Leila: Lost and Found by Mary Ellen Gambutti

M.E., Karen & Leila

On this September, 1994 morning flight from Pennsylvania to South Carolina I gaze out toward a new chapter. Soon I’ll reunite with the woman who gave me life. On the down escalator, I spot my welcoming party.  Karen, my half-sister, waves and calls to me in the drawl now familiar from our calls since my year-long search bore fruit.


“Momma, a lady called from up north. She said she might be your daughter,” Karen coaxed. “Not true!” But she yielded. Yes, she had given birth to a girl in St. Francis Hospital when Karen was two. She thought the nuns would take good care of the baby; find her a home.


I step off the escalator to broad smiles and greetings. My young adult daughter is the only genetic tie known to me prior to this search and reunion. I’ve pondered her thoughts on family–no one is more important to you than those who stand beside you, no matter what. A sense of unreality floods me, as I embark on the next stage of this journey to cultivate kinship.

Karen introduces her beautiful daughter, Barbara; Josh, her burly middle-schooler, and Daniel, her handsome elder son. I’m relieved and grateful for their warm hugs of acceptance. “This is Momma, Leila Grace.” Standing proud, she refused to greet me from her wheelchair. She’s smiling, this large woman, and Karen has looped her left arm under Momma’s right elbow to support her.

Leila. I learned her name this summer, and could never conjure her face. I heard her gospel songs from within her womb, heard her speak, her inflections. I felt her

laughter and heard her cry, maybe felt her tentative touch before I was swaddled and taken away by the sister. Maybe she held me briefly. Her face reveals the sadness of years. Moist, puffy eyes, face flushed with unknowable emotion. Flood of recollection or regret? Or pang of pride, or guilt, confusion, or the anxiety I’ve inherited?  I take charge of my feelings, and wrap my arms around her. “Hello, Momma! So good to see you!” She yields to my embrace–a murmur, perhaps meant for the gods—is she hurting or happy? What will this reunion bring to either of us? Has she dared dream the infant she left in the hospital would be happy and well, and would return to her one day?

At Karen’s double-wide trailer home, our family celebration continues. Can it be we haven’t yet spent a couple of hours together? Momma rests in the recliner. Her legs elevated, I see her left prosthesis below her pastel polyester pants. On her right upper arm is an angry scar from the dialysis shunt she’s had in place since she returned from Texas. Her short salt and pepper hair is tightly permed, but she’s more relaxed now, and chatters in a faint, high voice. Karen serves dinner at the kitchen table: fried chicken, biscuits and gravy, green beans and sweet tea. We peruse photos, many of Karen’s children, and only a few of Momma in her twenties and thirties. Karen wasn’t raised by Leila, either. She abandoned her to her parents and a difficult life. Another girl born to Leila, and raised by her, died at sixteen in a drowning accident. No mention of my father—maybe she’d recognize him in me—I hope there’s a secret photo stashed away.


Karen & LottieThe rented house in Texas had been neglected–diabetic needles, clothes, food and trash all around–when Karen arrived, summoned by the rehab hospital. Leila’s husband of thirty-two years had been dead for over a year when she was admitted for a foot infection that cost her a leg. Karen brought Leila back to South Carolina, and tried to make her comfortable in her small home. But Leila was ill-tempered with the boys, whom she had never met. Karen moved Momma to a State-managed senior-living apartment with basic possessions and minimal housekeeping skills. But for Karen’s kindness, we would not have connected.


Karen told me Momma would stare at daytime shows that featured adoption reunions, promoted by private investigators and TV producers. She fixated on birth mothers who emerged from behind the curtain in tears to hug their long ago relinquished sons or daughters on the studio stage. She never let Karen in on her secrets. It was left to fate that a twenty-six year old Leila would ever see her child again.


I returned to Greenville six times to visit, while Momma’s health continued to worsen. She died at sixty-nine, two years older than myself at this writing, and left behind her regrets and foggy memories. We two sisters were among the few at her funeral, a year after we reunited. Karen and I continued to be curious about more kin, but I focused on a DNA search for my father. Ancestral searches had become a successful tool for adoptees.

