Wildflowers

Elke never expected Walt Whitman to help her deal with her loss.

Flowers
(Shutterstock)

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In the weeks when I lay in bed, I often dreamed of Nonnie’s garden in Sweden, a wild, tumbling place full of colors, smells, and birdsong.

That morning I dreamt Nonnie and I were digging side by side in the meadow. I wore the white felt cap embroidered with roses she had made for my sixth birthday, which tied under my chin with red ribbons; she wore her straw sunhat. The air was heavy with the fragrance of honeysuckle and the buzzing of bees.

I put my bare hands into the damp soil, teased the tangled roots with my fingers, and felt the worms and grubs gliding by, like fish underwater. Nonnie smiled at me and I smiled back. Her face, with its mischievous brown eyes and pointed chin, was vivid, clear, and alive.

* * *

“Elke!” Jan shook my shoulder. “Telephone. Shall I tell them to call back?”

I was disappointed at being wrenched out of my dream. “No, I’ll take it.”

It was a woman named Jessica Vole, whom I didn’t know. She was in charge of the Walt Whitman Birthplace and Visitor’s Center, a historic site an hour west of us on Long Island. There was going to be a Bicentennial Birthday Bash for Whitman at the end of May, and poets were flying in from California, the Midwest, and even London. Their regular gardener wasn’t available to tend to the lilacs and do some additional planting.

“You’ve been highly recommended, Mrs. Anderson. Can you come?” she said.

Jan was standing near my bed with his arms folded.

“I’ve been, um — it’s not really a good time —” I began.

“This is Walt’s special birthday, Mrs. Anderson,” Jessica said. “Newsday is coming. Everything needs to be just right. Please say you’re available!”

“Let me check my calendar,” I said. Jan mouthed the word no.

“Yes,” I found myself saying. “How about later this morning?”

We argued about it, Jan and I. I’d been told to rest for at least four weeks, and it had barely been three. But I needed to do what Nonnie had taught me to do. I’d always believed I had her magic touch for making things grow. Now I wasn’t so sure.

“I’m going with you, Elke,” Jan said firmly. “You’re in no condition to do this alone.”

“Don’t you have a job today?”

He looked down, shrugged. “They can get someone else.”

“They can, but they won’t.”

Jan was the best electrician on the North Fork, and everybody knew it. He was careful, picky, but also creative and easy to work with.

“I’ll be fine. It’s a small job. Really,” I said. “I’ll be home before you are.”

My jeans were too tight to zip up, so I put on yoga pants and an old flannel shirt of Jan’s. While I was dressing, he brought me a tray with coffee, oatmeal, and buttered toast with marmalade. A peace offering.

I felt a twinge of pain from my incision as I bent down to put on my gardening clogs, but made sure not to show it. On my way out the door, I took Nonnie’s straw hat off the peg and slapped it onto my unwashed hair.

I blinked in the bright April sunshine. Spring had crept in during the weeks when I was resting. The air was laced with honeysuckle, and a robin on the lawn seemed to say, “Welcome back to Life!” Crocuses and daffodils, mostly volunteers, had popped up on the grass. I began to load the truck.

“Let me do that, Elke,” Jan said, taking the ladder from me. I filled my wooden gardening box with spades, clippers, gloves, fish blood, bone fertilizer, and neem oil — in case the lilacs had aphids — while he went to get the tarps from the shed.

I tried not to look up at the second-floor window, but a breeze lifted a corner of the eyelet curtain like an unseen hand, stirring the mobile over the crib, which revolved slowly, playing a few tinkly notes of You Are My Sunshine. I avoided that room. But when I passed by on the way to the bathroom at night, I’d see Jan sitting on the bed, weeping. I hadn’t cried, not once. I kept the tears bottled inside. Eventually they would evaporate, I was sure of it. Sometimes Jan would try to hold me, but I pushed him away.

* * *

As I pulled the truck out of the driveway, Jan receded in the rearview mirror, a scarecrow figure in ragged jeans and bare feet.

