GRAND RAPIDS, Ohio — This column is being written in a very special place. I suppose you could say the kitchen of the late Florence Oberle is even sacred territory to the people who remember the beautiful pastries she made there and served in her rose garden.
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By today’s standards it’s an old-fashioned kitchen with limited cupboard space, no dishwasher, and no microwave oven. Florence was convinced microwave ovens were harmful and she always said she liked washing dishes by hand to be sure they were done right. Who could disagree with the beliefs of a person who lived in good health for 98 years?
It is no surprise that the Formica on the kitchen counter, the 1950s-era table, and the kitchen stool are pink, along with the living room furniture. Pink was her favorite color and it matched her joyful nature.
Since Florence’s death in January, I have been the keeper of this 1920 green bungalow that is encircled by waves of pink roses. For many years it was known in the Grand Rapids area as Florence’s English Garden and was public domain for tours and for teas where scrumptious sweets were served.
To her friends, it was a mystery how she accomplished all the baking and entertaining of 20 to 30 women in the garden. It was equally puzzling how she converted the kitchen into an assembly line for the production of her scone mix that was sold at Churchill’s in the ’80s.
I have found many of the scone mix package labels, but not her recipe. It was obviously a love for people, coupled with pride for the garden, that inspired Florence to fire up a successful home business after her retirement from teaching in Bedford Township and the death of her husband, Ed Oberle.
In the many hours I have spent sorting through Florence’s possessions over the last several weeks in preparation for an Oct. 9 auction, I sometimes feel I know her better now than I did during our 30-year friendship.
A vast collection of tapes and CDs opened a door into her world of classical music. I am equally amazed at the large collection of books. Many are about longevity and many are good reads, such as Barbara Bush’s biography.
I knew she was active in the community, but I didn’t realize her competitive nature in gardening and floral arranging. I can’t bring myself to throw away the blue ribbons she was awarded that fill a large coat box that was wrapped in a protective cover for safekeeping. I knew that her young brother died, but I was not aware of the heartbreak it must have been for her as a young woman until I came upon many keepsakes labeled: “Harold’s shirt and ties, Harold’s school book,” and other items that were treasures to her.
That the gardens and the people who came to see them were her top priority became clear in the more than 50 thick albums and guest books. Page after page in the albums are photographs of the roses and other flowers, often with a smiling Florence posing with her guests.
The guest books are filled with hand-written accolades praising the al fresco tea experience.
Teatime in Florence’s English Garden featured a setting that was precise according to her rules of formality, with hand-crocheted placemats, finger bowls, her best china, and loads of table flowers.
Even though the house is now a maze of auction merchandise and I certainly have not taken the time to sit down for tea, I still am compelled to design an arrangement of roses on the dining room table each time I am there. Whether it’s a tribute to my friend who entrusted me with her life’s possessions, or just because there were always flowers on the table, I am not sure.
As you know geraniums are my flowers. I know little about roses, and haven’t had time to read the many gardening volumes in the house. Thankfully Rick Tolles, who has tended Florence’s gardens 42 years, has continued the attention they require.
Dealing with Florence’s house has been as challenging as it has been a bittersweet honor.
When I found the large, ornate valentine from her husband who died in 1965, and other personal treasures it was like an invasion of her privacy.
Unfortunately the boxes of family portraits that were of value to her have no meaning without names and identification. The beautiful women in the portraits are dressed in Victorian gowns and the men are handsome.
But who are they? Which woman was Florence’s mother? I so wish she had written their names and relation to her on them. That’s a lesson to remember.
Mary Alice Powell is a retired Blade food editor. Contact her at: firstname.lastname@example.org