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The Old Lady and the Garden

Greg spent 10 years in the US as a foreign student, growing up during turbulent times and falling in love with the people and the country.

From then on and for the whole summer, Sarah would rush through breakfast every morning to join Evelyn in the garden.

Sarah and Evelyn in the garden

Sarah and Evelyn in the garden

Sarah woke up to the sound of Uncle Julian’s car as it noisily made its way out of the garage and past the house. She heard Aunt Maya calling for her, and she regretfully left the comfort and warmth of her bed as she dressed in the chill mountain air of her bedroom and made her way to the breakfast table downstairs. At the table, she gave Aunt Maya a big hug, knowing that the old lady struggled every morning to prepare a breakfast for her and for her husband in spite of her arthritis. They both sat down to say a prayer of thanksgiving before starting on their morning meal.

Sarah’s parents had died in a car accident when she was less than a year old, and her earliest memories of her childhood were those of playing with her uncle and aunt in their house nestled in the mountains. As surrogate parents Aunt Maya and Uncle Julian already had children who were grown up and who were either in school or employed in the city, but they were both overjoyed to welcome Sarah as a baby into their family, to keep them company on those long winter nights, when the mountain winds would come rushing down from the summit peak and brush thru the trees, spilling leaves and pine needles all over their yard. Sweeping the yard Sarah learned when she reached the age of seven, was one past time that kept Uncle Julian busy, while Aunt Maya watched from the veranda, with a warm blanket wrapped around her It was a memorable and touching experience that kept Sarah looking forward to the days of autumn.

“Good morning, Sarah. Uncle Julian just left for the grocery store. Did you have any plans for today?” Maya’s question quickly broke the stillness in the breakfast nook and woke Sarah up from her reverie.

“No Auntie, I was just thinking of school, and what it will be like.”

“Oh don’t worry Sarah, your school classmates are friendly and will surely want to play with you. On another note, our neighbor next door, Mrs. Evelyn, has just started her garden for the summer, would you like to help her?”

“Yes, auntie but I don’t know much about gardening”

“Let’s go over to her yard after breakfast, Evelyn will love having someone to talk to. She has been a good friend of ours for over 20 years now and has always wanted to meet you.”

Sarah quickly finished her meal, excited by the thought of meeting her aunt and uncle’s neighbors. “Maybe they have someone my age that I can play with,” she thought.

Sarah cleaned the table and washed the dishes, her contribution to Aunt Maya’s housecleaning efforts and eagerly held on to her hand as they both walked slowly but steadily to see Evelyn.

Sarah’s first image of Evelyn was of an elderly woman, about the same image as her Aunt Maya but with seemingly more energy and vibrancy. She was on her hands and knees, digging into the dirt of her garden and she displayed a radiant smile when she saw Sarah and Maya approaching her. “Hello Maya, is this Sarah your little one? What a pretty child you are!”

“Hello, Evelyn, yes this is Sarah our little girl. Can you teach her some of your gardening secrets? She is an inquisitive child and will keep you entertained the whole day” Aunt Maya said.

”I think I’ll get back to the kitchen and find out how Julian is at the grocery. Is it all right if I leave Sarah with you?”

“No problem, Maya. Please give my regards to Julian.” Turning to Sarah, Evelyn said “Hello Sarah, just call me Evelyn and welcome to my garden.”

“Thank you Evelyn” Sarah said. “What are you growing? Can I help?”

“Yes, you can Sarah, come sit by me and I’ll show you what I’m doing”

For Sarah, it was the start of a beautiful relationship between her and Evelyn. She felt totally at home with the old woman, who patiently showed her the features and trappings of growing vegetables and flowers while keeping a lonely girl company.

From then on and for the whole summer, Sarah would rush through breakfast every morning to join Evelyn in the garden. At the end of every day, she would help Evelyn put their garden tools away and report back to Aunt Maya and Uncle Julian, to set the dinner table and to entertain them with tales of Evelyn and the garden.

On some days, the three of them would have Evelyn over for a long dinner celebration, which meant a beautiful salad and a feast of vegetables from Evelyn’s garden while Uncle Julian would share news about their children in the city.

On other days as the mountain rains began pouring in, their gardening activities would be postponed and instead Sarah would bring home beautiful cut flowers to display around the house which pleased Aunt Maya tremendously.

On those days, Evelyn would invite Sarah to her home, and together they would watch the rain fall while having cookies and tea by the fireplace which Uncle Julian would keep well stocked with firewood.

It was during one of those long afternoons of intermittent rain and endless cups of warm tea that Sarah noticed a painting that Evelyn kept in her living room. It was of a pretty young girl sitting by a display vase filled with beautiful bright red hibiscus flowers.