Three years before, he had come to my old house in Laurel to rewire the place. The only thing we had in common was he was Swedish American too. I’d gone to Smith, loved poetry and Brahms. He’d started working as an electrician’s assistant after high school, loved the Arctic Monkeys and played the harmonica. But he understood electricity and wires the way I understood plants. Understood me. I’d been surprised by his insight, his sensitivity, his gentleness as a lover. He was twenty-six and I was thirty-four, but he was an old soul, the only son of elderly Swedish parents.

Since eighth grade I’d been conspicuously tall and white-blonde, the one with a bra size double-D. “ELK” had been scrawled on the bathroom stall with a picture of a deer with a large rack, except not on its head. But I wasn’t like that. I was a serious, thoughtful girl who desired nothing more than to be loved for who I was. Jan was the only man I’d ever known who saw me this way. Or didn’t see me that way. When we were dating, he cooked köttbullar — Scandinavian meatballs — and put a heating pad on my side of the bed on cold nights. He could be unexpectedly playful; one night he placed two chairs opposite one another and played the jaunty Swedish song “Ekmans Vals,” swaying in his seat, smiling into his harmonica, blue eyes shining with love. Our knees touched, and I felt an electric charge.

On our wedding day I wore a crown woven from myrtle leaves.

“Let’s make a baby, Elke,” Jan whispered that night.

It was a full moon. The timing was perfect, and a little seed began to grow. I looked like a goddess with a swollen belly, like The Birth of Venus by Botticelli. A textbook pregnancy, the doctor called it. And now the irony. I, who exuded such conspicuous sexuality and implied fecundity, had failed in my basic biological mission. After a C-section, the baby was “born silent”; no one knew why.

“Sometimes these things just happen,” our obstetrician said.

* * *

Jessica Vole was pacing outside when I drove into the parking lot. She was older than she sounded on the phone, a hippie grandmother in a long prairie dress and Frye boots, with a gray braid and a pair of rhinestone-studded reading glasses hanging from a cord around her neck. As I got out of my car, the phone rang inside the visitor’s center, and she called over her shoulder, “Come in, Mrs. Anderson. Gary will show you around.”

Inside, I overheard Jessica on the phone. “Let me look in my book,” she said, tapping a page with a putty-colored nail. “I can give you a tour at one o’clock. How many? All right.” When she hung up, the phone rang again. “I can give you a tour at two o’clock …”

She was surrounded by a few gift shop items: mugs with Whitman quotes, T-shirts with his picture on them, and copies of Leaves of Grass. Unpacked boxes were stacked on the counter.

I wandered into the visitor’s center, a circular room with hundreds of photos of Walt Whitman. “Turkey in the Straw” played over the loudspeakers as I looked at the poet: here, a young man in a linen shirt, cocky in his wide-brimmed hat; there, resembling an elderly Santa Claus with a wiry, white beard. A photograph of Whitman with Lincoln in his top hat made me step in closer; one of Whitman holding a baby dressed in a lace gown made me turn away. Whitman’s eyes seemed to follow me: ice-blue, penetrating, his life force projecting through the camera, crossing time, distance, and space, as if he were going to say something. Just then a man’s voice came through the loudspeakers on a rhythmic ocean of static.

“America. Equal sons, equal daughters. All alike. Grown, ungrown …”

“That’s Walt reciting America.”

I jumped; Gary had come up behind me so quietly I hadn’t heard him. He was a few years younger than I, about Jan’s age, with thick, nut-brown hair and eyes the same color. He had a vacant, deer-caught-in-the headlights look and wore a long-sleeved yellow check shirt. It took me a minute to register that one sleeve was empty.

“When was that recording made?” I said.

“Eighteen eighty-nine, on a wax cylinder.” He leaned in closer. “One time I saw Walt’s ghost upstairs,” he said confidentially. “Wearing a brown suit.” He pointed to one of the photos. “Like that.” Whitman’s eyes bored into me. I didn’t believe in ghosts.

