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Love blooms in special 'Secret Garden' for children

Posted: Thursday, June 07, 2001

NEW YORK (AP) -- The Secret Garden at the Staten Island Botanical Gardens is based on a children's classic about discovery and renewal. But the story behind the hedge-maze garden is a true tale of love and loss.

''The hedge maze which conceals the Secret Garden is meant to teach children and remind adults that although life's path is never straight we should look for the magic and joy in each step of the journey.'' -- Plaque dedicated to the memory of Connie Gretz at the Secret Garden.

Walking through the garden one recent day, Chicago stockbroker Randy Gretz takes time to notice the little things like the bright green growth on each of the infant bushes and the newly planted pansies and marigolds.

It's not exactly the image of a high-powered stockbroker. But each branch, leaf, twig and cobblestone in the garden has meaning for Gretz, who built the garden as a memorial to his wife, Connie, who died of cancer in 1996.

''It was Connie's idea to do a hedge maze,'' he says. ''She thought it was a grand allegory for life.'' It's also a fitting allegory for the couple's life together.

As newlyweds, the Gretzes moved to Staten Island in 1971, eager to start a family. But their first child was stillborn and the next year Connie Gretz miscarried.

''We weren't certain we would ever have children so we started to talk about a fitting memorial for the children we lost,'' Gretz says. They thought about building a playground until Connie Gretz came up with the idea of a hedge maze like the one in Frances Hodgson Burnett's 1911 children's classic, ''Secret Garden.''

''We both loved the story, had read it as children and fell in love with the idea.'' But before the project got under way, life joyously intervened. Connie Gretz became pregnant in 1984 with daughter Laura and again in 1987 with Randy Jr.

The idea for the garden was put aside as the Gretzes immersed themselves in the family they thought they'd never have. ''She was the most wonderful mother,'' Randy Gretz says, a sad smile settling on his face; she was the kind who sewed Halloween costumes, baked extraordinary birthday cakes and knew every child in the neighborhood.

Gretz says his wife, an only child who grew up in Easthampton on Long Island, longed for a large family. As administrator of a cooperative nursery school, she touched many children's lives. ''She just adored them and they adored her,'' Gretz says.

In September 1996, just months before the Gretzes' 25th wedding anniversary, Connie began having stomachaches. She went in for a simple procedure and doctors diagnosed cancer. She died six weeks later.

Gretz was overwhelmed with grief. Friends and co-workers at Merrill Lynch, where he has worked for 23 years, urged him to get involved in a project and get his mind off his wife's death.

''It was good advice but very hard to take,'' says Gretz. He eventually decided to build the Secret Garden they had talked about long ago.

In the story, a young girl is sent to England to live with her uncle after her parents are killed in India. The girl discovers her crippled cousin and a secret garden where the boy's mother tragically died. She teaches her cousin to walk, and together they bring the garden -- and her uncle's hardened heart -- back to life.

''It's a story of loss and renewal,'' Gretz says, crinkling his face to halt a wayward tear.

''Building the garden was really helpful for me in terms of dealing with the loss of my wife. It was spiritual. It was a renewal ... and it let my children know that their mother would not be forgotten.''

Gretz, a member of the Staten Island Botanical Garden's executive board, donated $700,000 for the garden. Friends and co-workers from Merrill Lynch gave another $100,000.

The acre-size garden opened last spring at the Snug Harbor Cultural Center, across from the new Chinese Scholar's Garden. The Secret Garden includes a two-story castle and puppet theater, a cobblestone pathway, slate benches and a walled-off garden that will truly become a secret once the young hedges reach their full 7-foot potential.

Parents can climb a spiral staircase to the top of the castle and watch their children master the maze. Children can look up from any point in the maze to find a familiar face.

For children, Gretz says, ''it's the fun of unfolding and finding something that's hidden from view.'' For adults, ''it's a chance to re-experience and see the world through a child's eyes, the kind of pure glee and enthusiasm you only see in children.''

He hopes to add topiaries and character statues to the garden and have costumed volunteers reading stories throughout the garden.

In the four years it took to build the garden, Gretz's life has also undergone a renewal. He remarried and moved to Chicago. But he visits the garden several times a year and enjoys it most when it is filled with children.

''I just remember how happy my wife was able to make children, and I'm touched to see how much joy they get out of it,'' Gretz says. ''I like thinking that Connie's still able to make them happy.''

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On the Net:

Staten Island Botanical Garden: http://www.sibg.org/tour/gretzmain.html

End Adv for June 7-10 and Thereafter



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