Throughout the winter Joyce kept strictly to the terms of the will. Twice a month she plowed through snow or sloshed down sidewalks awash with rain, or muffled up against subzero temperatures, to visit the garden that had been her mother’s. In December she made two visits early in the month.
“I don’t get on with children,” she remarked. “I thought I’d better come when they weren’t here. Before they’re off school.”
“You don’t like them, or you’re simply not used to them?” Shifra asked.
A year ago Joyce would have been positive that she loathed children; now, though, she hesitated. Could it be the same unfamiliarity that had colored her reaction to Orthodox Jews? “I don’t know,” she admitted. “But I’d rather not be pushed to find out.”
“I wouldn’t do that to you. After all, when you get married and have children of your own, you generally ease your way into being with them. Having one at a time, I mean.”
“Possibly,” Joyce returned, unconvinced, and continued to schedule her visits for times when the fewest children were at home. With the continuing cold weather, sitting indoors was the only sensible option, and Shifra’s youngest two, well-behaved as they usually were, made her want to shrink away into a corner. Grubby hands. Drooling mouths. Poking fingers.
“You’re a very neat sort of person, aren’t you?” Shifra asked.
“Organized. Competent. Disciplined,” Joyce corrected.
“The initials spell OCD,” Shifra smiled, only half-teasing.
Joyce bristled, then relaxed. “Well, maybe a little,” she admitted. “When I was working New York hours and trying to run a house, I didn’t dare let anything go.
It’s a lot easier, here. I have time for an occasional concert, or a trip to the museum…it’s nice.” She laughed, an abrupt, almost bitter sound. “My brothers would tell me I’m finally getting a life. They could be right.”
When Pesach approached, Shifra gave Joyce another schedule of “private” days.
Scanning the list, Joyce said, “I thought Passover was just the seder night.”
“No, it goes on for a week,” Shifra said.
Joyce looked up. “Why won’t you let me come on holidays?”
Busy removing the used coffee mugs, Shifra used the activity to cover her hesitation, reflecting that Joyce made her feel she had to tell the whole truth, no matter how unpalatable Joyce found it. Or how unpalatable Joyce’s response was, she thought with an inward sigh.
“For one thing,” Shifra said finally, “I didn’t think you’d be comfortable, seeing us do a lot of religious things. And also – well, you know we don’t drive on Shabbos or holidays – and we can’t be the cause of another Jew’s doing it, either. I know you won’t like that,” she added hurriedly, “but that’s how it works for us.”
“I could walk. It can’t be more than a mile.”
“That would be fine. No cheating, though; none of that famous ‘drive to shul but park around the corner so G-d won’t notice’ business.”
Joyce gave a short laugh. “No, I play by the rules. It’s your game. But I want to see more than the box the game comes in.”
“Oh…well, maybe it would be easier if you came one of the in-between days, when you don’t have the YomTov restrictions – ”
“No. I want the whole deal. I want to know what you religious people do.”
“Maybe the last day, when you don’t have to worry about keeping your matzo dry – ”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about, but No.” Joyce’s tone was firm. “I want to know the worst.”
Shifra spread her hands. “You will,” she said in resignation. “How about the second day, the daytime meal? Unless you’d like to come for a seder?”
“I’ll be with family.”
Shifra understood this to mean that Joyce would be out of town, probably flying back on the second day of Pesach. Nothing she could do about that. “Well, let’s make it the seventh day of Pesach, then. Around noon.”
“All right.” Reaching for her handbag, Joyce noted the date.
That evening Shifra conferred with Baruch. “You know, when I gave her the list of no-visiting days, I wish I could have told her not to come during Pesach cleaning, too,” she confessed to Baruch. “I can’t really afford that time with her. But it didn’t seem right.”
“I really don’t want her at any Yomtov meals. A frum guest, sure, but Mrs. Owen – not at my table. I’m not in the kiruv business. I don’t have all the answers. She doesn’t need you. She’s required to visit the garden.”
“Yes, but I have the feeling her mother meant me to get involved.” Shifra gave a little sigh. “It would have been helpful if she’d left clearer instructions.”
“Well, it’s certainly going lifnim mishuras hadin to have her for Yomtov!”
It was plain that Baruch felt he should have been consulted. “I’m sorry. It’s all those articles about kiruv – ” Shifra began.
“I thought you told me you didn’t expect her to become frum,” Baruch reminded her.
“Oh, I don’t! But if only we can change her attitude, make her feelings less negative…”
“So speaks the eternal optimist. Well, I suppose it’s only one meal. We should all survive,” Baruch said grudgingly.