Jessica bustled over. “I’ll show you around the grounds, Mrs. Anderson. Gary, unpack those boxes, will you?”

I followed her through the glass doors into the yard. Ahead was the house where Walt Whitman was born in 1819 and had lived until he was four years old. I’d expected it to be humble and rustic, but it was large, with cedar shingles and white, painted shutters.

“Gary can’t do the simplest thing.” Jessica said. “We’ve had many interns over the years, but he’s the worst.” She wiped her rhinestone glasses on her dress.

“What happened to his arm?” I said.

“He used to ride a motorcycle. He was wild, hanging out with the wrong crowd, drinking and smoking pot all the time.” She clucked her tongue. “It was a rainy night, and he took a curve too fast. He nearly died.”

I looked through the sliding glass doors at Gary sitting behind the desk, surrounded by boxes. Clearly the accident had affected more than just his arm.

Jessica showed me the garden that bordered the house.

“Wildflowers — just what Walt loved. Our gardener planted the varieties he mentioned in Specimen Days — wild pea, larkspur, elderberry, and pansies, which he called ‘heart’s ease.’”

“They’re being crowded and choked by weeds,” I said, frowning.

She smiled, the way superior people do. “That’s why we hired you, Mrs. Anderson. And here,” she said with a swirl of her hand, “are the lilac bushes.”

They were next to the house, as tall as the second story, with branches as thick as my arm. I turned over a few leaves.

“They have aphids.” I pointed to a cluster of green bumps.

Jessica didn’t seem to hear me, because she was staring rhapsodically at the lilac bushes.

“These plants were here when Walt was born,” she said. “Do you know the poem ‘When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,’ written after the death of Lincoln? Well, these are the very lilacs. And that” — she pointed — “is the very dooryard.”

I didn’t tell Jessica that the purple buds with aphids weren’t going to open unless they were cleaned up. Or that their regular gardener had been asleep on the job. Setting up the ladder, the neem oil, and some cotton balls, I put on my gloves and began the detailed work of wiping down each affected leaf. Once treated, the leaves seemed to sigh and uncurl.

A tall, stockade fence separated the Whitman homestead from a four-lane highway. The swish of cars was never-ending. Beyond the highway was a cluster of rectangular buildings, the tallest of which said SAKS FIFTH AVENUE. This was the Walt Whitman Mall, named without irony. A granite plaque next to the house apparently had been put there so the house wouldn’t be accidentally demolished.

I thought of Nonnie’s garden. When I was ten she had died, and her property in Småland, outside Stockholm, had been sold to developers. I had cried myself to sleep when I heard this, picturing the gigantic claws of the backhoes turning under the foxgloves and spider plants and stone paths, scattering the wild birds and rabbits and field mice. The little Swedish cap Nonnie had made was too small by then, but I’d taken it out of my drawer and clutched it to my heart.

It was still in my drawer, wrapped carefully in tissue paper. I’d imagined another little girl wearing it.

* * *

After a few minutes Jessica passed by, trailing a gaggle of teenage girls dressed in Catholic school uniforms. They entered the house, giggling and whispering. Jessica had a loud, grating voice and the windows were open, which made it easy to eavesdrop on the tour. I listened as she described the Dutch door, whose top half opened so Mrs. Whitman could watch her children playing outside; the paint color, Prussian blue; the steps, closer together at the top, so a person carrying a candle upstairs wouldn’t trip; the parlor, looking out on the lilacs; and the room upstairs where Walt Whitman’s parents slept. The ropes that supported the mattress constantly needed to be tightened; Jessica said this was the origin of the expression, “Sleep tight, don’t let the bedbugs bite.” The girls giggled.

Cotton ball, neem, wipe, discard. Branch, leaf, bud …

At first Gary was a shadow over the lilac bush. Then he was peering at me intently. “Do you want to hear the poem?”

“All right.”

