In winter Shifra went back to visiting Mrs Mottram at Sunnyfields, but as soon as warm weather arrived, Mrs Mottram’s visits to Shifra resumed. Now they talked gardens almost as equals, though Shifra’s life had become so full — not to mention the arrival of Baby Ettel — that it was sometimes difficult to find a slot for a relaxed afternoon in the garden.
“You’re a very busy lady, now,” Mrs Mottram commented when the phone had rung for the third time since she had arrived. “No, don’t apologize; I’m glad to see it. You know, when I first met you I had the feeling you didn’t have many friends.”
“I didn’t. I hadn’t really found my feet here.” Shifra smiled and put the phone on a side table inside the French doors. “There! Let it ring away! You’re here, now. And you know, I owe all those phone calls to you – to the garden. It’s brought me a whole community! I’m involved in so many things!”
“But that doesn’t make you friends.”
“No, but I seem to be the sort of person who has only a couple of very close friends, but has a lot of very warm acquaintances,” said Shifra thoughtfully. “I think I may have found one person here I’ll be close with, and of course, you’re another.”
“Well, thank you!” Mrs Mottram said, delighted. “That’s quite a compliment! Especially when I’m not religious at all.”
“But you garden. And my other friend doesn’t know anything about gardening but she is religious. So it works out. You have so many friends with the same interests – ”
“Who told you that?”
“Mrs Owen – Joyce. Back in the beginning. She said you had plenty of visitors and didn’t need me.”
Mrs Mottram gave a little humorless laugh. “Maybe at one time, I did, but you know, dear, time has a way of eroding one’s social circle. Years ago there were a full dozen of us who used to get together to play Canasta, and I belonged to a gardeners’ club full of enthusiastic women. These days I exchange visits with only three of my old friends and we’re all in sheltered accommodation. The rest have moved away to live near their children, or aren’t compos mentis enough to carry on a conversation. Or, of course, have gone to the great Canasta game in the sky.”
“That’s so sad!” exclaimed Shifra without thinking.
“That’s life, my dear,” said Mrs Mottram. “Nothing lasts forever. Enjoy the garden while you can, is what I say. I’m enjoying my friendship with you while I’m here. Thank heaven you bought my house!”
Late in the third summer of their friendship the phone rang with a call from Sunnyfields.
“Mrs Levenberg, this is Bertha. I wanted to – ”
“Bertha! How are you? I’ve missed seeing you!” exclaimed Shifra warmly.
“Oh, Mrs Levenberg, never mind me! It’s bad news. Mrs Mottram, she died in her sleep last night. They’ve called her family but nobody thought to call you. I’m sorry.”
“Oh…Oh, dear.” Taken aback, Shifra had no words for a moment. “I’m sorry, too, Bertha,” she said at last. “We’re all going to miss her an awful lot.” She looked through the window at the garden, full of blossom and scent and contrasts. “I’m glad I have her garden to remember her by.”
“I wish I could see it,” said Bertha wistfully.
“You know my address. Why don’t you drop by after work?”
“I’d like that,” said Bertha. “I really would. Are you sure you wouldn’t mind?”
“This garden is made for sharing,” Shifra assured her.
Shifra tactfully stayed away from Mrs Mottram’s funeral, which was as Jewish-flavor as her sheltered housing had been, and instead spent an hour in the garden thinking about her friend and what she had left behind. After a few days Shifra rearranged her schedule to make Mrs Mottram’s absence less noticeable. Now and then, though, when she opened one of the gardening books she gave a reminiscent sigh.
On a sunny day shortly after the funeral Bertha knocked on Shifra’s door and was ushered through to the garden, given a seat at a patio table and a tall glass of iced tea with a plate of cookies. Just as Shifra was about to sit down with Bertha, she heard a ring.
“Oh, that phone!” said Shifra. “I’ll just tell them to call back later.”
She left Bertha to enjoy the view while she attended to the call.
Bertha had taken two sips of her drink when a man walked around the corner of the house. When he saw her he stopped, hesitant, aware he might be intruding.
“Sorry, miss,” he said. “I thought nobody would be in the garden except Mrs Levenberg.”
“It’s all right – shall I tell her you’re here?” Bertha set the glass down carefully, keeping her eyes on the man, wanting to be polite but worrying about a total stranger wandering into her friend’s back garden.
