Open Arms

“Welcome,” Aunt Lucy shouted from her front porch, waving my family into the front door.  She wore crispy pressed slacks, a bright floral print top, a shiny silver necklace, and dress shoes with heels shaped, in my mind, like skewers; her usual attire.  Her shiny black hair was neatly tucked into her traditional bun.  Despite her formal appearance, however, she was the friendliest of my relatives, and the only one who treated me as if I were more than a moron.

Standing before my aunt, staring at my too large oxfords, I whispered, “Hi.”

After pulling me to her chest with a suffocating hug, Aunt Lucy said, “Come on in.  I just turned on the television so you children could watch cartoons.” Her smile lit up the sky, making me feel instantly at ease.

Not to be undone, my mother pulled her sister away. “I brought an apple pie that I made this morning.  Fresh picked apples, too.”  Taking the pie from my brother’s hands, my mother proffered the well-stuffed pie, which Aunt Lucy accepted with grace and dignity.

“We’ll have this for desert with a dollop of vanilla ice cream on top,” Aunt Lucy said as she stepped into the house. “Come on, children. The couch is waiting for you.”

Following Aunt Lucy’s receding form, my older brother, younger sister and I scrambled up the perfectly proportioned red brick steps, through the glistening dark wood front door, down a richly carpeted hall lined with fairly large, golden-framed paintings evenly hung, and into the formal front room.  I chose to sit on the right hand side of the baby blue overstuffed couch, my sister plopped into the middle, and my brother squeezed into the other end.  In front of us sat the largest television we had ever seen: much larger than our eight inch black and white cabinet model.  The cartoon had animals taunting each other into performing dangerous daredevil tricks while living to do them again.

I hated the cartoon. My brother was a big tease who always tried to get me to do things that were terrifying, especially if they involved heights, so even though I didn’t want to watch, I was transfixed.

My mother glided past the television, choosing to ignore the loud cartoons that we were never permitted to watch at home.  “Don’t move until I call for you,” she whispered.

“Obey your mother or you’ll be sorry” my father added.

When an aroma of fresh flowers filled the room I knew Aunt Lucy had returned. “They don’t have to sit here like statues.  Leave them be,” she said while cradling a huge bouquet of brightly colored roses.  “Children,” Aunt Lucy pronounced as if by royal decree, “my garden is in full bloom.  Please feel free to go out back whenever you grow tired of the television.”  With a dramatic turn, she flounced out of the room, the floral scent lingering long after the sounds of her footsteps faded away.

I looked at my siblings who were glued to the show.  “Do you want to go outside?”  Neither responded, so I arose and headed toward the door all while expecting them to change their minds.  When neither of them so much as twitched a muscle, I placed my hand on the knob, ready to turn and open.

I hesitated though when I thought I heard someone calling my name. Expecting parental chastisement to float through the air like a sinister magic carpet, I was frozen in place.  When nothing untoward occurred, I opened the massive door and stepped out into the warm sunny afternoon.

With surprising nonchalance considering the unexpected freedom, I skipped my twelve-year-old body onto the yard humming a silly tune that echoed my jubilant mood. The sky’s shocking blueness lifted my spirits, making me feel as if I could fly. I danced down the granite walkway that led to a paved road that lead deeper into the yard, not really having a plan in mind other than relishing the beauty of the day.

Aunt Lucy’s brand new black Cadillac regally sat in front of the garage as if occupying a throne.  Glistening with newly applied wax, the sun’s reflection nearly blinded me as I moved close enough to graze my fingertips along the driver’s door.  Withdrawing my fingers as if electrified, I looked over my left shoulder, expecting to find my mother standing on the steps glaring with the ferocity of a challenged lioness.  There was no one there.  Nevertheless, I stepped away from the enticing vehicle.

Continuing my journey I walked past tulips in a rainbow of colors, baby’s breath with its miniature white blooms, bird-of-paradise resembling a flock of long-legged birds readying for flight, and multicolored chrysanthemums with blooms larger than the pumpkins we carved for Halloween.  Butterflies of all colors and sizes danced from flower to flower, and huge bumblebees, deadly dangerous to my severe allergic reaction, hovered and buzzed with excitement.

As if having their own mind, my fingers brushed the pink petals of a fully opened rose, the feathery frills of a yellow tulip, and the knife-like edges of the bird-of-paradise.  Checking to make sure that no bees were inside, I leaned over a cantaloupe-sized chrysanthemum and inhaled, calling the scent to my heart.  As I strolled along through the meandering garden, I noticed the greenness of the recently cut grass, the blueness of the sky, and the freshness of the air.

Where the garden ended, a large green hedge stood, taller than my father and so dense that even with my face buried in its leaves, I could not see through. Hoping there was a concealed gate as in a storybook, I followed the contours of the hedge, filled with a sense of exploration.  I pushed aside likely looking branches here, got down on hands and knees there, leaned left and right, and jumped and bent down as I went, enjoying the intrigue.