“Who is that girl in the painting, Evelyn? She is very pretty.”

“Oh that painting is of my daughter, Eve, when she was still a young girl. She was a lot like you are now, and she loved to garden with me.”

“Not long after my son Billy made that painting, Eve died from a fever that raced through the village. She was only 14 years old when we took her to the hospital. I remember that she really loved the garden and would always ask me to tell her a story from her hospital bed. Even up to now, I can still sense her presence among the flowers.”

Thinking of her own parents, Sarah went to hug Evelyn when she saw tears fall from the elderly woman’s eyes, but what she said afterwards made her remember and long for that rainy day for the rest of her life.

“Don’t worry about me Sarah, I may be lonely but I’m never alone with the Lord around us. Just listen closely and be alert, his answers to your questions are everywhere and just waiting to be noticed.”

“Now look at that pretty hibiscus flower.” Evelyn pointed out.

“Now look at that pretty hibiscus flower.” Evelyn pointed out.

a hibiscus flower

a hibiscus flower

“It looks like the flower in the painting. It must be Eve saying hello to us. My mom used to tell me that our loved ones who’ve passed on can still say hello to us through beautiful things, like flowers and butterflies.”

“That’s what a garden is for, Sarah. It’s God’s way of feeding our stomachs and filling our empty hearts at the same time.”

“Now let’s get back to our work, Sarah, the rain has stopped.”

For the next few years, Sarah and Evelyn always made the summer their special time together for gardening and for rainy day chats. Sarah learned more about God from Evelyn while digging in the yard of her garden than she ever did from going to Sunday school. She learned to be grateful and to make peace with Him for taking her parents. When she told Aunt May and Uncle Julian, they both smiled and said that it was the best summer vacation yet for her.

As the summer days eventually merged into fall, Sarah spent more of her time with her new school friends and with her aunt and uncle. She would occasionally help Evelyn and Uncle Julian to rake their lawns and gardens while the mountain winds would do their best to blow the mounds of dry leaves around them in swirls of brown, red and yellow. In the evenings, the winds with greater force and strength would roar their way through the trees, bringing with them the cold and chill from the mountain lands and sometimes the snow and ice as well.

It was on these nights that Aunt May and Evelyn both devised a means to keep each other appraised of any problems. They would both set an oil lamp on a table which they kept lit every night and displayed in the front window of their homes. To an onlooker, an unlit lamp meant that the lamp owner needed help, and it soon became Sarah’s afterschool duty to check both household lamps, ensuring that the lamps were safely lit, filled with oil and that each elderly owner was well. When Sarah’s friends learned about the lamp signals, they adopted it as well for their parents and relatives so that it eventually became known as the village emergency beacon. As Christmas approached, the lamps were adorned with ribbons and ornaments so that the village became a more festive place with everyone checking on their neighbor’s welfare through a sea of Christmas lanterns on the coldest and darkest of nights. Their village soon became known for the cheerful greetings of their home lights.

On one such cold and snowy night as Sarah walked over to Evelyn’s house to check on her, she was surprised to meet Bill, Evelyn’s youngest son open the front door of her home.

“Hello Sarah, it’s me Bill” he greeted her. “I’m back vacationing from medical school and am just watching over my mom during my break. She seems to have a light cold.”

“Hello Bill,” Sarah remarked, noticing that he had grown taller and skinnier since he had last visited several years back. “Are you done yet with medical school?”

“Almost, this is my last year. Thank you for watching over my mom, she’s told me a lot about her efforts at gardening and your visits this summer. Would you like to come in? Mom is resting now in the living room, but I have a fire going in the fireplace and I brought her some cookies which we can all share.“

Sarah liked Bill and felt at ease with him. Upon entering, she quickly moved to check on Evelyn, who was sitting snugly in an armchair filled with blankets and having tea. Next to her was a large serving tray full of biscuits and a freshly made pot of tea. Sarah noted that Eve’s painting had been moved so that it was now situated on an easel in the room facing Evelyn.

“Come in Sarah, and have some cookies and hot tea to warm you up. Sit next to me by the fire. Bill was just sharing his after school plans with me,” Evelyn remarked.

“I was just telling Mom about my plans after I graduate. I was hoping to come home and set up my practice in the village and help watch over Mom.” Bill said as he moved a chair over to sit and join them.

“That’s wonderful,” Sarah exclaimed, almost too loudly and surprising herself. “Our village really needs a doctor, not to mention the other neighboring villages as well. We won’t have to spend hours just to go down to the city anymore to see a physician.”

Sarah quickly bit into a cookie, pretending to find it particularly delicious and hoping that no one had noticed her outburst of excitement or her blushing face.

“What about your painting of Eve,” Sarah asked Bill, trying to hide her embarrassment. “You painted her so beautifully. Aren’t you going to miss painting?”

