“Well, as long as I don’t have to suffer that landlord,” Mrs Sussman said reluctantly. “But please don’t ask me to come again until you’ve moved.”
Despite the horrible prospect of living on a building site, Shifra and Baruch decided to move to the house at once. Anything to have peace of mind and to hang onto Mrs Sussman! It was difficult to keep the children out of the workmen’s hair and away from the building materials, but Shifra was convinced it was worth it.
“Tova and Shimmy can stamp and jump and scream as much as they like,” she told Baruch. “The workmen don’t seem to care. And Chavi has discovered grass!” She laughed lightheartedly. She didn’t mention Shimmy’s adventure with the bag of dry plaster compound or the very thorough shower she had had to give Tova.
Over the next two months Mrs Sussman babysat from time to time whenever Shifra needed to supervise the work more closely. In fine weather, though, and it was a beautiful summer, Shifra took the children outside and let them run around and explore. It felt as if they had their own private adventure playground.
For Shifra it was also a chance to follow the passage of the season in the garden, to learn which flowers appeared when and to discover how the plantings worked together. She strolled along paths lined with unknown shrubs spilling over onto the walks, under an arbor, past a couple of shade trees (she couldn’t identify them yet)…one day she found an hour while the baby slept to hunt out the lawnmower and trim the grass, and discovered a perfect corner to stand in to admire the effect.
“It’s just beautiful, Baruch,” she told him that night.
“For what I’m paying for that kitchen, I hope so!” he retorted.
“Oh – the kitchen is marvelous, too, and I love using it – but I meant the garden,” Shifra explained with sigh of bliss.
“You and that garden! And those books – ”
“Does it bother you? I’m sorry –”
“No, I’m not really bothered, I guess, though I wish you spent as much time finding a job as you do with those gardening books every night. We’re spending so much on the house. But I’ve never seen you so enthusiastic, raving about that garden…”
“You’ll love it, too, when you have more than four seconds to look at it,” Shifra promised. “It looks double the size, now that I’ve cut the grass. There’s a place for a hammock – you can lie there with a sefer when it’s hot. In wet weather you can sit on the downstairs porch and learn – and I know just where to put the swing set.”
“What swing set?”
“The one we’re going to buy for the kids, at the end of the season when they’re on sale.”
“On sale? The kids?”
Shifra giggled. “The swing set.”
Fortunately, Baruch forgot to complain about the prospect of spending even more money.
By the time the work was finished, and they had settled and unpacked (again – they had only moved to the apartment a year before), it was already after the Yomim Noraim. A new carpool to take Tova to school; a different route for taking Shimi to playgroup; different teenage girls nearby to babysit in the evening. At last, though, most of the cardboard boxes were empty and the closets were full, and Shifra was beginning to feel that she really did have a new home. The house was just big enough for them, for now. And the kitchen really was a delight.
She still hadn’t made friends, though. On the other hand, she was so taken up with the house and garden that she hardly missed them. Yet.
All through late spring and summer, and now into fall, Shifra had watched the garden change, walking around outside or simply gazing through the window as she washed dishes. Outlines and perspectives altered, especially now that the leaves were turning and starting to drop. More than pleasure, Shifra was now feeling respect for the designer of such a varied planting. This was someone worth knowing.
I’ve put it off for way too long, she told herself. For all I know she may not be with us any longer. I’ve got to visit Mrs Mottram. If they let me.
“Can you babysit this afternoon, Baruch?” she asked one Shabbos in late October. “I want to walk to Sunnyfields. It’s only about twenty minutes away. I shouldn’t be gone more than an hour.”
“Sunnyfields?” Baruch asked. “You know somebody there? I thought the place was more Jewish-flavor than actually kosher.”
“It probably is,” Shifra admitted. “But I want to try to talk to Mrs Mottram, the lady who owned our house.”
“You may not be welcome.”
“I know. But I still want to try.”
The weather was crisp and dry, and Shifra enjoyed the walk, carefully avoiding thinking about Sunnyfields. What if the staff were as antagonistic as Mrs Owen? What if Mrs Mottram didn’t match her garden?
“Oh, you’re the one Mrs Owen warned us about,” remarked the receptionist, giving Shifra a wary look when she introduced herself and asked for Mrs Mottram. “You won’t upset Mrs Mottram, will you? And you won’t stay too long?”
Shifra promised dutifully and was escorted to a bright suite in what was obviously a new wing of the building.
“Mrs Mottram?” she asked as she entered.
Seated in a chintz-upholstered armchair, a frail old lady with a halo of white hair raised her head, revealing bright, dark eyes and an alert, almost challenging expression on her face.
“Who are you?”
“Shifra Levenberg. I’ve – ”
Leaning forward stiffly, Mrs Mottram looked at her with suspicion. “Are you a friend of Joyce’s?” she demanded.
“Joyce Owen. My daughter.”
“Oh – no, not at all.” Nothing, Shifra thought, was less likely, but it seemed churlish to say so.
“Well, that’s reassuring,” said Mrs Mottram, relaxing into the chair again. “I don’t get on with her and I can’t imagine liking her friends any better. Do you know Raymond or Arnold, then?”
“No. I don’t even know who they are. I – ”
“Wonderful!” said Mrs Mottram. “I can’t imagine how I came to have such commonplace sons. Thankfully, none of my children live locally. But then how do you know me? I’m a little forgetful these days, but even so – ”
“Oh, you don’t know me at all! But I’ve just bought your lovely house – it’s a wonderful little period piece, with the porches and the cupola and the gingerbread and fretwork, but of course you know that, don’t you? – and I’m –” Shifra broke off, sternly ordering herself not to babble.
“Go on.” Was there a shade of amusement in the sharp old face?
“Well, I’m just crazy about your garden. I always wanted a garden, and yours is a dream come true,” Shifra gushed, hating herself but unable to restrain her tongue. “And I’ve been reading all your books, but – ”
“Your gardening books. I was so pleased to find them when we moved in. But I wanted to learn about the garden from the person who planted it…” Her voice trailed off. It did sound awfully lame, Shifra thought with embarrassment. “Would you mind very much?”