to make the crews stop and pray with her behind the garage. The men thought she was crazy, but she was apparently lucid enough not to pray in the front yard where the neighbors could see. Nor did she insist on prayer when Granny Sadie was around. But she always recommended Granny to her friends and that was good for business, but being eccentric, she naturally had eccentric friends.
For example, Miss Leland, who Granny always described with awe as "A sure enough Daughter of the Texas Republic", had a worrisome habit of getting the crew to stop what they were doing to bury her latest deceased pet. She always dressed them up for burial in doll clothes or other costumes, and insisted the crew stand in attendance while she led a graveside service. Those poor cats died with an alarmingly frequency that caused the foreman, Garfield, to kid Granny Sadie about her going in the house alone whenever Miss Leland invited her in for iced tea on a hot summer day. Garfield would whisper dryly, "If you aren't out in thirty minutes I'll call the police, but I'm not going in there after you."
Granny Sadie could distract these ladies from their disruptive behavior if she brought us grandkids along. The ladies always came outdoors to greet "Mrs. Lawther's little grandchildren" and she always made sure I had neat pigtails tied with pretty ribbons, and a little cowboy hat for Sam, which seemed to please the ladies and put them in a saner mood. With the ladies diverted, the crew rushed to finish the work before they were interrupted to bury another dead cat dressed in a tutu.
Granny Sadie used to tell me, "There's nothing like work you love! It makes you wake up with joy and puts a spring in your step. Find the work you love and sure enough, you'll be happy all the day long." I sure wanted to be happy all the day long, and I was too, when I rode along with Granny Sadie.
We logged a lot of miles together every summer in her big brown Chevrolet. I developed a passion for gardening as a result of tagging along with her. Dad went to business school, he had no interest in landscaping, and his sister, my Aunt Eulalie, wanted a career in nursing, so Granny eventually retired and closed it all down. I never planned on following in her footsteps because when I was a girl, my dream was to be a writer.
As a kid I wrote plays and organized periodic neighborhood productions, getting my best friend Cathy, along with Sam and some of the other neighbor kids to play various parts. I wrote my own version of Cleopatra because I was fascinated by archeology, and so a lot of my plays were centered in ancient Egypt and Rome, which was not conducive to capturing the interest of children for long. We usually got through the first half into intermission, where we sold tepid, sticky Kool-Aid. But things would pretty much fall apart after that, and a game of "Red Rover" or "Mother May I?" would always take over. I never seemed to mind, being a kid.
Through adolescence I wrote poetry and short stories. I longed to write novels but never quite had the patience to persevere with longer formats. After high school graduation I wanted to major in creative writing, but was pretty sure my folks wouldn't be willing to pay for an "impractical" type of education. So I decided to major in English, with the idea of being a teacher as a backup plan to placate the folks. But my hope was that English would put me on a writer's path.
Looking back at some of my efforts during my college years, I wrote a lot of short stories that frequently involved characters getting lost in the woods (an unintentional metaphor regarding career paths). I tried to develop the discipline to be a novelist, developing outlines and writing a few chapters but inevitably dropped the project when I'd get intimidated and lose confidence in myself.
I bought countless books on writing. I took an adult education class on creative writing, but was terrified of ever sharing what I wrote. I'd think, why on earth do I want to be a writer when I'm so scared of it? Why did this longing pester me like a buzzing fly that couldn't be swatted? I didn't know the answer. I had a lot of imagination but the minute I'd try and funnel it into a plot I'd start feeling insecure and another unfinished story would gather dust.
In between wrestling with this frustrated ambition, I had to work when I wasn't in class, and so I answered an ad in the paper for a part time market research interviewer. It was interesting work and they began offering me more hours, and eventually offered a full time supervisory position that I just couldn't pass up. The future looked promising in market research, so I decided to discontinue my college work and see where this new career would take me. I figured I could always return to school if it didn't work out, because at that age it seemed there were reams of years ahead of me to explore life's options.
Eventually I led focus groups, finding out which toothpaste eight out of ten dentists recommended, or if housewives thought Petal Plush fabric softener smelled like a dewy rose, probing their responses with, "And when you say the product had a questionable odor Mrs. Hill, in what way was it questionable?" There were always interesting new products coming out every year, and I was on the leading edge of public opinion. But in my heart, the longing to write persisted.
Through the years I continued to think about stories from time to time, but eventually the efforts became less frequent and the ambition became a dim longing. You have to write to be a writer. There's just no other way.
Meanwhile, the years rolled along. It was on my forty-third birthday that I began grappling with the mid-life realization that time really does fly when you're not paying attention. I had been in market research for twenty-three years, and while my job was absorbing, it wasn't a passion. I felt like I'd spent a lot of time just coasting along. I'd been reading about callings and began to do some soul searching. Was my life everything it could be? There was a pleasant routine in my work but I longed to wake up each morning and be thrilled about the prospect of working at something I was really excited about. I wanted to feel like Granny Sadie. I asked myself, what was the one thing I loved to do that most people would consider work? Writing was the first thing that came to mind, but I still doubted myself. What else? The answer came in a flash—gardening, and that lead to landscaping. Could that be a new career path?
