You could talk to Mary Lou Brewton Schmitt about her lush garden, about the bubbling koi pond and the elderberry, about the flagstone paths and the outdoor furniture festooned with tropical birds and bright flowers.
It is, after all, getting to be that time, when the ground is warming and nurseries are doing brisk business. Schmitt helped dig two ponds and planted the bushes. She laid the paths and painted the tables and chairs. Her advice is solid, her laugh ready.
But you’d also want to talk with the smiling 75-year-old about the life behind that verdant yard.
Husband No. 6 built the gazebo before he died of a rare form of cancer. Husband No. 7 — the love of her life — hand-crafted the graceful iron benches with their filigreed backs. His name is Ed Schmitt, and those are his saddles displayed in their Northwest Boise home, along with her watercolors and the antiques they collect together.
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She calls Ed “the real cowboy,” to differentiate him from Husband No. 5, “the confirmed bachelor cowboy type,” a 1994 marital mistake that began in autumn, was over by Christmas and is the only episode in her long life she said she might not repeat if given the chance.
Much love, much loss
Brewton Schmitt chronicled the marriages, divorces and so much more in a memoir called “Rootin’ Tootin’ Brewton Tales.” It is equal parts hilarious and painful, the record of a life filled with laughter and loss. Her parents died within 17 months of each other when Schmitt was still in her teens.
She married Husband No. 1 shortly thereafter, “for his mother,” who filled a void in her heart. He required her to call him “sir.” Their union lasted 18 months. She did not get custody of her mother-in-law, whom she still calls “a grand lady.” Losing that second mom, she said, “broke my heart.”
“Mom and my dad both died at a critical time in my life,” she wrote in her memoir, “which left me totally unprepared for selecting a mate.”
But it readied her for so many other things: surviving; bouncing back like a garden after a hard winter; trusting that planted seeds will someday sprout.
“My daddy taught me two important lessons,” she says in a soft drawl, evidence of her Chattanooga, Tenn., childhood. “He taught me not to be judgmental. And he taught me, he said, ‘Mary Lou, if you fail, that’s OK. You tried. Get up. Dust yourself off and do it again. Maybe you need to do it a different way. But you never give up.’ ”
On this spring day, Brewton Schmitt’s garden has begun to awaken, like the massive koi in the backyard pond. Each fish has a name. The metallic gold one is Gwen Stefani. Sir Lancelot has a fancy fan tail and long whiskers. Sadly, Marilyn Monroe and King Arthur expired.
“When they first wake up, I don’t give them food. I give them Cheerios, because that sort of cleans out their system,” she says. She opens a bag and scatters the cereal beside the bubbling fountain. “Hello, babies! Come here to Mama! They know my voice. Here’s your Cheerio.”
Bob Belveal, her penultimate spouse, installed the ponds’ filtration system, which uses ultraviolet light to kill bacteria in the water. They married at pond’s edge in 1997 and spent much of their time together renovating the house in Jordan’s Landing and designing the garden.
In summer, the yard is a riot of life and color. The elderberry bushes are frilled with white blossoms; when they bear fruit, Brewton Schmitt turns the small purple globes into liqueur and jelly. Last year, nasturtiums commandeered the waterfall with their red-orange flowers, and the ponds were thick with water lilies.
The garden is one of many inspirations for Brewton Schmitt’s art. She captured the playful koi in a lively series, some as watercolors and others as water-based acrylics on metal. She’s painted bright peonies and elegant stargazer lilies, cheerful sunflowers and cool gardenias.
The lilies grace the cover of her memoir. The poinsettia painting that hangs in her den did double duty as a Christmas card. Irises brighten her kitchen cabinets. These and her other works are on display on her website, maryloupaints.com.
“When all of this blooms, you can’t see any of the neighbors,” she says as she strolls the still emerging garden.
She laughs when she talks about the day she decided the neat gray house needed a berm in the front yard because it was just “too plain.” She called for an “emergency” load of dirt and shoveled it into shape from lunch until Bob came home at dinnertime.
She was covered in mud. He drove past the house because he did not recognize it, she recalled. “And then he backed up, and he said, ‘What is this?’ ”
The gazebo is a far more somber story, one that still brings tears to Brewton Schmitt’s eyes. In her memoir, she describes Bob as “the first man in my life that believed I was smart.” He encouraged her painting and creativity.
But cancer and chemotherapy changed him. After a long day at work, she would come home to care for her ailing husband, only to be devastated by the things he would say. His oncologist warned her that this might happen, but it was little comfort.
“The night before he died, he took me out to the gazebo,” she said. “ ‘Mary Lou,’ he said, ‘I want you to love again.’ He said, ‘That’s who you are.’ ”
She pauses. Her eyes well up.
