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Robert Hellman


Farewell to a Chesapeake Gardener

by Mary Lee Kingsley

On Sunday, March 9, 2008, we lost an hour.

Some of us, that same day, lost far more. On that date, quite some number of us lost the irreplaceable: the friend/neighbor/inspiration known as Robert Hellman, doctor of impenetrable German philosophy and master of pandering to the idiosyncracies of others.

That irrevocable Sunday, at 1:33pm adjusted time, after days if not decades of incalculable outlay of every conceivable resource, Robert simply stopped breathing, in final protest against a rare and misunderstood ailment that had stealthily usurped every iota of pleasure from existence.

The person who until Sunday, March 9, lived at the bottom of Arundel Avenue in Fairhaven Cliffs wasn’t most people’s notion of the ideal neighbor. More of a recluse, really.

For by the time he moved into 6645 Chesapeake Terrace, in the mid 1990s, Robert Hellman had resolved he’d had enough of politics and personal interaction, even at the neighborhood level.

Few even glimpsed the inside of his house over the 12 or so years he lived there. A writer of decided views with an unlikely stockpile of knowledge, he relied on the Internet and, only later, his faithful and more socially inclined friends across the street, to communicate necessary opinions.

Robert Hellman, writer and so much more, was unconventional in any number of unexpected ways. This cultivation of solitude was merely one of them.

It wasn’t just haphazard housekeeping that inclined Robert to keep visitors at bay (so to speak), although that certainly was a factor; once during a rare absence (and they grew increasingly rare), a trusted individual was approached to go in and check on the furnace or some such thing, subsequently reporting to his wife his concern that “something must have happened” — a burglary perhaps? — because of the confusion inside the house.

But it was just Robert and his usual clutter, with papers and clothes and belongings scattered every which-way. Nothing more. Nothing untoward.

And then Robert got bit by the gardening bug, an infection as tenacious as the Lyme disease he was forever guarding against. As the fever took hold, he worked up to venturing more and more outside, thereby placing himself at risk (despite evasive maneuvers like blending behind the junipers) of being spotted in plain view by virtually anyone.

Clearly he felt it worth the tradeoff.

The preoccupation grew innocently enough, from a spindly rose and a dwarf pine shrub that he stuck in as nicer indications of proprietorship than posting Keep Off signs.

Determined to learn from experience and observation and apply his lessons wisely, Robert hoarded seeds in strangely designated packets, and kept cryptic scribblings as to the seasonal unfoldings of various plants. Each year, as winter gave way to spring, he could scarcely bear the wait to see what might appear from the ground, for squirrel-like, he often forgot what and where he might have sown.

Robert loved tending his garden, occasionally quoting Voltaire in support, often staying out well beyond the bounds dictated by his diminishing stamina.

Others came to love the garden, too, for good reason. It was beautiful, occasionally a showstopper, and growing more rewarding every year.

This last summer, Robert commented in a pleased way on how splendid everything looked. “It’s finally turning out the way I always hoped,” he told me. “I think it’s just about perfect.”

And indeed, it was.

Thoughtful neighbors took snapshots that recorded some of the charm and lushness of last season, and thankful to them I am. Robert and I, we never took enough pictures, always expecting more time and better opportunities.

Now our time and opportunities are gone. I am so sorry, Robert. I meant to do more.

But I am glad for what we had and did (more than most, I’ll wager).

And though I never regain such content, I’ll strain to hear your voice, carrying your oft-quoted advice, à la Voltaire.

What did he say, again?

Ah, yes. “Cultivate your garden.”

I’ll try, Robert. I will most certainly try.

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