Making magic by creating crafts, digging in dirt
The Enterprise — Melissa Hale-Spencer
“You can’t be a beacon if your light don’t shine”: This lighthouse, with a working light at the top of the tower, forms a focal point for Yvonne Lustenhouwer’s garden. It was a gift from her brother, who lives in Texas and drove it to Altamont in his truck. Her garden is filled with mementoes from family and friends. Most of the treasures, she puts away in a storage shed over the winter.
ALTAMONT — Yvonne Lustenhouwer says, if she ever won the lottery, she would buy herself a cabin in the woods.
In the meantime, she’s made her home at Altamont Oaks into a charming country retreat, cultivating beautiful gardens that edge her apartment building and form an undulating wave along the back boundary of the property.
“It’s like a secret garden,” says her neighbor, Rose Ann Rogers.
Indeed, most travelers that drive past on Altamont Boulevard have no idea that such a lush retreat exists beyond the pale blue complex.
The two-story buildings border a parking lot on three sides, forming a sort of protective courtyard, alive with children at play, riding bikes, playing hopscotch, skipping rope, or walking to a bank of mailboxes. Nearby, a swing set is in constant use.
At the far end of the complex, where the garden is, many of the one-bedroom apartments house older residents.
“It’s almost like family,” says one of those residents, Karen Darling, as she sits in a rocking chair in Lustenhouwer’s living room.
Rogers is seated comfortably on the carpet.
Lustenhouwer perches on an overstuffed couch, topped with a decorative throw that she made herself. “It’s Swedish weaving,” she said, opening the blanket to show the intricate, brightly colored pattern.
She’s modest about the charm of her home. “Most of it, I got from garage sales,” Lustenhouwer says.
Curtains bordered with flowers grace the windows as vines span the rods above.
Lustenhouwer’s Dutch heritage is evident in the blue and white Delft pottery with pastoral scenes including windmills. She lived in Holland until she was 9, when her family came by boat to America, settling in Guilderland Center.
“They came for a better life,” she says.
Her father was a master carpenter. “He did gorgeous work,” she says. His well-worn wooden shoes are displayed on a shelf in her living room. “He wore them every day,” says Lustenhouwer.
On another wall hang wooden skates — runners to which shoes were attached — that Lustenhouwer used as a girl.
”I got my green thumb from my mother,” said Lustenhouwer, noting the Dutch are known for their flowers.
Mindful of her heritage, Lustenhouwer once planted 100 tulip bulbs. Although they bloomed beautifully the first year, she said, “The deer ate all the bulbs.”
A practical woman, she didn’t repeat the process.
Another neighbor comes in through the back door as the women are chatting, and asks if Lustenhouwer needs any more cereal boxes. She uses them to create scrapbooks, elaborate works of art.
“It’s margarita time,” says the neighbor as she leaves through the front door.
“It’s five o’clock somewhere,” responds Darling with a chuckle.
Lustenhouwer shows off two of her scrapbooks. One detailing her family’s life, starting with her parents in Holland, is entirely in black and white — the photographs, the fabric, the sentimental sayings.
Another, made of lunch bags, documents the adventures of a group of friends she canoed with. The lunch-bag pages of brown paper open so that panels may be pulled out. Lustenhouwer made one for each member of the group.
“I’m not a sitter,” says Lustenhouwer. She works for the Guilderland School District. “I’m a lunch lady at Lynnwood,” she says.
At 66, she has no plans to retire. “My thing in life is to keep active,” said Lustenhouwer. “I figure I can lie down when I’m dead.”
“It’s a lot of work,” she says of gardening. “You hate it or you love it. I love getting my hands dirty. It’s therapeutic. If I have a bad day, the dirt makes me feel better.”
Lustenhouwer says she doesn’t plan out her gardens’ designs; they just evolve. “If it doesn’t grow here, it wasn’t meant to be. It’s a mish-mash.”
“That’s what’s so nice about it,” says Rogers.
Lustenhouwer’s gardens are filled with treasures besides the plants and flowers.
Her uncle, her mother’s brother, who is 84, made a wooden toadstool, red with white spots, for the garden.
A focal point is a wooden lighthouse, as tall as a person with a working light at the top of the tower. “My brother from Texas visited last summer and brought it as a gift…His wife had passed on and he wanted me to have it.”
