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Short story: “The Rose Garden”

A flash of inspiration and I knew I had to get this out in between the work needed for my creative writing class. Like all good stories there’s a grain of my own experiences baked into it. (I won’t tell you exactly what though, a girl needs her secrets.)

Caroline was an only child. Her parents were the kind who saw a child as a natural part of their life together, along with the house and the vacations to Spain every summer. A part of the plan they made the day they decided they were going to get married.

It wasn’t that she lacked for love, if anything she had to admit she was very spoiled child. Any whim of hers was immediately entertained, be it a pony, piano lessons or ballet. She had more opportunities than other children her age, thought she didn’t realize that until she got older and was able to compare notes with her friends. There was a strange loneliness to her younger years though. While her mother didn’t work as much as other mothers, there were times when she had to entertain herself while her mother dealt with her home business.

She usually spent her solitary hours outside in the garden, playing with the family dog; there wasn’t a whole lot more to do out there. Because her parents were well off enough to have a house with a large garden, but not the time to take care of it the garden didn’t contain more than just a lawn and some low maintenance bushes and trees. It was during a particularly dull afternoon one summer that Caroline noticed the garden next door and her eyes went wide. It was something straight out of a fairy tale, filled with rose bushes, large and small. There was even a small gazebo covered with climbing roses in a corner. To her eyes it seemed a magical place, filled with colors and amazing scents.

From that day she spent as much time as she could dare spying on that garden. It was with some disappointment when he finally spotted the owner of her rose fairyland; a normal old lady wearing green khaki bib pants and a big floppy sun hat. She studied the woman for a while, watching her putter around the rosebushes, talking to them in a gentle voice. When the woman suddenly turned around and asked her what she was doing she nearly jumped out of her sensible sandals.

“I’ve seen you looking, child”, she said with her kindly voice. “Do you like my roses?”

Caroline could only nod mutely, clutching the white picket fence that separated her garden from the rose paradise.

“Well, you’ll see much better from over here, I think”, the old lady said, smiling. “I promise I won’t bite.”

She hesitated for a moment and then crawled under the fence, leaving the dog barking forlornly on the other side.

 “Your dog is welcome too”, the woman said with a laugh.

“Milo would just dig up your nice roses”, Caroline said, brushing the dry soil off the hem of her skirt.

The old woman let her watch while she went about her business, trimming and pulling weeds. One bush had some lice crawling over it, so she sprayed it with a strange smelling liquid from a spray can she kept close at hand. While she worked she told Caroline the names of all the roses and where they came from.

“I didn’t know roses had names too”, she said with awe.

“Roses get their names from the person that first grew them”, the lady said. “It might be name of a loved one, the place they first appeared or something else. But there’s always some thought to them. Just like I’m sure your parents thought hard about your name.”

“My name’s Caroline, after my grandma…But she died before I was born”, she said, kicking lightly at the dirt at her feet.

“See”, the woman said. “They wanted your grandmother to be a part of your life, even though she couldn’t be there in person.”

“So, what’s your name?” she asked, peering up at the older woman.

“My name?” she said, almost surprised. “It’s Rose.”

***

Caroline returned to Rose’s garden as often as she dared, just to watch her take care of her roses. In the beginning she sneaked in, perhaps fearing that her mother wouldn’t approve of associating with a person she had not pre-approved, like most other people belonging to their family’s circle of friends. Her mother did notice though, when she heard her drag a poor, yelping Milo under the fence, the chubby corgi nearly getting stuck. Rose found herself invited over for coffee and homemade apple cake the next day, but after that her mother always turned to Caroline when she needed time to work and told her to “Head on over to Rose’s, sweetie.”

The approval might have removed that feeling of thrill she got when she had to climb under the fence to enter the rose garden, but entering through the front gate was a nice experience in itself. Caroline had to enter through a portal of beautiful and fragrant white roses, up a matching white gravel path to reach a front porch with flowers carved into the woodwork. One might have thought this over the top, but Caroline only saw it as a reflection of the woman who loved her flowers. 