About twenty steps along I found an ivy-covered wrought ironed gate, lifted the latch, cautiously pulled it open, and stepped into paradise.  Deep green hedgerows stretched far off into the distance: one to the left, clearly visible, and one to the right, seeming to spring from the very house itself.

Directly before me lay an expanse of verdant grass larger than the playground at school.  Neatly mowed into a series of diamond shaped patterns, the yard did not immediately invite trespassing.  Its surprising perfection cried out, “Don’t step on me,” as loudly as my father’s admonishing voice.

Not one object disturbed the grandeur of the lawn.  No carefully placed wooden benches, no picnic tables or umbrellas to block the sun.  No garden decorations like windmills or pink flamingoes.  Not even a bubbling fountain.  Here and there, however, growing with a randomness that implied careful planning, grew huge maple trees, leaves larger than a man’s hand.

Feeling as if I were entering heaven on earth, I took a hesitant step onto the carpet of grass, instantly sinking into its cushiony softness.  No alarms sounded, no shrieks of anger, no grating voices chastised me for my audacity, and so I took a few more cautious steps.  And then a few more.  Moving deeper and deeper onto the lawn, feeling almost suspended in time, I moved toward one of the trees, searching for the perfect place to disappear into the loveliness before me.

Once I stood under a dense umbrella of leaves, the temperature dropped. A cool breeze rustled my short-cropped hair, feeling as if gentle fingers caressed my scalp.  An unexpected feeling of safety washed over me, something I had never sensed before, and with that came a carefree abandon that sent me flying across the lawn, arms making airplane wings and a smile springing across my face.

I ran and ran until my chest heaved with exhaustion, and then I fell into the enticing carpet.  Cool blades of grass tickled my neck and arms.  A pungent smell filled my nostrils: a rich, earthy odor like something decomposing.  Not repulsed, I relished the unexpected depth of both aroma and grass, rolling over and over like tumbleweed across an empty highway.

That done, I sat up, wondering what new experiences awaited my discovery.  Imagining myself a conqueror of a newly discovered world, I boldly stood at attention. Birds hidden in the heights of the trees commanded me in a joyful carol, saying, “Look.  Look at us.”  Craning my neck to an uncomfortable degree, I spied a family of cardinals sitting majestically amongst a nest of sticks and string.  The babies’ open mouths screamed, “Feed me. Feed me.”  I laughed as the parents took turns blessing the young ones with gifts of food.

Called by a distant pecking, thinking it must be a woodpecker, I squinted my eyes in order to see better across the verdant lawn, and instead of seeing the bird, I discovered a fence that divided the backyard into two distinct areas.

To my inexperienced eye, it was as if two countries coexisted in this place; one country thriving in the area closest to the house, and a second one, less lush, just beyond the fence.  As I approached the barrier I discovered that Aunt Lucy’s immaculately groomed lawn gave way to a meticulously tended garden. Forgetting about the peck-peck continuing in the background, I gingerly stepped close, not knowing what to expect, or whether I was allowed to enter what appeared to be a safely guarded place.

Brick walkways wound through the back garden as if through a maze, enticing me to follow, much like Dorothy heading toward the Emerald City.  Entranced, I opened a frail wire gate and stepped from the coolness of the manicured lawn into the desert-like heat of the garden.  No grass grew here: only a rich brown soil mixed with smoothed stones meticulously placed along the edges of the path.  Plants of various sizes and shapes grew everywhere.

Some flowers I instantly recognized.  There were Queen Elizabeth roses and yellow daffodils, cyclamen and crocus in full bloom.  Peonies and tulips, golden poppies and pussy willows. Pink flowers with white stripes and white ones with red stripes. Tiny orange spikes and fringed yellow petals. Others were a beautiful mystery, combinations of exploding blossoms and oversized petals coexisting in a cacophony of color.

As far as the eye could see, flowers sprung from the dark soil, some inches high with miniscule flowers, others sky-high explosions of hue.  I wandered into the maze, gaping at the spectacle before me.

A rustling sound behind me startled me, causing me to spin around, eyes agape and mouth hanging open in a giant oval.  Nothing but a common starling which bounced from one place to another, stopping to peck at a miniature something on the ground, turning over pebbles and crunching fallen leaves as it searched for whatever tidbit it could find.  I watched the bird for several minutes, fascinated by its lack of inhibition at my nearness.

The bird was on the vegetable side of the garden where giant beefsteak tomatoes draped over wire cages and tiny cherry tomatoes sprouted out of clay pots.  Long stalks of onions huddled in clusters and green beans dangled from vines twisting up long poles.  Green leafy carrot tops sprung from the midst of meandering pumpkins, while blackberry and raspberry vines draped over wires held up by huge poles.

“Do you know what those are?” Aunt Lucy’s voice came from over my left shoulder. After shaking off the initial surprise of hearing a voice amidst the beauty,, I followed her pointing finger, seeing a strange looking vine with elephant-sized leaves covering a brick-enclosed plot.

