Granite Falls widow honors family with garden of memories

Pat Sytsma has created a collector’s garden.

But it’s not rare plants the 69-year-old woman has assembled at her home outside Granite Falls.

It’s memories.

Mixed in with prized plants and plenty of places to sit and enjoy the countryside, are the stories of Sytsma’s life, past, present and, perhaps, future.

Her husband, Robert, who died of a heart condition five years ago, is there in the form of rusty old tools, antique farm equipment and work boots planted with sedums.

Potted begonias under the gazebo, taken from cuttings in her parents’ garden more than 15 years ago, represent Sytsma’s birthplace, the Netherlands.

In the front yard, a spiral of stones picked by hand from local riverbeds, leads to a birdhouse her daughter Dorothy Sytsma built with her boyfriend, Lyle Barney, as a birthday present for her mother.

Gnomes, hiding under the dark green leaves of thriving perennials, are ready to amuse kids of all ages, including Sytsma’s 12 grandchildren.

Sytsma moved here less than two years ago.

Her son-in-law Tim Lampers built her a new home as she downsized from the much larger Granite Falls house and garden she shared with her husband.

Since then, Sytsma has used her property to not only to ease the heartache of losing her beloved partner but to pass his memory on to her grandkids.

“We were married 42 years,” Sytsma said.

Sytsma promised her husband she’d keep his collection of farm equipment close by after he died, including three manure spreaders, milking equipment and an apple cider press he made many years ago.

“I told him, ‘I want that stuff around me.’ I knew how much enjoyment he got out of it,” she said. “He felt so good about that.”

Both the Sytsmas were born in the Netherlands. She, one of 10 children, came to the United States in 1962 on a vacation, determined not to fall in love with the Dutchman her cousins said she should marry.

“They had him picked out for me,” Sytsma said.

But after meeting him in California, she changed her mind. To this day, she can still remember seeing him in church, where he was serving as an usher.

They were married in the Netherlands, lived for two years in California and came to Granite Falls to run a dairy farm in 1965.

They raised seven children and took them all, as kids, to visit the Netherlands three times.

Many of those stories are told inside Sytsma’s house. Though her main living space is only about 800 square feet, there is a fully finished three-car garage attached to the house.

With enough tables and space to host nearly 30 people, it’s become a holiday home base for all the kids and grandkids, who live close by in Granite Falls, Monroe, Snohomish, Marysville and Port Orchard.

Family photos and heirlooms — including her father’s handmade baby gowns preserved in a glass case — decorate the walls in the informal space.

Upstairs from the garage is an equally large room, where the grandkids can play and adults can do projects such as scrapbooking. It’s practically a family museum, including Pat Sytsma’s old violin, her one and only childhood doll and her oldest son’s childhood teddy bear.

There’s also a wooden cradle Robert Sytsma built for his wife when she was pregnant with their first child.

They used it for all their children and some of their grandchildren, too.

How could Sytsma ever part with such a treasure?

“It’s just in me,” Sytsma said. “I can’t throw anything away.”

Sytsma, however, isn’t a pack rat. Anything she keeps must have a use. Collections must be organized and displayed. Pictures must tell stories.

“She takes things that everyone else would throw away and creates something,” said Sytsma’s good friend, Lu Whitlatch of Marysville. “That’s what blows me away. It’s just been an amazing evolution of this home and garden.”

Dorothy Sytsma, 39, who lives next door, has enjoyed watching her mother’s home and garden take shape.

“All these things she collects are not very valuable, but to her a memory is in every piece,” she said. “It’s her. Everything that she has is a part of her.”

In addition to caring for two goats and a goose that roam a field next to the house, Sytsma tends six doves in a large cage outside the house.

They, too, are an homage to her husband, who loved birds but who couldn’t hear the higher pitches of canaries.

“He could hear the tone of a dove,” Dorothy Sytsma said.

Pat Sytsma isn’t done with her garden yet.

In fact, she’s planning to replace 12 of her patio pavers with stones decorated with handprints, mosaics and inscriptions from all 12 of her grandchildren.

Hanging on a shed near a table decorated with a tic-tac-toe game, is a picture of a butterfly with the words: “If nothing ever changed, there would be no butterflies.”

It’s there because her grandkids miss their grandfather, a warm-hearted man who stood 6 feet, 4 inches tall and had thick, white hair.

“They don’t want change,” Sytsma said of her grandkids. “In life, there’s always change.”

People have asked Sytsma if her memorials to her husband could keep her from getting over her loss.

But she sees her new home and garden as another chapter in her life.

“Now it’s like I’m a butterfly, getting to go on, on my own now,” she said.

Dorothy Sytsma wasn’t sure how it would be having her mother move in next door.

“It has been really good. This is all her. She did it from scratch,” she said. “This is her new life.”

Sarah Jackson: 425-339-3037;

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