He recited in a sing-song voice:

When lilacs last in the dooryard bloomed,

And the great star early droop’d in the western sky in the night,

I mourn’d, and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring …”

I thought about how they had brought my daughter to me in a white dress with a satin rosette around her head. The babies in the other rooms were screaming, but Annika was a perfect angel. Her eyes were closed as if she were sleeping. I prayed she would come back to life. Prayed like a fool.

Gary’s hand was on my shoulder. “The poem makes me cry too.”

“I’m not crying,” I said. It’s just the neem. It’s worse than raw onions.”

Jessica came charging across the lawn. “Gary, get those boxes unpacked! What have you been doing all day?”

“He was reciting the poem for me,” I said.

“Get inside and unpack those boxes immediately!” she shouted, waving her hands. Defeated, sleeve blowing in the breeze, Gary crossed the lawn.

“You’re pretty hard on him,” I said. “Maybe he can’t help it.”

“I know that,” she said. “He can’t remember what happened five minutes before. He can recite every line of every poem he learned when he was a little boy, but can’t make new memories. They only keep him on here as a favor to me.”

“It doesn’t sound like much of a favor,” I said.

She stared at me in the waning light. “He’s my son,” she said.

The tours were done for the day. Now it was only Jessica, Gary, and me. It had taken longer than I expected to clean up the lilacs. My back ached and my scar throbbed, but I didn’t want to have to drive back again, so I moved on to the wildflower beds. To save time I yanked the weeds out with my bare hands, careful not to disturb the other plants. I pictured Nonnie’s hands, wrinkled and roped with veins, but strong and efficient. Inside the visitor’s center, Jessica began to scold Gary. First she called him a worthless ingrate, then she told him how much she’d sacrificed for him. When she shrieked, “I wish you had never been born!” I stood up, took off my gardening gloves and apron, and marched across the lawn to give her a piece of my mind. But when I was halfway across, Jessica and Gary came through the sliding glass doors. They were walking toward me together, wearing their coats.

“We’re leaving now, Mrs. Anderson,” Jessica said politely.

Dumbfounded, I looked from Jessica to Gary. He was smiling as if nothing had happened.

“I’m — I’m not quite finished,” I said.

Jessica handed me a key. “Take your time. Lock up when you’re done. You know the statue of Walt with the butterfly out front?”

I nodded.

“Leave the key on Walt’s pinky. I have your address, and I’ll send you a check. Gary has something to give you.”

She nudged him, and he handed me a paper bag. In it was a mug with the words:

We were together. I forgot the rest.

Walt Whitman

As they walked away, Jessica held Gary’s good arm. My phone rang. It was Jan.

“How are you, my dear?” I knew he meant “my deer.” His pun.

“I’m fine,” I said. “How was the rewiring?”

“Good thing I came. They had done it themselves. They might have been in for a shock.” A pause. “Come home, Elke. I need you.” His voice was husky. “How long will you be?”

“At least another hour, I’m afraid.” I said. “Maybe longer.”

I promised to call when I was leaving.

By now it was dusk. The shoppers at the mall seemed to be taking a break. The evening stars came out and a thrush sang in the tree. I worked by lamplight, weaving fresh mulch into the soil, sprinkling seeds like fairy dust in the bare spots, pressing them down with my thumb. By Walt’s birthday the wildflower bed would be in full bloom. I took the hose and watered well, setting the spray to gentle, so it wouldn’t disturb the slumbering seeds. The lilac bushes looked greener and lusher, as if they had been to a spa. One of the high branches had a few early blossoms on it, and I clipped it, wrapped it in a damp rag, and placed it in my gardening box.

I tried to call Jan to tell him I was on my way, but my phone was dead. I felt exhausted and hungry, and needed to use the bathroom before I set out on the long trip home. Opening the front door to Whitman’s house with the key Jessica had given me, I went inside. There was no electricity, but I found matches and candlesticks on the mantel. I peered curiously at the Dutch door, the stairs, and the hearth. No toilet downstairs. I carried the candle upstairs, a small halo of light illuminating my way.

