Statue of Liberty. White elephant. Virgin Mary.
The school teacher invited all the neighborhood “kids” over for a game of show-and-tell as part of the Blossoms for Books Garden Walk benefitting the Evergreen Park Public Library.
Marita Collins, a sixth-grade teacher at Northwest Elementary School, showed off her six-foot high fiberglass replica of the Statue of Liberty, her Christmas gag gift white elephant and her Virgin Mary during Sunday’s walk and shared stories of how each piece has come to be a unique part of her garden.
Collins picked a home on Sawyer Avenue off the soon-to-be condemned list in 1989. She worked with her significant other, Chris Rusin, to bring the two-story do-it-yourselfer back to life. Then, the two went to work on the yard, first planting a few roses on the side of the house.
Now, they have a garden that is both a showplace and a meeting place. Friends and neighbors stop by to visit regularly, no need for an invitation, let alone a special event like the garden walk.
“The Statue of Liberty represents all the people—everybody is welcome here,” Collins said. “It’s peaceful. It’s calm. She’s beautiful. And the yard is beautiful. It just represents our country. And our country is a melting pot of everybody. And everybody’s welcome here.
“People just come in. They say, ‘Hi, you guys out in the yard?’ And we’re like, ‘Yeah, come on in.’ Everybody comes on in and we sit and talk and laugh and giggle and just have a wonderful time.”
Two Families, Two Green Thumbs
Collins and Rusin have been gardeners since they were youngsters.
“I’ve been a flower person ever since my mom and dad came from Poland,” said Rusin, 54, who tends the lawn and plant life at work, too. He is a stationary engineer at Doubletree by Hilton Hotel Chicago-Oak Brook.
“Growing flowers developed into a thing in my family,” he said. “My brother owns The Forge (Pub) out there in Blue Island. He’s got a Beer Garden. It looks like a Bavarian flower house in his back yard.
“Ever since we were kids, we always went, ‘What’s Pops doing with this stuff?’ It’s always in our way. Then, in the winter time, it all goes in the garage. We couldn’t build cars in the garage. Sometimes, we evened pour gas or oil into (the pots). And the things the next year bloomed bigger.
“We had no idea what was going on, what Pops was doing, but somehow I guess it got into our genes.”
The story of how the white elephant ended up in Collins’ yard is more about building and maintaining personal relationships than DNA.
“Every year at Christmas, we do a girlfriends Christmas party,” she said. “They bring their boyfriends and significant others. And there is a white elephant gift exchange. One year, somebody brought a white elephant. I said, ‘Oh, we have to keep that.’ I fought for it and won. Chris hid it in the attic so nobody else could get it.”
Collins and Rusin shop for plant potting trinkets and decorating artifacts whenever they travel. Once, they found a Kellogg’s-like Toucan Sam and now it is used to hold flowers on the patio. They have plants growing in many other types of ‘pots’ too and have come to view their one-of-a-kind finds as conversation starters.
One statue is dearer to Collins than all the rest. It is the statue of the Virgin Mary that stands in a prominent place in the back of the yard, watching over her and her guests, the list on occasion including all types of wild birds and critters.
The statue once belonged to Collins’ mother. Back in the day, Marita used to get spooked when she moved it about the yard to mow the lawn, her nightmares born out of the fear of the unknown.
“The statue of Mary was my mom’s,” Collins said. “When my parents separated, they had to sell the house and I hadn’t seen it since I was little. I was 10 years old at the time. About six years ago, my brother was cleaning out his garage. He said, ‘Hey, come out here. Do you want this?’
“And here was this tall burlap wrapped thing. He took it off and said, ‘Do you want this?’ I said, ‘Yes. That’s mom’s.’ So, he’s had this for 25 years. I used to have nightmares about it. I mowed the lawn and I had to drag it around.
“I don’t know why it gave my nightmares, but it did. Now, since I’ve had it back I haven’t had one nightmare since. I think she just wanted to come home—to be found.
“It has to be out by the first of May every year. The first of May is 'Mary Day.' And she’s got to have her flowers there. It totally reminds me of my mom—great memories. I was so ecstatic to see my brother still had it.”