Valentine’s Day, 2015, Karen and I stumbled across a South Carolina internet message board post from 2007 by a woman searching for her mother, Leila Grace Cox. She had been abandoned to the care of her father and grandparents in Charleston when she was six weeks old, in 1954. If only Leila had been able to tell us, we would have located Lottie while our mother was alive.

Deep wounds of separation might have calloused over, but longing and fate intervened. She never learned to give, and lost more than she could bear. But, we sisters believed it possible to find Leila.

About the Author: Mary Ellen Gambutti

Mary Ellen writes about her life as an Air Force daughter, search and reunion with her birth family, gardening career, and survival of a stroke at mid-life. Her stories appear or are forthcoming in Gravel Magazine, Wildflower Muse, The Remembered Arts Journal, The Vignette Review, Modern Creative Life, Thousand and One Stories, Halcyon Days, Nature Writing, Post Card Shorts, Memoir Magazine, Haibun Today, Borrowed Solace, Book Ends Review, Storyland Literary Review, and SoftCartel Magazine. Her chapbook is Stroke Story, My Journey There and Back. https://ibisandhibiscusmelwrites.blogspot.com/

Color at Your Doorstep: Cultivating Container Gardens by Mary Ellen Gambutti

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Whether writer, potter, musician, chef or textile artist, creative people enjoy the aesthetics of growing plants. To blend and harmonize color, experiment with texture, depth, proportion and scale, to lose oneself in the music of a garden provides a creative outlet, even to the horticulturally challenged. Container gardening, small and manageable or grand–to the limits of your time, money and scope of interest–will reward you.

I attended Horticulture school at the Temple, Ambler campus, but my gardening journey began with Nana in her burgeoning quarter-acre New Jersey flower garden. There, I pulled weeds, collected Portulaca and Four O’clock seeds, and planted annuals in her richly cultivated beds. It was a fine beginning.

Nana grew Geraniums—their formal name, Pelargoniums—in pots, although African Violets and other houseplants were her potted specialties. Standard for pot culture in the 1950’s, they remain popular in suburban and city patios and windowsills. Their full, vivid red and pink blossoms contrast with heavy, bright green leaves. In the fall, she brought the clay pots into the cellar, removed her geraniums from their dried soil, and hung them up-side-down from wall hooks for the winter. When the first warm, early spring light angled through the casements, green began to sprout from the bases of her desiccated plants, and we knew life was stirring within them. She would trim the woody stems down to the new bushy growth, repot them in fresh soil, and bring them up the steps into sunshine.

Nana didn’t combine plants in pots, except for some houseplants. Today, we might see Sweet Alyssum’s white, lacy, flowing collars at the edges of Geraniums pots. Combinations, or “combos,” we called them at the lush garden center, Meadowbrook, in Rydal. We designed and custom-planted all sizes and shapes of clay patio pots with annuals, perennial, succulents and herbs. Our Philadelphia area customers wanted their high-style containers planted, maintained, and switched out spring through fall for their terraces, small and large patios, doorsteps and decks.

Principles of garden design apply to container gardening, which provides opportunities for perfection on a small scale, since soil, pot placement and exposure can be controlled, and containers and plants are chosen to enhance each other.

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Hardiness/Tolerance: Don’t be fooled by grocery and home improvement merchants who display tender annuals and tropical plants outside in April. In Pennsylvania, our last frost is sometime in May. By Mothers’ Day, the weather has moderated, but Memorial Day can be cold and wet. Be sure to check the Almanac or Weather Channel for impending frost before putting your plants out. Consult your USDA Hardiness Zone map, if you’re new to your area.

Balance, Scale, and Proportion:  Choose plants to the size and scale of your pots, and select pots in scale to your patio or porch; that won’t dominate the space. Place a large pot in relation to a feature of your house, such as a post or a doorway. Or, an assemblage of smaller pots might be preferable to one large pot or urn. Be sure, if using a large container, that your plants stand up to one that size, or they will get lost in the pot. Scale down tall focal plants with shorter plants, or to cover bare stems. You would do the same in the garden; use plants soft in appearance as filler, and trailers at the edge of your pots.