“Oh, I’m sure I’ll always find the time to continue painting in spite of my practice,” Bill said eyeing Sarah speculatively,

“Do you realize, that in the firelight you resemble her so well?” Bill asked Sarah. “She was my favorite model when I was into painting. Maybe someday you’ll allow me to paint you for my Mom.”

“Finish your studies first and start your practice here, Bill and I’ll help you with Sarah.” Evelyn said emphatically. “Good night for now, you two and I’ll see you in the morning.” Evelyn slowly rose from the armchair as she made her way to her bedroom.

“Okay, Mom I’ll just escort Sarah back to her home.”

As Bill and Sarah walked carefully through the mounds of leaves and broken branches back to
Sarah’s home, Sarah felt grateful to see the lamp in her home glowing brightly through her front window. She sensed an inner warmth go through her as well, and she knew that her own life was about to change in the few minutes that she had shared with Bill and his mother.

“Good night, Bill and thank you for accompanying me home,” she said as she reached her front door.

“You’re welcome Sarah, and thanks also for checking on Mom. I really look forward to the opportunity of painting your portrait soon,” he eagerly answered her.

Sarah slept soundly that evening to the sound of the mountain winds mischievously ringing the chimes hanging outside her window.

The next few nights were the coldest ones the village had ever encountered in several seasons, but Sarah had no memories of that. She only remembered the following nights that she had spent with Bill and Evelyn, talking about their lives while drinking tea and eating cookies. Bill would spend his time sketching them, but he was too shy to show his drawings to Sarah.

Every morning she would talk about them with Aunt May and Uncle Julian, entertaining them with countless stories about which they both smiled and seemingly nudged each other silently.

On the night before Sarah was to leave for her last semester in college, she went to see Evelyn and Bill to say goodbye. Evelyn was tearful when hugging and kissing her, weak though she was from the aftereffects of her cold while Bill seemed distracted and concerned by his mother’s frail condition.

“Please don’t worry about me, Sarah, I’m feeling much better now and I can’t wait for spring to get here,” Evelyn said.

“I’ve arranged with Henry and his wife to spend the next few months here and watch over Mom, while I’m gone as well.” Bill said, more for his benefit than for anyone else’s. Henry was Bill’s older brother whom Sarah had met as a child ages ago.

“Goodbye for now Sarah, and may God bless your trip,” Bill said while giving her a long hug.

“God bless you too Bill, and please come back a doctor. We can all use your skills.” Sarah said, almost tearfully, “and please don’t forget your painting,” she whispered as she turned her back to them and walked out of the house.

As Sarah’s final school year ended, she couldn’t wait for Uncle Julian and Aunt May to drive her back to the mountain village she called home. Upon their arrival, she was again reminded of her previous departure and of the lingering sadness that followed her. That final semester had been a difficult one for her to bear, but if it hadn’t been for her aunt and uncle and for their constant communications with her, the school year would have ended on a dismal note.

However spring was now emerging, and the sun easily pierced through the clouds and fog every morning, illuminating the mountain forests and villages with an aura of clarity that stirred her heart with happy memories and experiences.

Arriving at their driveway, her home looked as quaint as her memory could recall, while the stillness and solitude of the surrounding forest brought forth the many years she had spent growing up and playing in silence as an only child with only her aunt and uncle to keep her company.

“How different it had been for me in the city, with the incessant noise and the constant rumble of traffic and construction overshadowed by the voices of people and of the conversations of my friends and classmates!” she suddenly realized. She was quickly reminded of how the urban sounds had easily distracted her attention and drowned out her spiritual beliefs.

Remembering her concern for her neighbor, Evelyn, she quickly made her way past the lawn to her neighbor’s house. In the front window of the house, she could still make out the unlit oil lantern used last winter and how it had been her responsibility to inform every passerby of the occupant’s condition on the darkest of nights.

As she approached the front door, it was opened by Bill and her vision of what lay in front of her made both her eyes tear uncontrollably and she sobbed.

“I’m sorry Sarah, Mom passed on soon after you left,” Bill said, his face reflecting a deep sadness. ”I think she knew it was her time and she didn’t want you to worry or feel depressed. She made me and your Aunt and Uncle promise to keep her death a secret, at least, until you came back.”

“She also made me promise to make and give you this gift,” he said wearily.

“It took me some time to look for my oils and for a decent enough canvas frame, but I knew how she felt about you, and I wanted to give you something that would always touch your heart with her love when you saw it,” Bill said with finality.

In front of Sarah stood a painting of herself as a young woman, beautiful and smiling and next to her was a vase filled with gloriously red hibiscus flowers.

© 2020 Gregory Floro