With the single-mindedness of Ahab and the devotion of a wounded heart, Phil Schmidt is building a monument for his wife.
“If I didn’t have this to do, I don’t know what I would do,” Schmidt said.
The Martha Jean Memorial Garden, as it reads on the wrought iron work over the driveway, is a private garden in South Otto, the Macon County hamlet just north of the Georgia line.
Begun the week after his wife Martha Jean died from cancer that began in her lungs and spread to her bones and brain, Phil Schmidt spends 10 to 12 hours a day tending a garden that approximates the beauty of his lost bride.
On one side of the house is the part they built together, a mature perennial garden and fruit orchard that is a paradise for the bluebirds and butterflies. On the other side is the memorial, beds of rose bushes and flowering perennials situated on a slope surrounding a Koi pond and dotted with sculptures.
“My only goal in life is the preservation of this wonderful person that Martha Jean was,” Schmidt said, trying to describe his work.
But Schmidt’s devotion to his purpose is not as simple as his mission. Working on the garden has been his mechanism for dealing with the grief of losing a younger wife to a disease that could have been caught earlier.
“In the nine days, Martha Jean was in hospice, I read the Bible to her from my knees and she passed away anyway,” Schmidt said. “And I thought well...”
Schmidt is angry Martha Jean wasn’t diagnosed earlier after she complained of chest pains and went for x-rays in 2006. He’s angry that a woman he met too late in his life, died too early in her own.
The two of them met in St. Petersburg, Fla., at a bar and restaurant called The Spice of Life, which Phil owned and operated after retiring from a career as an industrial engineer.
“Martha Jean was the hostess, and I was the alcoholic,” Schmidt joked.
Schmidt said the couple fell in love in a way they had not in their first marriages.
“We both had terrible first marriages and were blessed to find each other,” Schmidt said. “We adored each other.”
Phil Schmidt is no stranger to heartbreak. Two of his sons have died before him, his oldest in a freak mountain climbing accident in Hawaii.
“I beat my head on the coffee table when I heard about my first son. I was surprised I didn’t break it,” Schmidt said.
But he counts his 36 years of marriage to Martha Jean as sweet ones.
“I touched her all the time she was near enough. A couple of times she told me I should get a hobby, and I looked at her and said ‘I’ve got one,’” Schmidt said.
The couple purchased the piece of historic farmstead in South Otto where Schmidt still resides after living parttime in a different house up the valley.
“We loved this valley. We used to walk around this place so one day we put a note in the mailbox telling them if they were ever interested in selling, we’d be interested in buying,” Schmidt said.
Once they moved to North Carolina from Florida full-time, the couple threw themselves into gardening. Schmidt said Martha Jean was a tiny, fastidious person who loved to tackle projects independently. Her nature forced Phil to work to keep up with her.
“She always thought I had a green thumb, but I don’t,” Schmidt said. “It’s just perseverance. You have to take care of everything everyday.”
Caring is something Schmidt can do. He cared for Martha Jean through nine months of radiation and chemotherapy that couldn’t stop what was happening to her body.
“If I had known more about cancer, I wouldn’t have let her do it,” said Schmidt, recalling the horror of the treatments.
Schmidt was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1988 and received seed implants and radiation that kept it in check since then. He says his urologist now gives him two to three more good years.
“I have to die some time so that’s not too disconcerting. I just need to get this done,” Schmidt said.
What does he need done?
“The story out in the public. That this woman was such a wonderful person that her spouse would spend 12 hours a day building a garden in her memory so other people could know,” Schmidt said.
Schmidt has gone farther than devoting the remaining days of his life to the garden. He’s also dedicated his land to it.
After learning from a hospice organization that the house wouldn’t meet their needs, Schmidt wrote a provision into his will that deeds the land and the house to anyone who will maintain the Martha Jean Schmidt Memorial Garden for 10 years.
His own family has declined to take him up on the offer.
“My kids are not happy about it, but it will be preserved,” Schmidt said. “That’s all there is to it.”
The memorial garden is decorated with hundreds of stones, more than 30 rose bushes, a 17th century bronze statue, beds of brightly colored perennials, and the ashes of Martha Jean Schmidt.
Phil has planted his flowers so there is color in the garden throughout the year. He has installed a waterfall for the Koi pond and seeded over 4,000 square feet of wildflowers.
He has planted the vegetable garden with corn, beans and squash. His berry bushes are already yielding ripe fruits. This year, three pairs of bluebirds have nested in the garden, and the hydrangeas and wisteria were the brightest they’ve ever been.
Schmidt doesn’t think the proposition spelled out in his will is a simple deal.
“This is a lot of work. There was a horticulturalist who came out here and said, ‘My God, it would take six people to keep this place up,’ and I said, ‘Well now I don’t feel so bad,’” Schmidt said.
If you’re ever in south Macon County, stop by the garden. It will be there for at least another decade.
“I consider it a labor of love,” Schmidt said. “Some people don’t want to get dirty, but I stay dirty.”