All during Pesach cleaning and preparation for the Yomtov, Shifra worried that Baruch’s usual tolerance was going to be stretched to its limit. When the seventh day arrived, however, Baruch rose to the occasion. Shifra had never seen him so gracious, yet authoritative. He seemed determined not to let Joyce react badly, but to retain control of the situation if she did.
Between serving and clearing and seeing to the children, Shifra tried to explain about the extra days of Pesach, about the dry matzo, about kitnios. Content to be a guest, Joyce made no move to help, only listened attentively with an expression that appeared to combine amusement, scorn, and bewilderment. For his part,
Baruch did his best to answer Joyce’s questions as well as to keep the children interested with stories and guessing games about Pesach.
By the time Joyce left, both Shifra and Baruch were drained.
“Maybe kiruv just isn’t for us,” Shifra said, sinking into an armchair while the children ran around outside, the day having mercifully turned out sunny and dry.
“Maybe it’s easier if you have people who are genuinely interested. Joyce isn’t interested; she’s curious. Window-shopping.”
“Maybe.” Shifra was doubtful. “I think we ought to wait till the kids are older before we try again, though. I wonder what Joyce made of it all.”
Ten days passed before she found out.
“I’d have come earlier, but I needed to catch up at work,” Joyce explained, pulling the collar of her jacket close – the day was cloudy and not warm. She nodded at the garden. “Now that it’s really spring, would you like to take me around and tell me what’s coming up?”
Pointing out the snowdrops, crocuses and daffodils, all of which had passed their prime, Shifra went on to the dwarf apple and pear trees, laden with blossom.
“Oh – I meant to tell you,” she said suddenly, “I think you’ll want to finish by three o’clock – two classes are coming to make a blessing.”
“Flowering fruit trees in the spring. It’s a nice outing for the children, too.”
Shifra laughed. “I guess so.”
“And did you consider Passover ‘fun’?”
“Some of it. It’s a lot of work, but it’s nice.”
Joyce shook her head. “Nice,” she said. “Fun. I’m glad you let me come, but – better you than me.”
As the months passed, Shifra noticed that while Joyce had originally been inclined to sit uncommunicative, staring fixedly at the lawn and shrubs beyond the patio doors, she was becoming more sociable. Almost chatty, Shifra thought, with a mental start. Not friendly, not yet, but…more open.
“Do you think I could be getting somewhere?” she asked Baruch as she served him supper and took a seat opposite. He had come home late and had warned her to eat without him.
“Three hours of you twice a month? Sure,” he said cheerfully, and took another mouthful. “You’d wear down the Rock of Gibraltar.” Baruch swallowed. “Like the water on Rabbi Akiva’s rock. Any jobs recently?”
“No, but people don’t seem to think about gardens till spring.”
On a cold, gray day in April, the sort of day that leaves you doubtful that spring has come after all, Joyce asked Shifra to tour the garden with her again. “More things are coming up and coming into blossom and I don’t know what they are,” she said, but she seemed to have something else in mind. As they followed the path, Shifra naming the shoots and identifying the flowers, Joyce turned suddenly to ask, “What was my mother like to you?”
“How do you mean?”
“To me she was Mom. I don’t think I ever really saw her as a person. I left home so early, I guess I didn’t develop an adult relationship with her. So I want to know about her. Why was she so passionate about the garden? What were her interests? Who was she?”
Shifra looked around the garden, remembering the lawn buried under snow; the shrubs bowed down from burdens of snow that had not yet slipped off; the bare trees; the pink clusters of flowers on the viburnum defying the gloom of winter, and compared the picture with the fresh green of young leaves and new-sprouted plants.
She smiled. “Maybe I should use the garden to tell you about her.” She turned back. “The first thing that struck me was that she was a planner. She planned this garden so carefully! Flowers all through the year, even in cold weather. Balancing big, dramatic plants with plants with strong colors. A feel for which plants would complement each other.” She laughed. “And no vegetables!”
“So what does that tell me about her?”
“Your mother planned everything very carefully. She planned ahead – you can tell that some of the shrubs wouldn’t have looked like much when she put them in, but they’re mature, now, and give the effect she had in mind. Oh, and she never told you everything. She wouldn’t tell me that there were flowers in winter; she just told me I’d be surprised. Like she planted little secrets as well as plants, and left them for you to find.”
“Well, patience, I guess. You have to be patient when you garden. I’m not. I had to learn. And not having vegetables – that was practicality. I remember her saying, ‘Why grow things I can buy in the supermarket for less?'”
“Do you think she meant me to learn to like gardening? We didn’t have many – any – interests in common.”
Shifra shook her head. “I think she just wanted the garden to work on you, to relax you. I didn’t share all her interests, either, you know. I know she loved to play Bridge, and I can’t stand it. Luckily, she also liked Canasta. She taught me to play. We used to get quite aggressive,” she added with a laugh.
