“Mind? Of course not,” said the old lady. “It’ll be a change from listening to the television. My vision’s gone so bad I can’t watch it, and it’s too frustrating for words. Besides, half the time there’s somebody nearby talking back to it. Believe me, if I go crazy here, that’ll be why.”
Shifra laughed. “I may bore you silly,” she warned.
“I’ll take my chances.” Mrs Mottram steepled her gnarled hands. “So what would you like to know?”
“Well…I know it sounds kind of stupid, but reading about plants doesn’t help me to identify them – I mean, I don’t even know what kind of trees there are at the far end.”
“A birch and an elm, but keep an eye on the elm. In my day Dutch Elm Disease wasn’t a problem here, but it’s spread all over, now.”
“Uh…which is which?”
Mrs Mottram gave a shout of laughter. “You really are starting from the ground up, aren’t you? The birch has the white bark.”
Startled by the laughter, a nurse put her head in the door. “Are you all right, Mrs Mottram?”
Waving a hand, Mrs Mottram said, “Go away, dear, and let me enjoy my visitor.”
The nurse nodded and vanished.
“So you’ll teach me?” Shifra asked.
Mrs Mottram pursed her lips. “Well, as long as I can find time in my hectic schedule.”
Shifra’s lessons with Mrs Mottram settled down to a couple of mornings each month. Once the older two children were in playgroup and school, Shifra packed a notebook, the baby, and assorted toys, and set off for Sunnyfields until she had to leave to pick Shimmy up.
“There won’t be much to talk about, with winter coming,” Shifra remarked on her first visit.
“Wait,” Mrs Mottram advised. “I think you’ll be surprised. In the meantime, though, let me talk you through what’s changing color.”
Through fall and winter, Shifra visited Mrs Mottram regularly, so regularly in fact that Mrs Sussman’s services were called upon several times.
Baruch was not particularly happy with the new friendship, especially when it involved paying for a babysitter.
“It’s so hard to take notes when I have to attend to the children,” Shifra explained.
“You’re good at spending, Shifra, but you need to think about earning,” Baruch told her.
“I do, I really do, but there’s nothing in the ads,” Shifra apologized. “Do you think I should take some kind of course?”
“We can’t afford it.”
Nevertheless, she still visited Mrs Mottram, and without the children, too.
“I was afraid they’d disturb you,” she said to the elderly lady. “My mother says she doesn’t have the patience she used to for little children, and I thought you might feel the same.”
“I don’t mind them – in moderation,” said Mrs Mottram with smile. “But leaving them behind is a good idea, sometimes. Now, how are you enjoying the garden in the winter?”
“It’s amazing!” Shifra marveled. “I’d never have believed you could have things in bloom from December right through the winter to March!”
Mrs Mottram nodded, pleased to have been proven right. “I told you you’d be surprised. I spent a long time choosing them and making sure I put them in the right places.”
The Sunnyfields nurses grew accustomed to Shifra, and a few greeted her when she came. Bertha, a well-spoken black woman in her twenties, was particularly friendly.
“I like seeing you come,” she said. “And I like the way you’ve taken that interest in Mrs Mottram. Before you came she was kinda grouchy.”
“I think she was just sort of…lonely,” Shifra told her. “She didn’t have anybody to talk to about the things she loved.”
“Well, she does now. We all go in to chat. But you started it.”
Some time afterwards Shifra remarked to Mrs Mottram, “The nurses are all nice, but Bertha is really lovely.”
“Always ready to do something extra for anybody,” Mrs Mottram agreed. “I wish she’d get married. I asked her why she wasn’t –”
“Did you?” Shifra said, amazed. “I wouldn’t have dared!”
“At my age, I can be as inquisitive as I like,” laughed Mrs Mottram. “People shouldn’t let me get away with it. Anyway, she told me that she’d been engaged, some years back, but her fiancé had lost his job and left town to find work. She never saw him again.”
“Couldn’t she find somebody else?”
“Nobody like him – at least, not to hear Bertha describe him… I wish I could see her married,” Mrs Mottram added wistfully. “I just don’t know anyone for her.”
“So you’re a matchmaker as well as a gardener?” Shifra teased her.
“I think it’s a Jewish gene,” Mrs Mottram admitted. “I don’t keep much but I don’t seem to be able to escape that. I wish I’d been able to choose Joyce’s husband. I don’t like the one she picked. Well,” she added, giving herself a little shake, “back to the garden…”
Spring burst into the garden at last, shoots pushing up through the ground, leaf-buds opening on trees and shrubs, life sprouting in all directions.
“I need you there,” Shifra begged Mrs Mottram. “I want you to tell me exactly what’s coming up. Do you think you could come? For an afternoon, you know, just a few hours, just walking around the garden. We can have a tea party afterwards, inside, if you don’t think it would bother you to see the house changed a bit.”
“I’d love to!” Mrs Mottram agreed with enthusiasm. “Don’t worry about picking me up; I’ll take the taxi service I used to use. They’re old friends.”
When it came to making arrangements with Sunnyfields, however, matters were less simple.
“Has she made provision for your needs?” the nursing head demanded. “Is she insured? We’re not talking family, you know.”
“She might as well be family,” Mrs Mottram protested. “And what needs do I have for an afternoon’s visit, for goodness’ sake? I may be frail but I can toddle around perfectly well.”
“Your vision – ”
“I know that garden so well I could walk around it with my eyes shut.”
“Really, Mrs Mottram, we can’t take the responsibility – ”
“I’m not asking you to. Miss Whyteleaf, please remember that I am a resident at Sunnyfields, not an inmate. I pay you vast sums for the dubious privilege of occupying one of your suites. I am not incarcerated here!”
“But our responsibility – ”
“You have none, my dear. I’m an adult, and relatively sane. I also have a copy of a letter my doctor wrote to a specialist in which he referred to me as ‘a mature, discerning woman’. It’s even a recent letter. What do you want me to do? Sign a release?”
“Maybe we ought to…”
“Ridiculous. I’m only here because I can’t see well enough to manage in my own house. There’s a kitchenette in my little suite. I’ve been eating your meals but if I wanted to use the kitchenette, how do you think I’d stock up on groceries? By remote control?”
Miss Whyteleaf stared at Mrs Mottram in confusion. “I still don’t – ”
“Then it’s settled. Next Wednesday, if it’s sunny, I’ll be out all afternoon.” Mrs Mottram rapped her cane triumphantly on the floor.
About Henye Meyer