“No.”

“It’s squash.  Spaghetti squash some people call it,” she said as she indicated a rather odd looking vegetable.  “And these are ornamental pumpkins.  You can’t eat them, but they look really nice as table decorations.  Here,” she said as she guided my hand to a really odd looking one. “Feel the smoothness of the squash’s skin.”

With her guidance, I touched purplish eggplant, ping-pong sized Brussels sprouts, clusters of cauliflower, and crisp Romaine lettuce.  I felt leaves as soft as fur and others sticky like glue. My hands traced twisting vines of pole beans, and I stared up at gargantuan sunflowers that turn with the sun.

We meandered around her garden, touching this, smelling that, picking off dead leaves, and sprinkling water on thirsty plants.  Much of the time we said nothing, for there was something about the uniqueness of the afternoon that called for silence.

Every step offered something new to see and touch and taste.  The sweetness of a fresh picked tomato contrasted with the bitterness of a not quite ready carrot.  The powdery smell of a rose was obliterated by the breath-taking pungency of a bright red geranium. I reveled in the sensory overload, the serenity, and the peacefulness of Aunt Lucy’s special world.

“Well,” Aunt Lucy said after setting her watering can on the ground near a tightly coiled hose.  “We had better go inside.  I think your parents want to leave right after dinner and your father will be getting fidgety  for food by now.”

“Okay.”

“Here,” she said as she plucked a deep red rose near the gate.  “Take this as a reminder of my garden.  When you look at it, think of the peace you found here.”

We stepped through the gate and onto the lawn leaving behind the wondrous place of growth.  Aunt Lucy reached for my empty left hand, squeezing it as if sharing a secret society’s code.  We strolled across the lawn, taking time to feel the bark of a tree, listen to the song of a bird, and smell the richness of the loam spaded around the base of a tree.  We arrived at the back door, still hand in hand.  My soul soared with happiness, despite carrying the knowledge that I would soon reenter my known world of rules and expectations, frustrations and tears.

Before we entered the house, Aunt Lucy stopped and knelt before me.  Staring deep into my eyes, she whispered, “I know that life isn’t always easy for you.  That sometimes you don’t feel loved.  That you cry yourself to sleep at night.”

“How do you know that?”

“When I was younger I lived with your parents well before they had children.  It was a rough time emotionally.  I felt unwanted, unloved, and misunderstood, like a flower in a field of weeds.”

“I feel like that.”

“I’ve told your parents that I want you to spend a weekend with me very soon.  Would you like that?”

I nodded as Aunt Lucy pulled me into a tight embrace and planted a soft kiss on my cheek.  She opened the door into her mudroom and waved me inside.  We cleaned off the bottoms of our shoes, brushed leaves and petals off  our clothes, and then entered her bright yellow kitchen.

Something wonderful smelling simmered on her stove and baskets of bright red apples, fist-sized oranges, and bananas as yellow as the sun lined her counters.  “Sit here,” she said, as she opened the refrigerator and pulled out a pitcher of lemonade.  After pouring me a glass, Aunt Lucy busied herself with the meal, humming a happy sounding song as she worked.

“What are you doing in here?” my mother’s harsh voice demanded.

I dropped my glass, spilling what remained of my drink.  Ducking just in time to avoid a blow to the back of my head, I scrambled off the chair and huddled next to my aunt’s sheltering form.

“Get out of this kitchen, you disobedient brat,” my mother screeched as her finger pointed the way back to the television room.

“Leave her alone.” Aunt Lucy pulled me close.

“Stay out of this,” my mother said.  “She disobeyed and will pay for it.”

“Really, it’s my fault.  I told her she could go outside.” She stared daggers at my mom. “Let’s eat dinner and then have a piece of pie.”

When my mother left, Aunt Lucy ushered me into the dining room.  “Sit here,” she said, “and don’t worry.  I’ll take care of everything.”

Dinner crept by with a painful slowness, marked only by the clank of a fork or the ping of a spoon.  My siblings and I said nothing as we ate, as expected.  My parents participated in what conversation there was, but tension filled the air, spoiling the meal.

I ate every bite, even the offensive peas that my father dollopped onto my plate.  Only once my plate was clean was I dismissed from the table and sent back to the television room to await my punishment.

My aunt walked me to the car holding my hand all the way.  Before I got into the backseat she hugged me, whispering, “I love you,” and then planted a kiss on my cheek.

As we pulled away I waved until her shape disappeared behind an oversized hedge.  Ignoring the painful thorns that punctured my fingers, I held my rose to my nose and pulled in its sweet aroma.

Throughout the entire drive home the rose reminded me of all had I experienced that day as a smile graced my face and a crimson glow lit my cheeks.

I promised myself that I would never forget the loveliness of that special place and time and the open arms that made me feel welcome and loved.

 

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