“You can, but it’s all right.” Sam smiled, the burst of sunlight. “I’m the gardener. She lets me come and sit in the garden sometimes. It’s peaceful.”
“Yes, it is, isn’t it?” Bertha smiled back and scanned the restful view. “I never saw it before but I always wanted to. I used to take care of the old lady who planted it.” She nodded at a seat opposite. “Why don’t you sit down?”
“I’ll do that. Thanks.”
“Are you the same gardener Mrs Mottram had?”
“Then you’re Sam, aren’t you?” Bertha returned to the iced tea. “You know, she thought the world of you.”
“She’s a kind lady.”
Sam sat up straight. “Was?”
Bertha nodded. “She died last week. In her sleep.”
“Oh.” Sam sagged into his chair. “I wish I’d known. I’d’ve gone to the funeral.”
“You still have her garden. Mrs Levenberg says she keeps it pretty close to what Mrs Mottram had.”
“Yes, she does…” He thought about it, gazing into the distance. “You know what I’d like?” he said at last. “I’d like to talk to somebody about her, somebody who knew her.”
Bertha looked thoughtfully at him. He seemed nice, and talking about kind Mrs Mottram sounded like a good way to stop missing her. And, Bertha reflected, she had to admit she was kind of lonely, sometimes. “Well…” she said, “you could talk to me.”
Her telephone call long finished, Shifra stood where she was, just inside the patio doors, watching Sam and Bertha deep in conversation. Two nice people, she thought. Why not? Wouldn’t it be funny if Mrs Mottram found somebody for Bertha after all?
About two hours later, Bertha and Sam left together, too absorbed in each other to remember to say goodbye to Shifra. Shifra laughed quietly as she cleared the iced-tea glass and the empty plate. It’s that garden, again! she thought. I hope it works out.
The answer came in the form of a wedding invitation three weeks later. It was printed on cheap card, but it bore a note from Bertha:
Dear Mrs Levenberg, it’s only in a registry office so maybe you can come. We’d like to have you. If you come, do you have a picture of Mrs Mottram? She ought to be there, too.
“So that’s the wedding present solved,” Shifra told Baruch. “That beautiful one of Mrs Mottram sitting under the Buddleia in bloom. I’ll have it framed for them.”
“All right, but don’t overspend,” said Baruch.
On a morning late in the following May, not long after the children had come to make the brocha on Shifra’s fruit trees, Shifra took an unusual phone call. It was one of the mothers who had helped transport the children, Dvora Langbein. Shifra vaguely remembered her, a comfortable-looking woman with a dark sheitel.
“My yard’s practically a desert,” Mrs Langbein said. “I saw your garden and, wow, it’s really something else! Could you make my yard look that good?”
“Me? Oh, I – “ Shifra caught herself. “Mine is what’s called a mature garden,” she said. “It takes years for a new planting to look like anything unless you buy really big plants.”
“Then that’s what I want to do,” said Mrs Langbein firmly.
“Big plants are horribly expensive. You do understand that, don’t you?”
“We can afford it.”
Shifra thought for a moment. “Let me be honest, Mrs Langbein. I’ve never done this before, and I want to do it right. Let me look at what you have before I decide.”
“Sure. Can you come Wednesday morning? Take a taxi. I’ll pay.”
“Fine!” said Shifra, trying to sound confident and capable.
“Baruch, it’s a real job,” she told him when he came home. “If this works out, it could become a little garden consultancy.”
Baruch’s face lit up. “You mean it? Somebody actually wants a garden designer?” He sobered. “Do you know enough?”
Shifra hesitated. “I – I don’t know. But you know, I’ve been reading those gardening books for three years, and Mrs Mottram taught me a lot. I certainly know more than Mrs Langbein, anyway.”
“Well, I sure hope it pans out. We’re going to explode out of this house if we don’t extend. I’m beginning to think of alternatives. Tents. Garden sheds.”
Shifra laughed. “We’ll survive. Think of those Yerushalmi families with twelve kids in two rooms!”
“Yeah – who could play outdoors all year round, practically. Don’t forget that. Besides, times have changed. There aren’t many people living like that, nowadays. And if we tried it here, the Child Protection people would probably raid us.”
“Well, designing gardens is something I think maybe I can do,” said Shifra.
“I’ll put something in the Rabbi Meir pushke next Tuesday,” Baruch promised.