As her visits extended into hours, even an entire afternoon when her parents had an engagement she couldn’t come along to Rose began to invite her inside with her. Perhaps the reluctance had more to do with Milo, who liked to stick his nose into most everything he encountered and his long tail had a tendency to knock things over. The inside of the woman’s house was just as magical as the outside, filled with old things and old smells.

“It smells like the museum with all the old clothes and furniture we went to!” she told Rose one afternoon as the woman served her up tea in dainty floral patterned cups and small biscuits that smelled a little musty. Rose just laughed and agreed that most of her stuff was very old.

On days when it rained, when they couldn’t work in the garden Caroline explored the nooks and crannies of the house with Milo at her heels. It took her some time to notice, but when she brought up her discovery to the old woman she actually looked sad for the first time since she’d first met her. It was such a simple and innocent question too.

“Rose, why are all your photos so old?” she asked. “Don’t you have any new pictures of your family?”

The old woman stroked her head gently, eyes sad.

“Dear child, I don’t have much of a family left to speak of. My husband and I only had one son and he passed away in a traffic accident when he was still in college. I’ve been alone for almost eight years now, after my dear Albert passed on.”

Caroline found herself reaching for the old woman’s hand, it seemed so thin and frail to her. How was that hand strong enough to take care of all those roses?

“I guess my garden has become a replacement for the people I have lost”, the woman said, letting out a half-hearted chuckle.

“I think it’s the most amazing garden ever!” Caroline said clutching Rose’s hand and the woman’s smile became more genuine.

“I’m glad you think so, Caroline”, Rose said. “I do think a garden needs to be enjoyed by more than one person.”

Realization suddenly hit Caroline and she tugged lightly on the woman’s hand.

“Rose, I don’t have any grandma or grandpa left”, she said. “So I guess that makes us even!”

Rose laughed then, an honest, happy laugh and stroked her hair again and the next time Caroline came over Rose presented her with her very own child-sized spade.

“Now that we’re a team, you can help me make the garden even more beautiful”, the old woman said.

Caroline devoted herself fully to every task Rose assigned her to, though if she lingered at times to just smell the flowers she was duly forgiven. Milo did his share of the job too, digging mostly where Caroline told him to dig, though she had panicked the one time he unearthed a flower bulb from one of the flower beds.

Her mother was nothing but content with her new unpaid babysitter and when Thanksgiving rolled around that year, after all the roses has been put to bed for the year, Rose found herself invited to Caroline’s home. She was thrilled to show the old woman around her house, just like she had been allowed full reign of Rose’s home. By Christmas time Rose had been adopted into the family, albeit in an informal fashion.

The years passed and Caroline continued to spend a lot of time with Rose, helping her take care of the roses, drinking tea from her dainty cups and looking through photos of people who lived before her parents. Even after she made enough friends in school to keep her company during her lonely hours when her mother was busy she still saw Rose’s house and garden as a safe haven. Often she found herself doing her homework with the old woman, whom he considered to be far wiser than her mother, though she’d never admit it to her. When her friends were mean to her, it was Rose she fled to, who set her straight and helped her forgive them. And when she had a crush on her first boy it was also Rose who was a great comfort to her, sharing her own stories of girlhood crushes and heartbreak. Caroline simply felt that Rose’s years made her more reliable when it came to serious advice, especially since she was the oldest person she knew.

The year of her high school graduation offered more changes than she’d first thought. Rose had supported her in her search for a good college, even though it would put many miles between them.

“College is important”, Rose said. “I could never go very far for college and I couldn’t afford more than two years before I had to start working. You should follow your dreams, Caroline and not think of an old woman like me.”

“I’ll be back during summer break and then we can take care of your garden together!” Caroline had said, even though she’d noticed how Rose was moving more stiffly these days, her rosebushes slowly growing more wild and unruly.

The old woman had smiled and stroked her hair, like she’d always done, even though Caroline really was too old for that.

