New England is famous for its winters. Painters capture the picturesque rolling hills covered in blankets of thick, pristine white snow. Novels idealize the roaring fires and wool blankets that keep families warm from the blizzards outside. Songs cherish the playfulness of snowflakes and knit mittens. However, true New Englanders know that the charm quickly wears off as snow plows charge through road ways, creating unattractive mounds of dirty snow; boots become frozen and water-logged rather than fashion statements; the bitter cold air bites at nose and finger tips. By February, little is worse than those famous winters.
Since meeting in November 2003, Cheryl and David O’Neil had grown tired of the dreary winter and being stuck inside on dates. As their first Valentine’s Day together came around, they needed to get away from the frozen sidewalks of Boston. Upon hearing the promise of a tropical escape in Boylston, they jumped in the car and headed down the MassPike to Tower Hill.
“We spent the whole day warming up in the Orangerie,” Cheryl reminisces. “We just felt the magic of the place right away.”
“There’s this overwhelming amount of oxygen,” David adds about the conservatory. “It happens almost every time, but it was particularly striking then. Plants give off oxygen and that was palpable, how different the air was [from outside]. You’re immediately transported to a faraway place.”
While the first months of any relationship are full of excursions and discovery, there was something about Tower Hill that remained with Cheryl and David, as they return every Valentine’s Day to commemorate that first one when they fell in love with the gardens at Tower Hill. “There is the phenomenon when people start a relationship,” David explains. “At the beginning, all your senses are heightened about the memories of those first experiences. Since [our trip] was so early and we were still getting to know each other, it all sticks in your memory and you can remember all the minute details of that first date. Now, it’s just become tradition.”
Cheryl continues to have that sense of wonder when they visit, remarking, “it seems new every time. I always say I’m so happy to be there it feels like it’s my birthday.”
Over the years, Cheryl and David continue to visit for special events, such as summer concerts on the Lawn Garden or harvest celebrations in the apple orchard. Even when they are simply looking for a day away from their lovely home in Newton, there are surprises and new discoveries to be had, like the tour when David assisted former Executive Director John Trexler in planting a commemorative tree on the grounds. He laughs, remembering getting down on his hands and knees in goat manure to help with the planting.
Little hints like these began surfacing for the O’Neils. Cheryl noticed mention in a membership newsletter of a member’s wish have a memorial tree planted after they passed. David’s work as a personal historian gave him a unique perspective on death and creating memorials for loved ones. While currently young and healthy, the couple discussed their own wishes and agreed that Tower Hill was not only a beautiful and important place in their lives today, but could be so after they were gone as well.
Cheryl tears up a bit as David explains their plans and he cups her hand tenderly. It is palpable how much they care for each other and how painful it is to even imagine the moment one of them will have to follow through without the other.
“We actually derive a lot of joy out of knowing after one of us passes away, the other can come to Tower Hill and sit in the Winter Garden and be by the tree that memorializes the other,” David considers.
Cheryl and David reached out to Joann Vieira, Director of Horticulture, about their wishes and coordinating sponsoring a tree at Tower Hill for their memorial. They toured the grounds, exploring the many beautiful trees throughout the Secret Garden and Inner Park. However, when she brought them to the Seven Sons trees in the Winter Garden, they both felt a strong attachment.
Inspired by their first date in the Orangerie and its inscription, David says the dedication plaque wrote itself, “This tree and its nearby companion are dedicated to a husband and wife who, on Valentine’s Day in 2004, fell in love in the Orangerie. LAETITIA AETERNA — JOY EVERLASTING!”
In the many years between now and the time their spirits will lie with those trees, David and Cheryl are hoping to find more time to visit Tower Hill. It is always a welcome sight when the giant program calendar arrives in the mail. Of course, Cheryl wishes she could attend them all.
“As an art teacher, artist and avid gardener, I am always so inspired by the beauty and learning experiences Tower Hill has to offer,” she says. To her, Tower Hill is a great many things: “welcoming, romantic, beautiful, peaceful, joyful, magical, surprising, fun, friendly and interesting. A balance between discovery, wonder, and education.”
It is clear the impact Tower Hill has had on Cheryl and David O’Neil, from her artwork of Wachusett Mountain, to his vivid recollections of the first time they opened the Orangerie doors, to the lush green Lawn Garden, exquisitely landscaped beds, and whimsical garden ornaments. Just talking about the place makes the gears turn in their minds. It is about time to make the familiar journey down the Pike and up Fuller Drive to experience the wonders of their special place under their flowering Seven Sons trees.