Friends say Elspeth Bobbs was not a woman of any particular spiritual faith. But they recalled she always believed that once she passed on, she would return to her beloved Santa Fe garden, where she would remain forever.
Bobbs, who created her own beautiful and somewhat secret garden in a 4-acre compound off East Alameda Street, died peacefully at her home at the age of 99 on Tuesday of natural causes, her daughters said.
“For someone raised in England and very Victorian she loved getting on her hands and knees and working in the dirt,” said daughter Sheila Bobbs Armstrong of Santa Fe. “I remember once when we were little, she was growing broccoli and there were worms the same color as the stalks. We’d squeal and our mother would say, ‘Just eat them, it’s protein.’
“She was a very organic farmer before anyone else was.”
Bobbs was born Elspeth Rutherford Grant in England in 1920. She started going deaf as a child and completely lost her hearing by her mid-20s. That did not stop her from studying law at both Oxford and Liverpool universities, and she learned to read lips “in the rear view mirror,” as Armstrong put it.
Bobbs fell in love with Santa Fe long before she ever set foot in it, having read about it and New Mexico in pieces authored by the likes of Mabel Dodge Lujan and D.H. Lawrence. Her father was American, her mother British, and when World War II broke out the family relocated to San Francisco in the early 1940s.
Shortly thereafter, in November 1943, Bobbs set out on her own for Santa Fe, arriving by train. “I looked around and I saw the lovely adobe homes and I smelt the piñon smoke, which was quite prominent,” she told interviewer Cindy Kelly of the Atomic Heritage Foundation in 2017. “I thought, ‘Well, I like this place.’ That’s how I came to Santa Fe.”
She soon befriended Polish physicist Joseph Rotblat, who had come to Los Alamos to work on the Manhattan Project. Because both she and Rotblat were from other countries, they came under suspicion as potential spies, Bobbs told Kelly. “Who has ever heard of a deaf Mata Hari, for heaven’s sake?” Bobbs said. “Big joke, I thought.”
Rotblat was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1955 for his efforts to decrease nuclear arms.
After the war she met artist Howard Bopft, who was from Pennsylvania. They married in March 1946, but she told her husband she hated his last name and wanted to change it. They settled on Bobbs, though she later said she wished it were McGillicuddy instead.
The couple had three daughters and, after brief stints living in London and California, they returned to Santa Fe where they bought the property off East Alameda Street, which they named La Querencia.
There Bobbs, a self-taught gardener, began building her most expansive garden to date. Left to her own devices to create her own fantasy world, she included such offbeat touches as a bronze dragon, a labyrinth that lays out the evolution of life and a miniature railroad.
“She just poured her passion for everything into her gardening,” said daughter Mariel Johnson Bobbs of Santa Fe. “The first thing she did was put in a herb garden and then a vegetable garden and then she kept adding more and more themed gardens … at 94 she was still working on the gardens around some of the structures on that property. She just had this magical touch and she loved roses.”
Bobbs shared the edibles from the garden with neighbors, tenants and local nonprofits such as Kitchen Angels. She also gave generously to many local nonprofits, her daughters said, and was a constant supporter of Planned Parenthood, Women’s Health Services [now known as Southwest Care] and other women-empowering agencies. She was named a Santa Fe Living Treasure in 1984 for her philanthropic work, and in 1999 she was named New Mexico’s Philanthropist of the Year.
A cochlear implant in the late-1980s gave Bobbs a small degree of hearing, and she marveled at the sound of birds chirping and dogs barking, said friend Connie Helms, who began working for Bobbs about 13 years ago.
“She loved sound, but it didn’t have meaning,” said Armstrong. “People sounded like parrots squawking to her. But she said it felt like a curtain between her and the rest of the world had been lifted.”
Helms said Bobbs’ deafness was not a detriment. “She wanted people to know that they could do whatever they wanted to do in life despite challenges,” she said. “There wasn’t a day that she wasn’t grateful for her own good luck, not a day where she didn’t say ‘thank you.’”
Bobbs was warm and ladylike, her friends said, though some people dubbed her “the Queen” because of her stature and tone. But she could show a petulant side if provoked. When she turned 70, Bobbs told friends and family members she did not want a fuss made over her birthday, Armstrong said. But of course she did, and when no one made a fuss, she made a stink about it.
So for her 71st birthday, Armstrong said she had some “I’m a friend of Mrs. Bobbs” bumper stickers created, which delighted her mother. Armstrong said she still spots some of those stickers on cars in Santa Fe some 30 years later.
Howard Bobbs died in 1984. Armstrong said he used to joke of his wife, “If she could hear, she’d be a menace.” Elspeth Bobbs then put even more work into the garden as if trying to alleviate her grief, friends said.
Armstrong said the family will likely plan a tea memorial to her mother sometime in the spring.
Meanwhile, her garden will continue to be cared for and grow, and it now includes an Elspeth Bobbs Rose, named after her by a Texas rose expert named Jerry Vernon, Helms said.
“Like her, it is a very determined rose,’ Helms said.