Consider planting exotic-looking plants in simple pots, and understated plants in ornate pots. Select plants no more than twice the height of the pot. These pointers contribute to balance in your container garden.

Color: Pick colors of blossoms and leaves that work with the trim of your home, your garden furniture, your containers, your personal taste and style. Consider the size and shape of your patio in what you want to achieve visually when you choose your colors. Remember that foliage, as well as flowers, provide color.

Harmony is created by shades of one color, such as blue, lavender and purple. These particular colors tend to recede, while bold colors come forward and create drama. It just depends on what you’re trying to achieve. In a wooded setting, I’d prefer to use the blues, lavender and white, while on a hot terrace, I like bold and sunny colors. In fact, for best culture of orange and red, like Marigolds and Geraniums, put them in the sun. Blues, like Felicia Daisy and Plumbago, and the herb, Lavender, prefer sun.

Structure, Focal Point and Texture: Both pots and plants provide structure and a framework to your design. Groups of containers can create a focal point on your patio. Large, branching plants create structure; a framework. A tall plant, like a standard red Geranium, or braided pink Bougainvillea, in an oversized planter is a dramatic focal point in a large doorway. In a medium sized or small pot, a single bold plant or leaf color draws the eye. Many retail pre-made combination pots use a Dracaena or “spike” tropical plant as focal point. You might choose an ornamental grass, a Canna, or colorful banana hybrid as your focus. Place it at the center or back, and surround it with plants of varying heights for dimension.

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Vary foliage texture and density to create interesting plays of light. Wiry, fine or airy foliage, such as Asparagus or Maidenhair ferns, combine well with denser plants, such as Hosta or Tuberous Begonias, on a partially shaded terrace, and provide texture, structure and depth.

Practical Placement: If possible, position your pots prior to planting–since they can be unwieldy and heavy once potted up–in sun or shade, depending on your selections. Use small pedestals or ceramic feet, bricks or blocks, to facilitate drainage. Wheeled dollies allow safe re-positioning of large pots.

Moisture Matters – Soil and Water: Use a moisture-retentive, yet well-draining soil medium, except for cacti and succulents, which need a gritty mix. Bagged mixes with added slow-release fertilizer, and beads that hold moisture, are ideal for most patio pots. Supplement feeding with water-soluble, liquid fertilizer, or a bloom booster to maximize health and blossom.

Glazed clay pots hold moisture and work well for tropical and annual plants that require evenly moist soil. Ensure the bottom hole drains freely. Line the pot bottom with a square of landscape fabric, layers of newspaper, or place a ceramic shard or stone over the hole to prevent soil loss, yet allow the pot to drain. Most plants object to sitting in water. If you must use clay saucers under your pots, be sure to tip them soon after rain.

Planting and Care: Plant your containers as you would a garden, using enough plants to give an ample, filled-in look, and allow them to spread naturally. The Sweet Alyssum planted to trail in spring can be lost under a full Geranium later in the season, unless they are both groomed. Remove spent blossoms; deadhead, and clip dried or yellowing leaves routinely, to keep containers fresh all growing season. Now, sit back and enjoy your creations, as well as the butterflies and Hummingbirds that visit your container garden.

About the Author: Mary Ellen Gambutti

Mary Ellen writes about her life as an Air Force daughter, search and reunion with her birth family, gardening career, and survival of a stroke at mid-life. Her stories appear or are forthcoming in Gravel Magazine, Wildflower Muse, The Remembered Arts Journal, The Vignette Review, Modern Creative Life, Thousand and One Stories, Halcyon Days, Nature Writing, Post Card Shorts, Memoir Magazine, Haibun Today, Borrowed Solace, Book Ends Review, Storyland Literary Review, and SoftCartel Magazine. Her chapbook is Stroke Story, My Journey There and Back. https://ibisandhibiscusmelwrites.blogspot.com/

Finding a Fertile Niche by Mary Ellen Gambutti

I am reminded that life is unpredictable and impermanent, and like change in a humble garden, our hearts and souls benefit from growth, restoration, tending, and nourishment. I have finally found my fertile niche, and hope this tale helps you in some way, as it has helped me in the telling.