I decided to test this interest by going back to school. I reasoned that if I took botany and it thrilled me, then I'd know I was on the right track. And sure enough, as Granny would say, I was hooked. The following semester I enrolled in a thirty hour landscape accreditation program at the local community college that only took a year if pursued full time, but because I worked all day and then shuffled off to night classes, lengthened the time considerably. It was a long day but the learning was exhilarating, and after that first class I began to think about changing jobs right away. How I longed to talk it over with Granny Sadie! But she had passed away a few years before. I was certain she would be thrilled if she heard my plans. I still felt her presence from time to time. I called on her during prayer, to help me fulfill this new ambition. I never expected an answer from her, though I hoped she might be able to influence outcomes behind the scene, so to speak.
I didn't have any experience in the industry as an adult, although every spring I would be seized with the need to garden and potted plants on my apartment patio, and begged my friends to let me dig and plant in their gardens as well. Then one day I got an idea on how to get a job.
I began sending resumes to local landscape companies, offering to trade my market research and administrative skills for a foot in the door. It paid off because I got hired by a company that did design and installation and bid a fond farewell to market research. I was on my way.
My parents were horrified when I gave them the news.
"Good Lord, Ginny!" said mother. "You had such a good thing at Research Resources! Why would you want to give it up after twenty odd years?"
Dad was just as unsupportive as mother. "The landscape industry is so unstable, and you are in your forties; this is no time to start a new career!"
Dad was a big believer in playing it safe and enjoyed a solid career as a result. My parents grew up in the Great Depression and were apprehensive of any path that could threaten economic security. Dad had recently retired and they were both feeling a little uncertain about their new status, so they were especially fearful about this new decision of mine.
"Granny Sadie had a successful business in landscaping." I countered.
"But you have no idea the difficulties she experienced in the industry." Dad said.
"She took me to work with her a lot of times, Dad. She was really happy!"
"You are looking at the situation through childhood memory. Hanging out with your grandmother is in no way indicative of what it's really like."
But the die was cast. I had already accepted the job, given notice, and was ready to take the risk. I was an adult and could make my own decisions. Maybe they were worried I'd fail and they'd have to support me, but I'd never allow that. And besides, it was the start of an adventure. I wanted to do something I was passionate about. How was I going to achieve that otherwise?
Unfortunately, that summer we had a big drought in Texas with water restrictions, and all landscape installation projects came to a grinding halt. I was let go after only a few months on the job. I scrambled to find work and was hired to work in sales at a nursery. I did my best to gulp down the plant training as fast as I could while I finished my night classes, but the nursery went out of business a year later. After spending over twenty secure years in market research, suddenly I found myself unemployed twice in less than two years. It looked like Dad was right, but I wasn't going to give up.
My luck finally changed when I answered an ad for Big D Commercial Landscape Design and Maintenance. I did some research. Maintenance companies seemed to be more stable than my first two experiences. They offered me a job and I was on my way, or so I thought, but the reality was not quite what I hoped.
A semester of psychology was a required course with the landscape program and as an account manager I soon understood why. I certainly expected to have some eccentric customers, based on what I saw with Granny Sadie, but this was a different time and a different set of people. I was now dealing with commercial customers who were dealing with sticky issues with tenants. And then there were the homeowner associations, who always seemed to have at least one neighborhood troublemaker who complained about everything but never lifted a hand to offer service to their communities nor solutions for any of their complaints. Such individuals had powers to disrupt and alienate their community with a single caustic remark. Often, they zeroed in on landscape maintenance as one of their targets and I had to face a lot of such individuals in my career. And there was the instability of the labor force and the always unexpected influences of weather; things I hadn't taken into account when I thought of changing careers. Over time it all began to wear me down.
Excerpted from Creating an Ideal Life by Janet DeLee. Copyright © 2013 Janet DeLee. Excerpted by permission of Balboa Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Walt Disney once said, “If you can dream it, you can do it”. In Janet DeLee’s debut novel, CREATING AN IDEAL LIFE, Ginny Lawther embodies Disney’s belief, although often with great trepidation. As the protagonist, Baby Boomer Ginny realizes that circumstances have given her a valid reason to change the direction her life has been going. Due to the recession, Ginny’s lawn and garden business is withering in the Texas heat, so she decides to take a chance, risk stability, and realize her lifetime dream of becoming a writer. Ginny sets the wheels in motion to travel to Italy in order to find inspiration for her writing. DeLee shares what I believe is also her own philosophy as she has Ginny using sensible and detailed plans to make this happen. Positive affirmations and keeping a diary are just part of what gives readers an inside look at how Ginny goes about creating her IDEAL LIFE. At first I felt CREATING AN IDEAL LIFE started a bit slowly but that only lasted the first few pages as the author gives readers some details about Ginny’s background. These, I soon found, turn out to be necessary background for what is to follow. The majority of the book not only is a narrative of Ginny’s experiences but also similar to an Italian travel guide. Janet DeLee gives such a personal yet wide-ranging description of Italy, that one can create that all important mental image and feel like they are with Ginny on her adventure. The characters are well fleshed out and so it is quite easy to get caught up in their lives, especially Ginny‘s. DeLee makes the story even more likable and persuasive because of the realistic, individual tour of Italy that readers go on with Ginny. I have never been to Italy but the description had all my senses alive with what I was experiencing on this trip! Where all this leads Ginny and what may follow will keep readers turning pages, and like me, looking for a sequel to see what will happen to Ginny next. Kudos to Janet DeLee on her debut novel and I imagine it made one of her lifetime dreams come true as well.
This book was a real page turner and a great summer read! Ginny Lawther was hilarious and her exploits were fascinating. Great for dream seekers of any age!