The bathroom was tucked away in a corner of Walt Whitman’s parents’ bedroom. Passing by the bed with its tufted white coverlet on my way out, I was overcome by the urge to lie down. The mattress bounded softly, receiving me. I covered myself with the crocheted throw.

Footsteps in the hall woke me. I sat up, terrified. The candle was guttering in the dish. I expected to see the ghost of Whitman in the brown suit, eyes like two holes in the gauzy darkness. But someone came into the room and sat down on the bed. It was Jan.

“Elke. Are you all right?” he said, pushing a damp strand of hair off my forehead.

“I — I just had to lie down for a minute,” I said. “I thought you were a ghost.”

“Not a ghost. Only a worried husband.”

“How did you find me?” I said.

“When you didn’t answer your phone, I decided to come. The door was open, and I found you sleeping on the bed, like Goldilocks.” He held up a large paper sack. “Are you hungry? Look what I brought.”

Jan pulled out two bottles of beer, some cold chicken, and some soft, buttered rolls, and laid them out on the bed like a picnic. He wouldn’t let go of my hand, so I ate with one hand and so did he. After throwing the chicken bones and empty bottles into the sack, he kissed me over and over on the ancient, creaking bed.

“We have to tighten the ropes so the bedbugs don’t bite,” I said.

“What?” He sat up in mock horror. “There are bedbugs?”

“Never mind.”

We held each other, and then I was sobbing into his chest.

“My deer,” he said. “Let it out. Let it out.”

“It’s not that,” I said. “There was this boy, this young man. He lost an arm, and his mother — his mother —”

“There, there,” he said. “It’s going to be all right.”

He drove home in his car and I followed him in my truck. Each time a car came between us, he pulled over and waited for me.

* * *

Later that night I went into Annika’s room with the lilac sprig and the little Swedish cap. The room was full of moonlight, and the carpet felt soft under my bare feet. A breeze stirred the eyelet curtain, and the mobile revolved. You … are … my … Then, silence.

Gently, I put my offerings into the empty crib.

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Comments

  1. What a beautiful work. The cadence of the prose beats gently, like a lyric spoken, not sung. It carried me along like a song, to the last beat. Tears.
    Brava, Ms. Hubbard. Brava, and thanks. Onward. When will the Post be publishing your follow-up? Very soon, I hope.

  2. Hi Alison,
    Just read over lunch. Had to stop a few times, throat choked up. Just a beautiful story. Clean prose interwoven with painterly details. I, too, don’t cry so I particularly liked the way you handled that emotion. Congrats. Best, Linda

  3. Dear Mr. McGowan,

    Thank you for your kind and thoughtful words. I’m sorry your friends have suffered this terrible loss, but I’m sure sure your friendship is a comfort to them.

    Best Wishes, Alison Hubbard

  4. This is a story well told. Timely and timeless at the same time. I know a couple who lost a daughter, about to turn two, 6 years ago almost to the day. Her name was Chloe. They put her to bed as normal the night before, and she passed away some time during the night. No discernible (pre-existing) reason at all.

    This week she would have turned 8. They have an older daughter that’s 11, but it’s tough. They’ve learned not to feel guilty about feeling happy during good times which are few and far between now anyway, of course. We have to try and re-frame the loss as the child is with God, watching over you from beyond, keeping you safe in this life, and eventually will be reunited again. It gets less difficult with time, over all. Sometimes feeling long ago, other times like it just happened, and you’re back to square one.

    I think one of the strongest elements here is Elke’s reaction to hearing Jessica berate her son, Gary, knowing that she nearly lost him in the motorcycle accident on that curved road, even though he ‘only’ lost an arm. I was able to picture the scenes from your painting it all so well with words. Who’s to say Walt Whitman’s spirit didn’t follow Elke and her husband home, and hasn’t been a source of comfort to them ever since? Thank you, Ms. Hubbard.

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