When Don Robelen’s wife of 53 years was dying, they did not talk to each other about what was happening. Don sometimes wonders why they did not and whether they should have, but second-guessing comes easy in grief. What he knows is that he had his Dot, and their three sons had their mother, for 49 weeks after the cancer was discovered. You always think you might get a little more time.
“We knew in our hearts we were going to lose her, but talking about it would have brought finality, and we couldn’t, we just couldn’t accept it,” Don says. “It was like we were paralyzed.”
They went on their first date when she was 19 and he was 21. Both were college students — she at Alfred University and he at Tufts. “I was filling in for a friend of a friend on a blind date and we went to a Glen Miller concert on Long Island,” Don says. “This was on Aug. 2, 1958.”
He was drawn to her quiet grace, her curiosity about the world, her love of family. They married in 1961 and Dot taught elementary school for five years until their three sons, Doug, Keith and Erik, were born. Don’s job in finance meant they moved a lot before they ended up in the Richmond suburbs in 1986. Everywhere Dot went, Don marvels, she developed a network of friends around the things she loved: children, books, walking and gardening.
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Dot Robelen was a beloved volunteer at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden for 21 years. After her death, her family and the garden's staff installed a garden in her honor. (Photo courtesy: Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden)
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The gates to Dot's Garden in Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden. (Photo courtesy: Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden)
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A plaque in Dot's Garden reads: “In loving memory of Dorothy Robelen, 1939-2014. 21 years of dedicated volunteer service.” (Photo courtesy: Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden)
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Don Robelen visits the bench in his late wife Dot's memory garden at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden. (Photo by Tina Griego)
It’s the gardening that Don and their sons think of since Dot’s death on Sept. 4, 2014. The way she was determined to use the shade of their wooded Manakin-Sabot property to grow hosta, which the deer were equally determined to eat. The herbs she once tried to grow, despite the shade, within the hexagon-shaped bed Don framed in cedar. They lined the path to the lake with 45 ferns and planted two sourwood trees near the back porch so that autumn, their favorite season, could be greeted with the fiery glory it deserved. Dot was a master gardener (as is Don) and, at one time or another, joined or helped lead a half dozen gardening clubs and groups.
But she particularly loved Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden. It was a hike from Goochland County, but up until her diagnosis in the fall of 2013, she volunteered in its Garden Shop. She had done so once a month for at least 21 of garden’s then-29 years in existence. When Dot died, the staff at the shop grieved, as well.
With that attachment in mind, Don came as close as he could to acknowledging to Dot what they both could not say. “I’d like to do something nice for you,” he said to her, meaning he’d like to do something nice in her memory. “She understood what I was saying and even though she wasn’t feeling well, she smiled,” he says.
After she died, Don called Frank Robinson, who was then the garden’s president and CEO, and Robinson conferred with Shane Tippett, the current executive director, and all decided that Dot, a flower among flowers, should have a garden among the gardens.
Dot’s Garden was dedicated on Sept. 5, one year and one day after she died. About 75 of her friends and family came. It’s off the Woodland Walk in the Flagler Garden. Leaf-shaped and tucked alongside the soft bend of the stream, it is a small oasis protected by the towering canopy of a tulip poplar.
Visitors would know it as a memorial garden for the plaque, mounted on an ottoman-sized rock. “Dot’s Garden,” it reads. “In loving memory of Dorothy Robelen, 1939-2014. 21 years of dedicated volunteer service.” Below that is an excerpt from the poem “Remember Me,” part of which reads, “As you look upon a flower and admire its simplicity – remember me … For if you always think of me, I will never be gone.”
What the plaque cannot tell you about is the 11 months Robelen and Lewis Ginter staff and volunteers worked on this tranquil spot and how carefully they chose the plants, flower and trees. There would have to be a sourwood tree and hostas, of course: White Feather, Golden Scepter, Blue Ivory, Autumn Frost and Blueberry Muffin. They placed anemone, phlox and snowdrops to bloom in the spring; monkshood and columbines for the summer, and when winter arrives, it will bring with it the blossoms of the Lenten Rose and the yellows and reds of Oregon grape holly. Volunteers built the cedar arbor that shelters the bench beneath it and the exquisite gates made from the branches of a culled rhododendron that once occupied the space
“The garden is quiet, lovely and dignified, and Dot was all those things,” says Garden Shop manager Martha Anne Ellis, who worked with Dot for all 21 years she was a volunteer.
The plaque cannot tell you of the peace that descended when the eldest son, Doug, brought his own son, now 14, to sit on the bench and read. Or how easy it is to picture Dot, dappled in sunlight, walking down the path, quiet but for that wide smile.
Don tries to come out on Sundays. He always sits on the right side of the bench, which Alice Baker, the garden’s director of development, has taken to calling, “Don’s bench in Dot’s Garden.” He says he used to drive Dot crazy with his finance-man need to plan out everything ahead. After she was diagnosed and it was still early on, they went for a walk.
“Everyone had said, just live it one day at a time — but I started talking to her about a few months ahead and ‘maybe we should do this,’ and she stopped and she said, ‘I don’t want to plan ahead. I want to live for today and I’m not going to live for tomorrow and the next day and the next day.’ And she cut me off.”
He remembers that admonishment as he sits there on a recent and gorgeous fall day.
“Isn’t it beautiful, Dot?” he will say when he is alone in her garden, where a crossvine has begun its climb up the arbor and the canopy of leaves, not yet turned, rustles in the wind and where everything that needs to be said is.
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