Old Enough for Roses

by Virginia Hughes

Mrs. Coffelt was an angry bird long before the game was known. She attended church which my father pastored. When she didn’t make it to church she would say, “My bursitis and hemo-goblins been acting up.” When she came to church, she liked to stand during testimony time and complain about what was wrong with the world, the weather and worse. None of us were glad she had read and memorized, The Late, Great, Planet Earth, to round out her testimony with the doom of Armageddon. She asked my brother Richard to come help in her garden; she would pay for his help. I came along hoping some nickels would fall into my pocket if I helped weed too.   

When she said garden, we thought she’d have a few perennial borders like Mom had. We were instantly moved by the beauty of Mrs. Coffelt’s entire yard, a lovely masterpiece bursting with bloom.  I thought Mrs. Coffelt’s garden the antithesis of herself. The word “antithesis” had been a spelling word in sixth grade that week, and I found the word to be so interesting, I sought examples in the world around me. I had walked into a living example of antithesis as I compared everything I knew and could see about Mrs. Coffelt with the magnificent garden we beheld. She was gloomy, grizzly and grumpy, while the garden looked bright, beautiful and blissful. “Don’t stand there gawking while the weeds bury us!” She snapped, jumping us out of our wide-mouthed reverie. She quickly cussed at a weed she called “rose moss,” and after swallowing our surprise at her strong language, we set to work removing it from between her prized dahlias.  

Back then I thought “rose moss” a type of rose; so I took some home to Mother. She told me it wasn’t in the rose family, but it wasn't a weed either. It was a succulent, Portulaca grandiflora, common name: moss rose. We found a droughtishy place to plant it in the edge of Mom’s border where it thrived in shades of yellow, pink, and orange.

Over the summer, Mrs. Coffelt sent divisions of aster, columbine, delphinium, dianthus, foxglove, hibiscus, hollyhock, hosta, peony and other plants home with us to Mother’s garden, and Mother's garden grew into a lush space with the generous gifts.

Once when I was admiring Mrs. Coffelt’s roses, she nearly bit my head off. “Stand clear. You keep away from those, girl. You are too young for roses!” I turned away and Richard kindly whispered that it was probably the thorns. She didn’t want me to get hurt by them. Richard was often doing something for the roses. Pruning, watering, spraying with a mixture of water and milk, a home-brew to deter blackspot, or pouring smelly fertilizer around their bases. I shrugged and dug out a dandelion. 

At home, Dad had trained us to dig deeply when digging out dandelions. Pennies matched the length of the dandelion’s root we dug up. I hoped Mrs. Coffelt had a similar reward system respectful to a weed’s root size, and enthusiastically held up the long root exclaiming it was worth at least a nickel. She scolded me for carelessly letting the downy seeds escape and fly away to plant a thousand more dandelions where that ONE had been. I could not please her.

My faith was tested in the beautiful garden, I was weak and in my heart I fell. Back home, I insisted I would not return to suffer Mrs. Coffelt.  “Aren’t you going to help your brother?” Mom asked. “Do I have to go back there? She is so mean,” I answered. “She is a lonely, unhappy woman, dear. She has lost both her son and her husband. She needs a smile in her life. It would be real nice if you could show her the love of Jesus by helping her.” I stated that Mrs. Coffelt was impossible. “But Jesus loves her and this is a way to show his love. She telephoned today and said how pleased she was. How you two work well together and help her so much. She almost had happiness in her voice when she asked that you both please be sure to be there tomorrow.” I retorted that it wasn't fair; how she didn’t pay us! Not one penny. She said she would, but she hadn't.  Mother said that Mrs. Coffelt may not have money to pay. I lamented how we sweated in the hot sun, got covered in soil and itched all day. She didn’t even say thank you, but always, “See you early in the morning,” as if she owned us.

Many years later when I started to garden in my own yard, I planted easy blooming shrubs like hydrangea, lilac and magnolia. Dependable Perennials. I avoided roses. The attention they require. They are too fussy. The pruning. The thorns. The bugs and every terrible disease that plague roses. No thanks.

