by Darlene Blasing
Our souls are united, the purple phlox declare
above the sweet alyssum’s worth beyond compare.
We hasten to escape the wort’s false happiness,
the lavender’s deception and vine’s artifice.
Laura took her first look at her prospective home one New Year’s Eve day when the temperature dipped into the single digits and a thin blanket of snow lay on the ground. A biting wind whipped stray auburn hair into her face as she stepped from her Volkswagen and confronted the shabby bungalow. The ad in the Village Herald described the residence as a charming cottage but, at first glance, Laura thought it must surely be the haunted house of the neighborhood. Peeling paint, cracked window panes, broken siding shingles, and dilapidated wooden steps looked more like neglect than charm, but it was only five miles from her job at the bakery, and the price was within her budget.
The real estate listing promised a lovely Victorian-style garden come spring, with a large crescent-shaped pool and fountain. Laura saw no trace of either that dreary winter day. The yard was in a wretched state. The front was overgrown and the back looked like someone had torn through it with a chain saw, randomly cutting down trees and shrubs. A mossy garden bench and the stone base of what she guessed to be a birdbath stood in the midst of mounds of discarded vines and branches. Laura shivered in her hooded down parka, her breath freezing in the nippy air as she tried to envision how the garden might look in summer after some attention. Instead, she saw the perfect setting for a story by Edgar Allan Poe.
Stirring from her reverie, she circled the house, peering into windows. She had to admit that the interior looked much better than the exterior. Dark wood trim around doors and windows had somehow escaped being painted. Glossy white paint gleamed on old plaster walls. Laura thought there was hope for the place. She was tired of noisy apartment living and longed for a home of her own. Unfortunately, she could only afford a fixer-upper like this one. Maybe that is for the best, she told herself. Work will keep my mind off my troubles.
It had been almost a year since Laura’s fiancé was killed in a distant war. Bryan had been the love of her life, her closest companion since their first year of college. The plans they made for their future were now nothing more than memories, and incessant thoughts of him dying so far from home threatened to engulf her in darkness. She needed a bit of happiness to save herself. Surely a home with a lovely garden would lift her spirits.
With a sigh and a final parting glance at the house, Laura returned to her car determined to contact the realtor for a better look. For forty-six thousand dollars it was quite a deal. Fixer-upper or not, she felt compelled to take a serious look at it.
A tour of the house with the realtor a few days later convinced Laura to make the place her own. She fell in love with the home’s unique Arts and Crafts style, its large master bedroom and bath, formal dining room, and the open stairway that climbed up one wall of the long living room. The rooms were few but spacious, and the beauty of the structure had survived the ill treatment it received in the past.
Laura identified with the house from the beginning. Something drove her to polish the floors until they gleamed as if returning them to their former glory would bring a shine back to her gloomy life. She stripped years of dirt from the windows and felt the blur of tears being washed from her eyes. Replacing dark, yellowed wallpaper with fresh, bright floral prints brought a breath of spring to the winter of her soul. Each project returned a bit of lost energy to her spirit and helped to heal the gaping wound in her heart.
As winter waned and the house became more of a home, Laura turned her attention outside. Balmy April days found her bundling branches in the backyard and bagging sodden leaves. On one such day, a cheery voice broke the silence of her solitary labor.
Laura looked up to see a plump, matronly woman in a simple cotton housedress. Her dark cherubic face wore a brilliant smile.
“My name is Dolly. What’s yours?”
“Why, hello! I’m Laura. Laura Duncan. You must be my neighbor.”
“I certainly am, and I’m pleased to see you taking such an interest in this place. It was built by my Aunt Mary and Uncle Bill, you see, so it has hurt me terribly to watch it go to ruin. There hasn’t been a real family here to care for it since they passed on over twenty years ago.”
“Who has lived here since?”
“Just renters, college kids, rowdies. The last bunch parked their cars on the front lawn and nearly ruined it. They left bags of garbage on the back porch for the raccoons to scatter all over the neighborhood. They broke windows, as you can see, cut down half the trees and shrubs along our shared property line, dumped old oil from their cars into the pool…”
“So, there is a pool here?”
“Oh, yes! It’s right over there.” Dolly pointed to a spot about two feet from where Laura was standing.
A frown creased Laura’s brow as she scanned the pile of debris next to her. “What happened to it?”
“Oh, the city made them fill it in, it stunk so bad.
“Don’t worry. I’ve no doubt you’ll find it, and will bring it back to life along with the rest of Mary’s garden. I’ve been praying, and my prayers usually get answered.”
Laura smiled to think that Dolly saw her as the answer to her prayers.
“I’ll let you get back to work. I don’t want to stand in the way of progress.” With a sprite-like grin, Dolly turned and walked back into the house behind Laura’s.
Curious, Laura began clearing the ground in the area Dolly had indicated. Soon a rocky crescent shape emerged from that spot near the rear of her property. She dug around the rocks and discovered the concrete pool described in the listing. From point to point it stretched out more than six feet, its inside curve facing the back of her house. The distance from front to back spanned four feet. It was filled to the brim with soil and rocks.
Digging this out could be quite a job, she decided. I’ll tackle the rest of the garden first.
The idea of recreating Mary’s labor of love pleased Laura. Any small defeat of death’s destructive force brought a glimmer of joy to her heart, and a garden represented the ultimate victory with its perpetual return of new life. Though not an experienced gardener, Laura had spent many happy hours as a child helping her grandmother care for her perennial borders and the annual flower and vegetable plants she set out by her kitchen door. Deep within Laura a dormant gardener waited for the spring of opportunity to release a seed planted long ago. That spring had finally arrived.