But two months before her graduation her father lost his job and after much frantic searching his only real job offer was in another state. They had to move out of the house she’d grown up in and though they stressed that they did so to allow Caroline to still go to her chosen college, it meant that when she went home it wouldn’t be the old home anymore. It wouldn’t have Rose and her garden next door.

The day after her graduation they packed up the SUV and the new puppy, not a corgi, but a froo-froo curly white ball of fur her mother had latched onto as an obvious replacement for Caroline now that she was leaving home. Rose came out to see them off and something inside Caroline broke when she saw the old woman relying on a cane to walk. She wanted to yell at her mother that she didn’t care about going to that college, if it meant leaving Rose like this. How was she to take care of her garden without her?

She couldn’t say anything though; she knew she had to be brave for her oldest friend. She’d not really known any of her grandparents, so Rose had been the closest thing she’d ever had.

“Remember to write now, Caroline”, Rose said, stroking her hair one last time with her frail, liver spotted hands.

“I will, Rose”, Caroline said, hugging the woman and wondering when she’d gotten so thin.

“Go live your dreams, child”, Rose said and smiled, handing over a small bouquet of roses, all Caroline’s favorites, lovingly picked out from her garden.

That was the last Caroline saw of the old woman and the roses were carefully dried and brought with her in a cotton padded box to college.

***

Caroline had written, a lot in the beginning, but soon she found Rose’s shaky handwriting much too hard to read. It was hard to respond to something she couldn’t read, so she ended up writing vague, silly letters chronicling her life and they were spaced out further and further as time went by. She still thought of the old woman, but she wasn’t sure how else to keep in touch. When Rose’s letters stopped coming, during her junior year in college she figured the woman was disappointed in the lame correspondence and gave up on it herself.

Then her mother called her one evening, while she was hunched over her laptop trying to finish an important paper and told her Rose had passed away. The paper was immediately forgotten and unbidden the tears came to her eyes, sorrow mixed with guilt over the lame attempt at keeping in touch with the old woman. Her mother consoled her by letting her know the woman had passed away peacefully in her sleep, but that didn’t matter much to Caroline right then.

After the worst sobs had passed her mother mentioned one more thing, a lawyer had called them, asking for Caroline. Her mother didn’t know what that was about, but she’d told the lawyer that Caroline would be home for summer break in a week. There was something secretive in her mother’s voice, but she wasn’t really in any mood to pry the secret out of her. She’d find out in another week, she supposed.

When she got out of the cab outside her parent’s house she was met by the front gate by her mother looking very sly. She was escorted to the back of the house where she felt her jaw drop. There were rosebushes everywhere.

“Your father helped me plant them yesterday; they came in on a Fed-Ex truck Thursday. It is part of what Rose left you, honey.”

“Rose left me…?” she asked, feeling more than a little puzzled.

“Well, according to her lawyer she didn’t have any next of kin; you were the only person mentioned in her will. She didn’t have much money, but there were some things she wanted you to have.”

“Roses…” Caroline said, feeling slightly disoriented as she surveyed the bushes dotting the otherwise pristine lawn. Those were all her favorite kinds too.

“Not just roses though”, her mother added, arching one finely pruned eyebrow.

Caroline had to be herded inside where a box waited. It smelled a little musty and old, just like Rose’s house and she had to blink away tears again. Within she found Rose’s garden tools, including that child-sized shovel Caroline had been given once, some books and that precious set of tea cups, though slightly worse for wear now.

“Rose really cared about you, honey”, her mother said somewhere far away as Caroline found herself falling into old memories of sitting next to Rose, flipping through her books and drinking from those dainty tea cups.

It wasn’t until then that Caroline fully understood that you didn’t have to share blood to consider someone family. All it took was a bond, a shared interest and much like those roses now growing in her parents’ backyard, with enough love and kindness that relationship would grow and thrive. Rose had filled a hole inside her, just like she had filled a hole inside Rose and they’d both benefitted from it.  Being related didn’t matter, not when there was enough love to make up for it.

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