“I used to like Bridge.”
“Yes, because you have an analytical mind, I think. I don’t. If I’m anything, I’m intuitive, but even then it takes me a long time to see my way through things. Your mother and I both liked gardens, but I think we were opposites in many ways. But maybe that’s why we got on with each other. Opposites attracting, you know.”
Shifra shrugged. “Or maybe not.”
“What else did Mom like?”
“Cooking, but not my type. Gourmet cooking. Being adventurous and creative.”
“What kind of cooking do you like?” Joyce asked curiously.
“Basic. Get the family fed with meals everybody will eat, as cheaply as possible. Maybe one day, when the kids have left home, I’ll try some fancy recipes. Something exotic. But my husband’s a meat-and-potatoes type, so I’m not sure how receptive he’ll be, anyway. So maybe I won’t.”
Joyce let a silence fall. She had never had that kind of relationship with her ex-husband, allowing his preferences to affect her own plans. And certainly not when it came to cooking. But of course, there had never been time for gourmet meals unless they ate out. There had been a lot of frozen, instant, pre-cooked stuff, she remembered. They’d both been too busy to pay much attention to food – well, they’d both been too busy to work on a marriage, too, that was the truth. They’d sort of starved it to death. Funny, she’d never seen it that way. She felt a little sorry for the marriage, as though it had been a plant she had never watered, never fed. I’d like to try again. The thought slipped unbidden into her consciousness. Abruptly, she stiffened. Do I really mean that?
Forgetting that she had spoken none of her thoughts aloud, Joyce refocused on Shifra. “Do you think I should get married again?” she demanded bluntly.
For a moment Shifra stared, taken aback; then she said slowly, “I don’t think you should do it, yet.”
“You’ve just been through a divorce. Divorces hurt people. You need time to recover. Besides, you’re…I think you’re finding yourself. I think you need to get to know who you are before you start looking.”
“I suppose you think I should marry somebody Jewish this time?”
“That’s not my business. Obviously, I’d prefer you not to marry out, but my function is just to make the garden available to you.”
“You’ve been doing a lot more, you know. Giving me a lot of your time.”
“Well, yes. I’m not entirely stupid. I told you your mother was a planner, a long-term planner. And that she didn’t tell you everything. Or me, either. I had the feeling, somehow, she meant me to be there for you as much as the garden was.”
Joyce made a face. “You’re saying she manipulated me. Us.”
“Maybe. But let’s face it, for ten thousand dollars I can’t really complain, can I?”
“You never seemed like the mercenary sort to me.”
“But your mother might have thought that way, don’t you think? When you have money, don’t you find that it can persuade people to do things? And, of course, I am grateful for it. Hosting you twenty-four times in a year is my thanks.”
A sharp shower interrupted the tour at that point, and for the rest of Joyce’s allotted time she sat gazing in silence at the rain on the plants. Shifra laid out tea and cookies without saying anything.
Joyce turned abruptly. “I never help you clear up, do? I didn’t help that time I came at Passover, either. You must think I’m pretty selfish.” She shrugged with a little laugh. “I guess I am,” she said with an air of content.
Shifra was so taken aback by this casual acceptance of a major personality flaw that her jaw dropped.
Joyce stared. “Why are you looking at me like that?” she asked, genuinely puzzled.
Shifra hesitated. Should she tell Joyce outright about midos? Was it her business to interfere in Joyce’s life? Yet Joyce had asked her for her opinion about remarrying. She bit her lip and plunged in.
“I’ve never heard somebody admit to a – a bad characteristic without adding that they were trying to work on it,” she said finally.
“Well, I’m not. That’s the way I am.”
“A stone is the way it is. A tree is the way it is. You’re a person. You can change. Don’t you want to improve?”
“I’m all right with myself.”
“But what about getting married again? If you’re selfish, how can you have a successful marriage?”
“I don’t need sermons,” Joyce snapped, and left.
“Do you think I shouldn’t have said anything?” Shifra asked Baruch that evening after he had eaten (all the books say you should feed your husband first, then tell him your problems). “I felt her softening up a little, and now I think I’ve chased her back into her shell.”
Marking the place in his sefer with a spare paper napkin, Baruch considered the question, knowing that if he didn’t take it seriously and give Shifra a thoughtful reply, she would revisit the conversation over and over and worry herself into a nervous wreck.
The kitchen clock ticked more loudly than Shifra had ever heard it. At the back of her mind was the suspicion that if the children were quiet enough for her to hear the clock that well, they were probably up to something. But she waited for Baruch’s response.
“You know,” he began at last, “back in the beginning, didn’t you tell me that you felt you had to be completely honest with Mrs Owen?”