Shifra spent Tuesday night worrying, unable to fall asleep. What if this visit led nowhere? What if she couldn’t think of something appropriate? What if the lady didn’t want to pay? Then she tossed some more because she couldn’t sleep. Finally, she dropped off for a few hours.
“I feel sick in the stomach,” she told Baruch before he left. “Maybe I should forget it.”
“No, I’ve already put the money in the pushka. Think of it as a nice morning with somebody who likes gardens. Don’t worry about planning, yet. Just get to know her. Look at what she has. Ask how many children she has and what they do in the yard. And notice how she’s furnished her house, whether her taste is modern or traditional, whether she likes bright colors or muted ones, that kind of thing.”
“Baruch, that’s brilliant!” Shifra exclaimed, snatching a pen and paper and writing down all his suggestions. “I don’t know how long I’d have taken to think of all those points!”
She drove Baruch to work, as she usually did, in order to have the car for car pools. Dear, reliable Mrs Sussman came to babysit the little ones. Taking a deep breath, Shifra drove to Mrs Langbein.
Gracious houses were each set in a couple of acres of land, and plainly nobody drove beat-up old heaps like hers. If this turned into a business, would they have to buy a better car? Shifra wondered: another pitfall she hadn’t thought of. She gave herself a mental slap. Stop it! You’re worrying about something that may never happen! she told herself sternly. She parked and went to the door.
Mrs Langbein welcomed her into a house that radiated comfort.
“My husband says I have a very strong personality,” she told Shifra as she led her to the breakfast room, “so I decorated in soft colors with just a couple of accents here and there.”
“It has a lovely feel,” Shifra agreed as Mrs Langbein set a platter of mixed cookies in front of her.
“I’m glad you see it that way. Tea or coffee?”
Shifra opted for black coffee and they began their discussion.
Six children, all of school age, all active, all boys but one.
Mrs Langbein showed her the yard. At the far end a group of trees provided a backdrop and some shade. You couldn’t even tell if there was a house beyond them. Overgrown privet hedges down the sides. Very private. Shifra took out a compass Baruch had from his hiking days. North-east exposure. Not promising, though the hedges would give some protection. But definitely a blank slate. Aside from the trees and the hedges, there was nothing but grass.
When they returned to the kitchen, Shifra said, “It seems to me that you need plants that are pretty tough. They’ll have to stand up to things like baseball, won’t they?”
“And soccer. And basketball around the side.”
“How much of the plot do you want to plant? I mean, since it’s a first for me, maybe we should just do something in the back, and if you’re happy, design the sides and front.”
Mrs Langbein agreed. “And no matter what happens, remember to charge me for your time. And don’t discount yourself. It may be a first for you, but you know a lot more than I do. I’m a city girl. I can tell trees from grass, but that’s about all.”
They settled on an hourly rate that made Shifra choke on the last cookie. “I’d have done my best for you, in any case,” she told Mrs Langbein as they walked to the door, “but if you’re paying me like that, I’ll really knock myself out!”
Mrs. Langbein laughed. “Whatever you do is better than what we have now!”
Books. Lists. Suppliers. Shifra spent every spare moment thinking about Mrs Langbein’s planting. After two weeks of agonizing, she presented Mrs Langbein with her plan. She’d even created rough sketches showing the effect of the planting at maturity.
Mrs Langbein was delighted. So was Sam. It took him four weeks of intensive labor. The plants cost a fortune, because they all had to be giant pot-grown specimens for summer planting, but suddenly, even though the ground cover still had to fill in bare patches and every shrub looked like an island with space around it for growth, it was a garden instead of a yard. Everything would resist balls and some trampling (there was a good deal of bamboo), and Shifra had set aside a whole section for a vegetable garden, which Mrs Langbein said she’d always wanted.
Shifra waved her check in front of Baruch. “Five hundred dollars!” she crowed.
“What? You did it? I don’t believe it!” He sank into a chair. “It finally takes some pressure off me.”
“I know, Baruch. I’m sorry it took me so long.”
Mrs Langbein’s garden attracted so much attention from Mrs Langbein’s friends and neighbors that orders began to trickle in. Not every call led to a job, and few of them were as free of problems (including the clients, who were often more trouble than the garden) as Mrs Langbein’s project had been, but finally, Shifra was contributing, modestly, to the family income.
About Henye Meyer