His wife was a craftswoman like Lustenhouwer. A rag doll she made sits on Lustenhouwer’s bed. Lustenhouwer has seven grandchildren, and her sister-in-law made all of them rag dolls — a Raggedy Andy for each of the three boys, and a Raggedy Ann for each of the three girls.
Other memories grow in the garden, in the form of flowers that had belonged to Lustenhouwer’s mother, Anna.
“It’s almost like a memory garden,” says Lustenhouwer. “A friend dying of cancer here said to dig up these bushes in remembrance.” She points, then says, “I get out here and think of all the people who passed away and they’re kind of here.”
She picks up a well-worn duck statue that had belonged to an Altamont Oaks resident, Melvina Gifford, who died recently. “Her children left me this duck,” says Lustenhouwer. “She absolutely adored it. I swear it’s 300 years old,” she quips.
But she adds later, “I said to her children it will have a place of honor in the garden.” And it does.
“It’s different here since Melsy is gone,” Darling says wistfully. “She was crusty —“
“She had a dry sense of humor,” Rogers adds.
“She was cantankerous,” Darling continues.
“But she was the glue that made us a family,” Lustenhouwer concludes.
The women are silent for a moment as they fondly remember their friend before talk about other garden features resumes.
Lustenhouwer points out a small wooden bridge that she purchased at a garage sale for three dollars — it was priced at four.
Another quaint feature is an old hand pump that once belonged to the well-known Guilderland florist Inga Barth. It is rigged with a circular hose so that it looks like the water is ever-flowing from the mouth of the rustic pump.
Sprinkled throughout the length of the garden are places where birds can find sanctuary. A trio of weathered birdhouses stands in one place, an elegant birdbath in another.
Some feeders are for specific kinds of birds — like one for Baltimore orioles and another for Lustenhouwer’s favorite, hummingbirds.
Lustenhouwer’s brother, a cabinetmaker, built a house, sitting high atop a pole, for purple martins. Constructed of PVC pipe topped with inverted funnels, it looks like a miniature castle.
Lustenhouwer’s youngest grandchild, who is 9, loves watching the birds. She was also impressed with a pretend butterfly that hovers over a pot of flowers, fluttering wings, powered by the sun. “It’s solar, but my granddaughter thought it was real,” said Lustenhouwer.
In the newest part of the garden, Lustenhouwer says, “The deer ate the hostas already.” She adds, philosophically, “But they’ll grow back next year.”
Patience and persistence
“When Melsy was still alive, her daughter gave her a forsythia, just a little stick,” recalls Lustenhouwer. When her friend was impatient because the forsythia didn’t bloom right away, Lustenhouwer told her, “They’re like children. First, they crawl; then, they walk; then, they run.”
She went on, “I said, ‘In the third year, it will bloom.’ This year, it really did bloom and she wasn’t here to see it.”
Again, there was silence in the garden; the only noise was the gentle rustling of leaves.
Then Darling broke the quiet.
“She’s here in spirit,” Darling said with conviction.
When someone new moved into Gifford’s apartment, Lustenhouwer was going to dig up the forsythia and move it to her garden but the new tenant said, “It looks so pretty,” Lustenhouwer recalled. “So I weeded and transplanted some grass there.”
“I have the best view of the garden,” said Rogers who lives on the first floor. Other neighbors asserted the view from the second floor was even better.
“I’m very fortunate that I have great neighbors who enjoy the garden,” said Lustenhouwer.
“I don’t like to get my hands dirty,” said Darling. “I send food.”
“She’s the neighborhood cook,” agreed Lustenhouwer.
Creating the garden cost time and energy, skill and vision but not a lot of money. “Most of the flowers I traded for with friends,” said Lustenhouwer.
After she got her first water bill, which was high from watering the flowers, Lustenhouwer said she thought she wouldn’t be able to keep the garden but the Altamont Oaks manager, Sandee Murphy, stepped in and helped out. Lustenhouwer weeds and tends to Murphy’s garden. “If it weren’t for Sandee and the Belmont Management company,” she said, “there wouldn’t be a garden.”
“This place gets a bad reputation because it’s low-income housing,” said Lustenhouwer, “but 98 percent of us take care in making our homes.”
“This,” said Rogers, “is our last home.”