“Her. Right. So once she asked you, I don’t think you had a choice. If you’d thought you’d encourage her to be frum, maybe you’d have had to be more cautious – but you’ve always been realistic about her prospects.”
“You mean I just hoped she’d be less antagonistic to frum people?”
Baruch nodded. “But you’ve also felt all along that her mother wanted her to be – well, maybe more introspective. And what you told her fits right in with that. So I don’t think you were wrong in being open with her. And you know, she may not be very happy about it now, but over the next couple of weeks she may think about what you said. Maybe it will even have an effect.”
Shifra heaved a sigh of relief and went off to see what the children were up to. It took hours to clean the crayon off the bedroom walls.
By the time Shifra saw Joyce again, May had brought sun and warmth, the garden was full of late-spring bloom, and the day Joyce arrived was so balmy that sitting on the patio was irresistible. The children played on an expanse of neatly-mown grass. Shifra did not refer to the previous conversation, and in any case Joyce seemed preoccupied. Without speaking she followed Shifra to see the flowers the advancing year had produced.
They sat at the patio table and Shifra set out the refreshments. Joyce consumed her cookies and black coffee in further silence, but when they had finished, she put the mugs and plates back on the tray and rose. “If you tell me where to put these, I’ll take them back to the kitchen,” she said.
Almost too stunned to speak, Shifra gave directions. When Joyce came back, she looked questioningly at her.
Joyce looked uncomfortable. “I thought about what you said.” She sat down again.
“I wasn’t sure I’d done the right thing, telling you what I thought. But I’ve always felt I wanted to be open with you,” said Shifra.
“My brother Ray had already said the same thing – about being selfish – three days earlier. He also called me hard and unfeeling and a few other things. He made your point about marriage, too. Telling me some home truths, he called it. When I heard it from you I was already feeling – well, kind of bruised.”
“I can imagine.”
Joyce shrugged. “Getting it in both ears, so to speak…naturally – well, maybe not naturally, I can be pretty stubborn – but anyway, it had an effect. I sat down and thought about it, and…well, I couldn’t deny that I didn’t think about others much. I took an honest look at myself. I told you I was all right with who I was, but suddenly – I wasn’t. But you know, you can’t just turn around and be somebody else.” She laughed. “You’ll like this. I experimented on a neighbor in my apartment building. I knocked on her door and told her I’d run out of AA batteries. It makes people feel good to do favors, did you know that? She gave me the batteries, invited me in, said she was pleased to meet me and always wondered who lived in my apartment, and…” She paused dramatically.
“And?” Shifra was on the edge of her seat.
“Somehow I ended up offering to babysit while she ran out for some baby food. Luckily,” she added drily, “the baby was asleep. I can’t imagine what I’d have done if it had cried.”
“Babysitting! Joyce! You?”
“It just kind of happened. I survived. Anyway, I’m invited to supper next Wednesday. I’ve never seen a man go in there, so either her husband travels or she’s on her own. I suppose she can do with a hand now and then.” After a while she added, “You can close your mouth, now. It’s not all that earth-shattering. Besides, it may not last.”
For a long minute Shifra rested her chin in her hand, her elbow on the patio table, until she said thoughtfully, “No, I think it will last. You have an awfully strong character.”
“I hope that’s a compliment.”
Shifra gave her a grin. “Not always. Depends on how you’re using it.”
Joyce merely shrugged and shifted her gaze to the shrubs in the border. After a while she remarked, “Don’t you mind my visits after the money’s been spent?”
“It hasn’t been. We need to extend but we couldn’t decide whether to take a second mortgage for the balance or whether to hold off until we had the full amount up front. We decided to wait, and in the meantime I started a garden design service!” Enthusiasm bubbled up in Shifra’s voice. “I love it! I must be pretty good: people are telling their friends. We’ll have enough to start building by the end of the year, I hope.”
“Don’t you find yourself designing the same garden for everybody?”
“Oh, not at all! The conditions are always different – you know, some are more exposed, or the soil is different, or there are trees…people have different needs; I mean, some want space for the children to play, and others want a garden for adults only; and besides, I always try to offer each person a couple of really distinctive plants, big dramatic ones, or little treasures…I give them a few options and let them choose. It makes people feel that even though somebody else did the layout, their own input has personalized the garden. And I recommend Sam for the actual work, of course.”
Joyce gave her a long look. “You really do think about things, don’t you?” she said. “It’s – “ She broke off. “Never mind.”
Henye Meyer was born in Phoenixville, PA, and spent most of her youth in the local Carnegie Public Library, having learned early that school may not be the best place to expand your intellectual horizons. Although she detests history as it is usually taught, she loves historical research.
She now lives in Manchester, England, has a large family which now extends to a few dozen grandchildren and assorted great-grandchildren. She laughs a lot and plays Solitaire on the computer way too much.