Then a rose company sent me its colorful catalog last winter. My heart melted while the snow was piled high. I learned there is a whole world of roses I knew nothing about. There are disease resistant roses, a winter hardy collection with no need of protection. Roses that grow in the shade, and even few with no thorns. I planned all winter, and then ordered roses in the spring. When they finally arrived, I followed all the directions: Dig a hole two feet by two feet. Mix bone meal with peat moss, regular soil and humus, put aged manure in the bottom of the hole. Water with Alaskan fish fertilizer. A banquet of bones, blood and stench. So often beauty rises from ashes; death and sacrifice lead to something new and beautiful. So macabre. Like the sacrifice for our salvation. Lessons from the garden never cease.

The next morning, my rose garden was ransacked. The small rose plants lay tossed beside large holes dug even deeper than my original ones. There wasn’t much space between holes. Who did this? A starving mother coyote nursing her pups? Raccoon? Skunk? It could have been an alien encounter where a spaceship landed. Jack and the Beanstalk’s giant had “Fee-fi-fo-fummed,” and stomped around. Something smelled the bone meal and thought it a carcass.

I gently pushed all the roses back into place. I raided the garage for lawn chairs and screens. I built a mighty fortress around the roses and it looked hideous. I felt like Mr. MacGregor yelling, “Stop thief!” to Peter Rabbit as I wielded my shovel and declared war on all critters who entered here. These are my roses. Stay out of my garden. I fell into the abyss with murder in my heart. I was an angry bird. I unwittingly paraphrased mankind’s fall in Genesis. All that work and planning, and some undeserving creature just waltzed in and messed up my beautiful creation in one night. No regard for my back breaking work at all. I couldn't take it. I was too young for roses. I may always be too young for roses.

I threatened to never return to the first angry bird’s garden, but I went back to Mrs. Coffelt’s garden with my brother that next day. We shared an old army canteen of Dad’s that we had filled with cold water. Mrs. Coffelt hadn’t shown herself in the garden that day, but we figured she was watching us from the house. We tried not to rest too long when we took a drink from the trusty canteen.

Mrs. Coffelt finally came into the garden and told us to wash up in the hose. I was relieved. I hoped she was sending us home for good. We sat at her patio table, and she brought out homemade cookies and cold lemonade. She had coins jingling in her apron pocket, and explained how she had been looking for the jar of chore coins for weeks. It was under the kitchen sink way in the back. “I must’ve put it back under that old sink years ago to hide it from my son. I used to pay him for the tougher chores out of the jar.”

She put several quarters in front of Richard. She put a whole handful of nickels in front of me. She carefully wrapped our coins in a clean handkerchief as she warned me to save my money. How did she know I was already calculating how many vanilla phosphates I could buy? How many afternoons of admission to the local pool without scrounging pop bottles for their return at the local store? Then she told us we could have the rest of the day off, but to be back bright and early tomorrow morning. Most shocking of all, she said, “Thank you children.”  

We raced home and Mom smiled brightly at our report, “I’m so glad you went back. You two are helping Mrs. Coffelt with a lot more than her gardens you know.”

Back in my own garden of the present, after a week of tripping over my own fortress to keep the digging critters OUT of my roses, I calmed down. I put the chairs and screens away. I didn't want to remain angry in the middle of my beautiful garden. While I was already losing at the very beginning, there were lessons to be learned. I had been foolish using bone meal so liberally in springtime. It called out to the hungry critters from the ground. I could not give up so easily or I wasn't a gardener at all. The original gardener had a plan for redemption when we fell back there in Eden. Where punishment rained down, there was a cloak of mercy. There were rivers of grace. Reflecting on truth fills one’s mind in the garden.

I didn't have angels with flaming swords to guard the roses, so instead, I spread a stealthy circle of Sriracha sauce around the perimeter of the garden, and around the base of each rose. The roses would be protected by hot pepper’s fire until they grew taller. They all bloomed and thrived this summer. The next test is surviving their first  winter. Since I planted the tough, hardy kind, I’m not going to worry when I can pray. Time has passed and I may finally be old enough for roses.