“What happens, all those ugly words that were said go away, because you make them,” Brewton Schmitt continues in a whisper. “You say to yourself, ‘Remember the good.’ ”
And there has been much good in Brewton Schmitt’s eventful life. “Rootin’ Tootin’ Brewton Tales” is in part a paean to her late father, a generous man who loved Christmas and stretched his salesman’s salary to care for those outside of their family.
Growing up sheltered in the South, she remembers only one instance of prejudice, she said, when the Ku Klux Klan burned a cross in a Jewish man’s yard. She was 4.
“They told him if he wasn’t out by the next day they would kill him,” she recalled. “That was my first realization that there was evil. Daddy told me, he said, ‘Mary Lou, there are people in the world who don’t believe like we do. They hate certain people.’ ... I used to be told bedtime stories that Daddy wove all of that into so I could understand.”
Much has changed in Brewton Schmitt’s 75 years. Her mother never held a job, wrote a check or drove a car; Brewton Schmitt worked at a bank and a television station, at law firms and Boise Cascade.
She was a teenaged debutante in the 1950s and a 70-year-old computer dating aficionado in the 21st century, an adventurous woman who turned to seniorpeoplemeet.com after Bob’s death in 2010.
“As difficult as it is to find someone at 70 years old, I dated 52 men from Boston, Texas, Australia, Austria, Wyoming, Montana, Oregon, Washington and all over Idaho,” she wrote. “Finding a man with energy and love for life as a senior citizen takes time and patience.”
Who got the final rose?
Bachelor No. 52 was Ed Schmitt, now 73, a former deputy sheriff who spent 20 years as a farrier. He’s the owner of Anvil Iron Works, a Treasure Valley iron fabrication business. They talked for two hours on the phone and eventually met for coffee at a nearby Applebee’s restaurant.
Schmitt was intrigued by the last line in her dating profile, he said, and then recited it from memory: “When I die, I want to come sliding into heaven saying, ‘Wow, what a ride.’ ”
“I thought, ‘I have to meet this lady,’ ” he said. “And I knew when I saw her coming [at Applebee’s] that this was going to be good.”
Brewton Schmitt has one word for that first date: “Pow.”
Freelance writer Maria L. La Ganga recently moved to the Treasure Valley from the San Francisco area. La Ganga, who was a longtime reporter and editor for the Los Angeles Times, most recently was a U.S. correspondent and senior reporter for The Guardian of London.
Planning a garden?
Beneath the wild tangle of brightly colored flowers in Mary Lou Brewton Schmitt’s garden — day lilies and geraniums, violets and nasturtiums — is a flexible plan and a lot of hard work.
“You have to look at it as the whole yard and think, ‘How am I going to develop it?’ ” she said. “And it will change over time. You may have to take out some things. Your sun and shade affect everything.”
Between a pond and the house she bought in 1993 is a swath of yard that used to be in total shade.
“I had a big willow,” she said. “The roots started going toward the den, so I had it taken out. And so now it gets a lot of sun. And I had to change some of my plants. ... Planning a garden? I didn’t know a lot about it. I had to do a lot of research, and I made a lot of mistakes.”
If you are contemplating a yard makeover, it always helps to talk to an expert first to help put together a plan.
Sketch out the space. Measure it carefully, including everything that currently fills it, and note which sections are sunny and which have shade, said Kathy Noble, a manager at Sawtooth Botanical Garden in Ketchum.
Noble then takes three pieces of tracing paper — one each for spring, summer and fall — and lays them over the initial drawing. This allows her to plan a garden that will have something blooming in each season. “On spring, I draw where the tulip bulbs or crocuses or daffodils are, the early blooming plants,” she said. “I make a circle. I color it the color of that plant. And I do that for summer and fall. Then I look at each of those pieces of tracing paper separately.
“I say, ‘Well, gosh, in this bed by the front gate, I have nothing that blooms in spring or in fall.’ That way you can go to the booklets nurseries publish or your plant catalogs you get in the winter ... and pick out some more things so you can fill out your flower beds.”
Noble likes to have two different plants blooming next to each other “so they can show each other off.” Tulips or daffodils might be placed next to phlox or other groundcover that also blooms in spring.
One important consideration that many gardeners overlook when planning changes to their yards is adjusting automatic in-ground irrigation systems to meet the needs of new plantings. Another common mistake, Noble said, is not studying prospective plants enough — not knowing, for example, what likes sun or what likes shade.
“They also don’t amend the soil as much as they should,” Noble said, “in order to get enough organic matter in the soil to hold moisture and keep plants from having to be watered every day and to offer nutrients and microorganisms.”
Maria L. La Ganga