Laura could see traces of the old flowerbeds once she cleared the yard of rubble. Creeping grass was no match for weeds that quickly claimed the beds after the person who cared for them was gone. She realized that it would be easy to preserve the original shapes.
As for plants to fill them, Laura detected the emerging leaves of phlox, daylilies, and tradescantia or spiderwort, which she knew from her grandmother’s garden. Other perennials, such as hostas and lilies, appeared as the weather grew warmer. Dolly told her that flowering vines once covered the fences and that Mary loved lavender.
Laura arranged the plants she found on the property with an artist’s eye. She transplanted fragrant purple phlox and ruffles of orange daylilies to the beds that surrounded the back and sides of the pool. In front of them she set impatiens she started indoors from seed and sweet-scented white alyssum.
One round flowerbed sat in the center of the backyard and two borders stretched along the fences on either side. As they neared the house, the long beds extended into the lawn as if trying to capture the round one with their outstretched arms. Laura sensed something oddly familiar about the layout, but the reason for it escaped her.
Spiderwort had spread throughout the long beds like a weed. After thinning it out, Laura added clematis and cleome, lilies and lavender. Roses and phlox graced the round bed and scented the air with their perfumes. Laura added hyacinths, daffodils, and tulips, as well as several smaller bulbs for early blooms come spring.
Though Laura worked forty hours each week at the bakery, she spent nearly as much time in her yard. She often labored late into the night until, exhausted, she tumbled into a deep restful sleep. The garden drew her like a magnet. Laura felt the soil pulling sorrow from her fingers and saw her grief transformed to beauty as the garden flourished. The sense of powerlessness that haunted her since Bryan’s death diminished, and she experienced moments of pure joy, feelings she once thought would never return.
Laura never lost sight of the fact that she was working on someone else’s garden. As she dug into the soil, she found pieces of broken pottery, glassware, marbles, and tiny toy soldiers. She felt like an archaeologist searching for clues. Once, while digging in an area alongside the house, she unearthed a brass rouge compact. It was crafted in the Art Deco style of the thirties. She visualized Mary, dressed to the nines, stepping out of a shiny black sedan after a night on the town. Perhaps she arrived home a little tipsy, Laura thought as she tried to imagine how the compact slipped from Mary’s grasp unnoticed.
Dolly revealed her aunt’s motivation for creating the horticultural sanctuary one afternoon as she and Laura sipped tea among the flowers.
“I’m thrilled with the way you restored Mary’s garden. I often gaze at it from my upstairs window. It looks just the way it did when she was alive, except for the pool.”
“I know. That’s next on my agenda.”
“Take your time, child. You’ll make yourself sick from over-doing. I’d help you if I could, but my seventy-year-old body can’t handle heavy work anymore. I hope you don’t mind that I spy on you sometimes.”
“Not at all, and I’m happy my results are so close to the original. I’ve done my best to retain the shapes of Mary’s flowerbeds, and I used plants I found here whenever possible.”
“You have the same obsession for gardening that my aunt did. Hers was driven by sorrow,” she added. Hearing the faint gasp that escaped Laura’s throat, Dolly cast a sympathetic look in her direction. “I thought so,” she said simply.
“Mary lost her only son, my cousin Billy, when he was seventeen-years-old. He died on the railroad tracks a block away. The family was certain someone pushed him, but nothing was ever proven.”
“I’m so sorry.”
“You’ve lost someone too?”
“Yes, my fiancé, Bryan.”
“I’m sorry for your loss, dear. How are you holding up?”
“Thanks to this garden, Dolly, I’m doing very well.”
And she was.
Laura tackled the pool with the same zeal that had driven her all along. Not quite up to doing the job by herself, she employed two neighborhood teens to assist her. Together they removed soil, rocks, logs, old tires and the long lost bowl of the birdbath from the pool’s three-hundred gallon depths. Laura washed mud from the sides of the structure and, after it dried, swept all trace of soil from the floor.
Dolly told Laura it was the creation of a local man who also made the stone birdbath and bench. The original owners had been able to drain and fill it from the house, but the iron pipes rusted through long ago. Water once showered from a circular pipe into a shallow bowl in the back and cascaded over rock shelves into the pool below. A fountain in the center sprayed water into the air of another era. Its parts were broken, missing, and corroded.
Laura was determined to restore this element of the garden, as well. She installed a pump, filter, and fountain purchased from a garden center and filled the pool with fresh water. A dozen goldfish introduced into this aquatic nest finished the project. The garden was finally complete.
One quiet evening in late summer, as Laura sat on the back steps of her house admiring the salvaged paradise, she suddenly realized why the garden’s design seemed familiar. It was nearly identical to a drawing she did in college.
Her teacher had instructed the class to draw spontaneously from their innermost selves. Laura worked quickly, making sweeping strokes with colorful pastels. She sketched a crescent shape pushing a sphere out from between two shapeless arms. When Bryan saw the drawing, he ran to his dorm room and fetched a book of symbols. According to his book, that figure represented liberation.
Decades earlier, Mary created a garden to escape the pain of losing her son. Her design spoke of freedom from earthly cares. Laura was convinced that Mary’s soul guided her hands to express its deepest desire, and that of the garden’s new caretaker, as well.
© Darlene Blasing 2004