When I stopped by, she was sitting in the sunroom in a bright peach cotton robe and her pink plaid pajamas. Her sister and niece and the nurse were with her at the table under the hanging bleeding heart plant, surrounded by potted hibiscus. She was eating coffee ice cream for lunch, in a pretty china bowl, with a pretty silver spoon. Her napkin had purple lilies on it.
We all sat there watching her shaky hand dig the spoon into the ice cream and we held our breath together as she got it to her mouth, each bite a victory. We watched and smiled and chatted about happy things. It was a perfect summer day in the Hamptons, the hour of traffic it took me to get there notwithstanding. She asked if there were any more chocolate cupcakes around, and then she looked up and said, “I’m going to take Melissa down to the gardens and show her around. Just she and I. We’ll take the cart.”
So the hot pink golf cart was carefully driven as close to the house as possible and we pushed her across the wood-decked patio in her Burberry plaid wheelchair. It took the nurse and two of us to steady her, but she got her fluffy slippered foot up into the cart and hoisted herself into the seat. “Someone get me my sunglasses,” she instructed and three people ran at once to get them. I was terrified to drive the thing, as I never had and could only envision going too fast over a bump and her toppling out.
“Does someone else want to drive?” I tried.
“No darling, you can do it, it’s fun. And let’s put Mitzi right here in between us.”
So up Mitzi, the apricot rescue poodle I had found for her seven years earlier, jumped. She snuggled between us and laid her soft, curly head on my lap as I eased slowly onto the gas pedal. Carol was gleefully pointing toward the willow tree like a pirate off to overtake the biggest bounty ever.
Thankfully, the nurse trotted alongside us and we cruised down the green expanse of lawn, through the low-hanging branches to the garden gate.
“That way, it’s the secret garden,” she giggled and poked me.
I pulled up beside the most magenta flowers I’ve ever seen. “Wow.”
“Dahlias” she pronounced. Waving her arm across the garden, she told me, “These are all my babies,” with the same pride as someone pulling a family photo from their wallet.
“Let’s go in and walk around.” She made a move to get out of the cart. The nurse grabbed her arm and I jumped out to help.
“Are you sure? We can drive around the other side and look at it from there.”
“Let’s go in,” she said.
Her steps were wobbly and incredibly slow. The nurse braced her back from behind, while holding one arm. I squeezed in on the other side so she could lean on me as well. Instead she reached for a branch.
“That won’t support you, Mrs. Mercer,” the nurse explained.
I just slipped my hand into hers and gave it a squeeze. She wrapped her fingers, with lavender painted nails, through mine.
About two and a half steps in, we stopped to look around. There were gorgeous flowers all through the garden, yellow, pink, violet. Directly to our left was a section of orange butterfly weed. “If we just deadhead those a little, they’ll come back.” She reached out to feel the buds that had gone brown. I spotted some very happy looking periwinkle flowers along the perimeter.
“What are those called?” I asked.
“Platycodon.” She didn’t miss a beat. “They’re also called balloon flowers. Isn’t that cute?”
I noticed a group of tallish daisy-size yellow flowers with a dark center almost waving to us from across the far end of the garden.
Pointing, I asked, “Are those black-eyed Susans?”
“Never,” she pronounced, a bit disappointed in me. “Those are sunflowers.”
“Of course,” I tried to redeem myself. “Those are my favorites, I just never saw small ones before.”
She tried to take another step.
The sun was high and she did not have a hat on. The nurse looked nervous about the narrow, uneven, mulched path.
“Remember we have to go back too,” the nurse gently reminded her.
She shooed her away and went for a bigger step forward. I held on as tight as I could without squeezing her hand too hard.
“It’s so hot,” I added gingerly.
“You’re worried about me falling aren’t you?” She said it as if I was the one who needed to be protected.
“I just think the cart is more fun. Can we drive over to the roses?”
“Sure, darling.” She was taking care of me now, but I didn’t mind, I just didn’t want her to fall, or pass out, or . . .
Faced with driving the cart in reverse to get us back around the willow, I told her to hold on tight, and she looked like a child on a roller coaster ready for the big hill. We backed up through the branches and for a nano-second we were both kids, full of the joy of speeding through a hanging willow branch in a bright pink golf cart.
We neared the roses. Some of them were finished for the season, but others were bright and plump. As I stopped the cart so we could admire them, I continued to travel backward to my youth. I was about 10 years old, in a polka-dot sundress, and she was wearing flowered trousers, a chambray shirt, and a big straw hat with a fabulously colored sash. She was crouched down next to me reading the names of the different roses.
“Who names them?” I asked.
“The people who breed them,” she said, and explained how roses are bred for color, size, scent, all sorts of things, and how there are contests and awards for roses. She pointed to a juicy, peach-color rose and showed me the placard below. It read “Lucille Ball.”
“Isn’t that wonderful?” She pushed the bloom to my nose for a whiff.
“That’s my favorite,” I told her.
“Me too,” she said, and led me farther along the garden path.
Currently, 40 some-odd years later, I looked for a Lucille Ball rose, while simultaneously making sure the nurse was still nearby. Carol was surveying the scene from her perch in the cart.
“Do you remember the Lucille Ball roses?” I asked, happy to share my memory with her. Her face is blank. She doesn’t remember. I thought about reminding her, but instead I pushed the pedal and we headed onward on our adventure.
We drove the circumference of the property, slowing down to see the elephant ear leaves, the echinacea and milk thistle, the Zen rock formation under a tall group of cedar trees, until finally we were back at the house and the nurse was locking the wheelchair in place for Carol’s return.
Stepping out of the pink cart, I felt like I was getting off a magic carpet ride. A journey to the secret garden, where the flowers color a history of a young girl, entranced by a magical lady who made everything pretty and special. And when the girl came back to that garden as a grown woman, she found a home in the Hamptons, a place to spend holidays, and summer barbecues, a place to come for dinner, and to share the little and the big events of a lifetime. I looked at her and I look back at the gardens. It was all so glorious and so delicate.
I thought about how we all grow our lives like a garden. Planting it with things we think will delight us. Some do, and some are duds. Some stay green all year and some go dormant but come back in cycles reminding us how much we love them. Others are with us only for a short time, but we remember them so vividly. Like everything worthwhile in life, the extent to which our garden thrives is in direct correlation to the love and care, the work we put in, getting into the dirt. We may have to move things around, pull the weeds, keep predators away, water and feed and allow it to grow in ways we may not have expected. To truly reap the beauty and sustenance of a garden one needs to be present enough to see the butterfly land on the bush, breathe in the sweetness of the blooms. And it’s really nice if our gardens have a tree, like the willow, to anchor it all, like a family might, like Carol has for me.
I said my goodbyes, promising to come back later in the week. I will come more often now, and hope I’ll get another moment like this. I don’t know if I will. But I do know this, I will never confuse a mini-sunflower for a black-eyed Susan again and when I plant my own garden, there will be a rose named “The Carol Mercer.”
Melissa Berman, a Montauk resident, has had a career in advertising as a copywriter and creative director, and is an award-winning independent filmmaker, as writer and director. She has traveled and volunteered extensively, and is a founder of East End Cares, a volunteer and service network.