Toni Simonetti — a Westport resident for 23 years — is a transplant from Detroit, by way of New York City. She and her husband Jeff Neville live near downtown with their goldendoodle Max.
She loves spending time with town elders, playing bridge, and gardening. That last passion led her to Town Hall Monday night, for the Parks & Recreation Commission meeting about Long Lots Elementary School and the future of the Westport Community Gardens.
Westport has about 27,000 residents, and 52% are over the age of 45 years. A quarter of our town’s population is over the age of 60, while children ages 5-15 account for about 13% of the town’s residents.
Yet some fuzzy math used by the town declared that there are 11,000 “participants” who use the town’s athletic fields.
Fuzzy math notwithstanding, you cannot deny the town’s demographic. We have a lot of “old people.”
So what, you say?
Alfred Gwilliam has gardened at Plot 29 in the Westport Community Gardens for as many years as I can remember. I walk past him every time I go to the garden; mine is just a few plots down. He is always there, tending flowers, gooseberries and blackberries.
Irmgard and Alfred Gwilliam, at the Community Gardens. (Photo/Toni Simonetti)
Earlier this year, he said it was becoming difficult to tend the entire 10’ x 40’ plot. He is, after all, 90 years old, and he had just had a pacemaker implanted.
But he was not willing to give up gardening, so he worked the plot as best he could. As one of the garden co-chairs of membership, I suggested he reduce his plot size by half, which might make it more manageable.
“I can do that?” he asked. “I don’t want to give it up, but I didn’t know I could keep just half.”
One quick phone call to my partner in membership, Laura Riguzzi, and it was settled.
On Monday evening, October 30, Alfred and his wife of 58 years, Irmgard, found their way to Westport Town Hall. They were there to support the gardens, and to hear if the Parks & Recreation Commission would really vote to destroy them.
As the meeting swelled with this baseball dad, that soccer mom, other young mothers and fathers of school age children, and town staff describing the difficulty they have scheduling all those games, the Gwilliams took it in.
“We need more soccer fields. We need the baseball field. We have children. They need sports. The children need the fields. The children need a school. The children need our help. This is a family town, and we are all about the children.”
Other gardeners were there too, giving their usual raft of reasons why the town is making misguided decisions to bury the gardens. The usual cadre of abutting neighbors were there again, still worried about water, lights, noise and traffic in their quiet neighborhood.
Some speakers at the Parks & Recreation Commission meeting talked about issues with nearby Muddy Brook. (Photo/Peter J. Swift0
The matter was being pushed through the artifice of a public meeting, with an appointed body that has no authority whatsoever on building a school or approving land use requests.
German-born Irmgard is not a public speaker. She was there “because I love the garden.” She told me of the difficult year she has had with caregiving her beloved sister who has dementia, and worrying about Alfred and his health issues. Her daughter succumbed to cancer recently.
“With all of this on my plate, the garden is where I go to find peace and beauty … ever since I was a child in Bavaria. I wasn’t there to speak,” she told me later.
“I knew the decision had already been made, but I couldn’t help it.
“I saw this beautiful young woman, talking about her 3 sons and how they need the field. How much they needed it,” she said.
“It was too much for me. I need the garden. My husband needs the garden. The weight of it all — I had to say something.”
She raised her hand to speak, then made her way to the podium. Immaculately dressed and coifed with bright pink lipstick, she silenced the room with her smile.
Her well-spoken English was flavored with a German accent; her voice, delicate and fragile.
“Thank you for an interesting and incredible meeting. It is amazing. It is my first time here. I have lived here 53 years and raised 2 children here,” she began.
“It is amazing what is being said. What I have to say is just a footnote.
“But no one knows the pleasure, the mental health that I get from the garden. When I am ‘out of it’ I go to the garden, and I am a new person.
The Westport Community Gardens are a sanctuary for many. (Photo/Karen Mather)
“We are talking tonight about the children, and yes, yes, the children need everything.
“But who is talking for us; who is talking for us and for our garden?” She repeated the word children several times, with some trepidation.
“These are big, big issues. My husband, he is born an Englishman, American now, and he is very ill. He goes to the garden every day. It makes him live. So, who is talking about us; who is talking about the old people and the pleasure we get from the garden?”
I was literally in tears.
The chair of the committee thanked her for her comments. Shortly thereafter he read his prepared statement about how this is a town for children.
Tears welled up again. I got up and left the meeting.
On my way out, as the chair droned on about how great the Parks & Rec facilities are, I rushed passed Jen Tooker. She sat in the dark, in the back of the auditorium, as is her habit.
She glanced at me. I glanced back. I hoped she was listening.
But I worried she was not.