The Hamptons Rose
When I stopped by, she was sitting in the sunroom in a bright peach cotton robe and her pink plaid pajamas. Her sister and niece and the nurse were with her at the table under the hanging bleeding heart plant, surrounded by potted hibiscus. She was eating coffee ice cream for lunch, in a pretty china bowl, with a pretty silver spoon, her napkin had purple lilies on it.
We all sat there watching her shaky hand dig the spoon into the ice cream and we held our breath together as she got it to her mouth, each bite a victory. We watched and smiled and chatted about happy things. It was a perfect summer day in the Hamptons, the two hours of traffic it took me to get there notwithstanding. She asked if there were more chocolate cupcakes around, and then she looked up and said, “I’m going to take Melissa to the gardens and show her around. Just she and I. We’ll take the cart.”
So the hot pink golf cart was carefully driven as close to the house as possible and we pushed her across the wood-decked patio in her Burberry plaid wheelchair. It took the nurse and two of us to steady her, but she got her fluffy slippered foot up into the cart and hoisted herself into the seat. “Someone get me my sunglasses,” she instructed and three people ran at once to get them. I was terrified to drive the thing, as I never had and could only envision going too fast over a bump and her toppling out.
“Does someone else want to drive?” I tried.
“No darling, you can do it, it’s fun. And let’s put Mitzi right here, between us.”
So up Mitzi, the apricot rescue poodle I had found for her, jumped. She snuggled between us and laid her soft, curly head on my lap as I eased slowly onto the gas pedal. Carol was gleefully pointing toward the Willow tree, like a pirate off to overtake the biggest bounty ever.
Thankfully, the nurse trotted alongside us and we cruised down the green expanse of lawn, Hook Pond in view, toward the garden gate.
“That way, it’s the secret garden,” she giggled and poked me.
I pulled up beside the most magenta flowers I’ve ever seen. “Wow.”
“Dahlias” she pronounced. Waving her arm, she told me, “These are all my babies,” with the same pride as someone pulling a family photo from their wallet.
She made a move to get out of the cart. The nurse grabbed her arm and I jumped out to help.
“Are you sure? We can drive around the other side and look at it from there.”
“Let’s go in,” she said.
Her steps were wobbly and incredibly slow. The nurse braced her back from behind, while holding one arm. I squeezed in on the other side so she could lean on me as well. Instead she reached for a branch.
“That won’t support you Mrs. Mercer.” the nurse explained.
I just slipped my hand into hers and gave it a squeeze. She wrapped her fingers, with lavender painted nails, through mine.
About 2.5 steps in, we stopped to look around. Our eyes where flooded with color, yellow, pink, violet. Directly to our left was a section of orange butterfly weed. “If we just deadhead those a little, they’ll come back.” She reached out to feel the buds that had gone brown. I spotted some very perky periwinkle flowers along the perimeter.
“What are those called?” I asked.
“Platycodon,” she didn’t miss a beat, “Or balloon flowers. Cute, right?”
I noticed a group of tallish daisy sized yellow flowers with a dark center almost waving to us, from the far end of the garden.
Pointing, I asked, “Are those Black Eyed Susans?”
“Never.” she pronounced, a bit disappointed in me, “Sunflowers.”
“Of course,” I tried to redeem myself, “Those are my favorites, I just never saw small ones before.”
She tried to take another step.
The sun was high and she did not have a hat on. The nurse looked nervous about the narrow, uneven, mulch path.
“Remember we have to go back too,” she gently reminded her.
Carol shooed her away and went for a bigger step forward. I held on as tight as I could without squeezing her hand too hard.
“It’s so hot,” I added gingerly.
“You’re worried about me falling aren’t you?” She said it as if I was the one who needed to be protected.
“I just think the cart is more fun. Can we drive over to the roses?”
“Sure darling.” She was taking care of me now, but I didn’t mind, I just didn’t want her to fall, or pass out, or…
Faced with driving the cart in reverse to get us back around, I tell her to hold on and she looks like a child on a roller coaster ready for the big hill. We back up through the branches and for a nano-second we are both kids, full of the joy of speeding through a hanging Willow branch in a pink golf cart.
We near the roses, some of them are ‘finished’ for the season, but others are bright and plump. As I stop so we can admire them, I continue to travel, backwards to my youth. I am about ten years old, I am in a polka dot sundress and she is wearing flowered trousers, a chambray shirt and a big straw hat with a fabulously colored sash. She is crouched next to me reading the names of the different roses.
“Who names them?” I ask.
“The people who breed them,” she explains, and then she tells me about how roses are bred for color, size, scent, all sorts of things, and how there are contests and awards. She points to an apricot color rose and shows me the placard below – it reads “Lucille Ball”.
“Isn’t that wonderful?” she pushes the bloom to my nose for a whiff.
“That’s my favorite.” I tell her.
“Me too.” she says, and leads me further along the garden path.
Currently, 40 some odd years later, I am looking for a Lucille Ball rose, while simultaneously making sure the nurse is still nearby. Carol is surveying the scene from her perch in the cart.
“Do you remember the Lucille Ball roses?” I ask, happy to share my memory with her. Her face is blank, she doesn’t remember. I think about reminding her. But instead I push the pedal and we head onward on our adventure.
We drive the circumference of the property, slowing down to see the elephant ear leaves, the Echinacea and Milk Thistle, the Zen rock formation under a tall group of cedar trees, until finally we are back at the house and the nurse is locking the wheelchair in place for Carol’s return.
Stepping out of the pink cart, I feel like I’m getting off a magic carpet ride. A journey to the Secret Garden, where the flowers color a history of a young girl, entranced by a magical lady who makes everything pretty and special. And when the girl comes back to that garden as a grown woman, she finds a home in the Hamptons. A place to spend holidays, and summer barbeques, a place to come for dinner, and to share the little and the big events of a lifetime. I look at her now and I look back at the gardens. It’s all so glorious and so delicate.
I think about how we all grow our lives like a garden. Planting it with things we think will delight us. Some do, and some are duds. Some stay green all year and some go dormant but come back in cycles reminding us how much we love them. Others are with us only for a short time, but we remember them so vividly. Like everything worthwhile in life, the extent to which our garden thrives is in direct correlation to the love and care, the work we put in, getting into the dirt. We may have to move things around, pull the weeds, keep predators away, water and feed and allow it to grow in ways we may not have expected. To truly reap the beauty and sustenance of a garden you need to be present enough to see the butterfly land on the bush, breathe in the sweetness of the petals. And it’s really nice if our gardens have a tree, like the Willow, to anchor it all, like a family might, like Carol has for me.
I say my goodbyes, promising to come back later in the week. I will come more often now, and hope I’ll get another moment like this. I don’t know if I will. But I do know this, I will never confuse a mini sunflower for a Black Eyed Susan again and when I plant my own garden, there will be a rose named The Carol Mercer.