Just as my parents retired to California from New Jersey in 1976, my marriage of six years fell apart. I was twenty-six, had a six-year old daughter, and felt devastated.

Fast forward to 1983 when I married my life partner, Phil. We moved to the Philadelphia area, and I returned to college for horticulture. Always a gardener, my new knowledge of perennial garden design prompted me to start a small business, restoring and designing estate gardens. The physical freedom and challenges suited me, and I was happier than ever.

On a rural acre with Victorian farmhouse, we embraced the challenges of home restoration. We tended flower and vegetable gardens, grew plants in the greenhouse. We embraced animal husbandry with a small herd of dwarf goats and a flock of fancy chickens.

From a young age, I wrote poetry, letters, and little stories. I was now writing creative proposals, and a garden newsletter.

My desire to know my origins peaked when I was 40, and I resolved to find my birth mother, against the odds. Yes, I am adopted.

Unless you’re adopted, you may not know much about adoption laws and regulations. Each state has different rules, and in South Carolina, adult adoptees still have no right to our Original Birth Certificates. My adoptive parents had saved my South Carolina “Certificate of Adoption and Birth,” all my adoption papers, and related correspondence, and I began my research.

Each day I made phone calls and typed letters to get the process started. Weeks would go by waiting for responses, often with no new information, and time often felt wasted following false leads. A genealogist located in South Carolina assisted me long distance in my sleuthing, using directories, cemetery registries, and obituaries.

My obsessive search ended when I made the first calls to my mother, maternal half-sister, and cousins, over a year later. No feeling could match this excitement of discovery, reunion, and bonding with the family of my origin. Mama could tell me nothing about my father, and it became clear, that had I stayed with her or her parents, I would have suffered neglect, as my sister had.

Still, I’m grateful for our one year together before her death, and I continue to stay connected with my maternal half-sisters.

As everyone’s story must, life goes on and is full of both joys and sorrows.

I suffered a massive hemorrhagic stroke at fifty-eight. Right-sided hemiplegia, speech and cognitive deficits, meant several months of difficult therapy before I could walk or care for myself. My husband took a leave of absence to be with me. I owe my remarkable recovery to his assistance alongside the excellent work and attention afforded me in two stroke and rehab hospitals.

I am, indeed, a survivor.

My cognitive function improved in about six months, and I made the choice to take a variety of on-line writing courses, and continue to do so eight years later. Although I have little use of my affected right hand, I write and read on laptop and other devices. In 2016, I self-published “Stroke Story: My Journey There and Back.” My stories appear in literary magazines and anthologies.

Writing has been key to my recovery. It keeps my brain active and creative, gives me hope, and helps me fight depression.

Determined to learn my paternity, I pursued my interest in genealogy. My maternal half-sisters and I tested our DNA for ancestral matches. This allowed me to eliminate maternal matches and begin identifying paternal DNA matches. A joyful connection with my deceased father’s family: – three half-sisters, a half-brother, and a multitude of cousins—has been my reward for a long arduous process. We reunited this spring in South Carolina.

Stacks of photos from the loving people who raised me, tell the story of my life. Photos and stories of my natural family complete me. Through long-sought family resemblance, mannerisms and expressions, I see myself more clearly.

Phil and I retired to Gulf Coast Florida last year. Our new home offers us a second chance at a peaceful life. My on-going recovery is complemented by refresher rounds of physical therapy, our home exercise pool, my writing, warm climate, and warmer friends. It’s likely I’ll never tend an in-earth garden again, but pot culture of Orchids, Succulents and Bromeliads gives me great pleasure.

With my days shaped by the natural beauty of our location, my aim is to recover the health of my mind and body. The self-sustaining richness of family has come full circle with life and kin restored to me.

About the Author: Mary Ellen Gambutti

Mary Ellen writes about her life as an Air Force daughter, her reunion with birth family, gardening career, and survival of brain hemorrhage at mid-life. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Gravel MagazineWildflower MuseThe Remembered Arts JournalThe Vignette Review and Halcyon Days. She resides in Sarasota, FL with Phil, her husband, and their rescued Schnoodle, Finnegan.