The Garden of Two
I write this not for who we are today, but rather who we were. We were destiny at her best. We would have united despite any adversity. On any path. However they crossed.
We believed that sometime long ago we were separated and fated to wander the earth, searching, until the day when we would be reunited.
We were the finest wine because of the sweetest grapes. Where there was warmth there was safety. Where there was passion there was comfort. And where there was fire, we were at our most intoxicating. We were quite simply us. There wasn't anyone who could understand or even begin to try.
This is who we were...
It was 1916 and the world was spinning and changing with each day. Europe was involved in the largest war in its history, a world war. The automobile had taken over the streets and Woodrow Wilson had been reelected to the Presidency. Jeannette Rankin was the first woman elected to the House of Representatives and the phonograph graced the homes of the cities upper class families. Norman Rockwell began his illustrations for the Saturday Evening Post and James Duke, the tobacco baron, ordered the design of the first private Pullman rail car.
The Whitman's resided in a prominent neighborhood in Long Island, New York. James was the family patriarch and president of Whitman Construction. His family had started the business two generations ago when his grandfather migrated from Surrey, England. Although the business had awarded them with great wealth and a privileged life style, James never forgot the meager means his family had started from. He remained a humble man who was loved by the community and an active participant in local charities.
His only daughter, Lillie had just turned eighteen years old. She had a delicate frame with long dark hair and soft hazel eyes. With a warm smile that could melt even the coldest room, she was a constant light in the Whitman home. When Lillie was eleven, her mother Elizabeth became stricken with influenza. James did everything he could to save his wife but the illness was too strong for her to fight. Elizabeth passed away, leaving James a shadow of the man he once was. They had been so much in love. After fourteen years of marriage their affection for each other was obvious in everything they did. He would do anything for her happiness.
James had a large Victorian style home built for her, complete with a wraparound porch and stained glass windows and a picket fence. He had the back of the property turned into a beautiful garden with many clusters of bright flowers and lush green grass. There were plants and trees brought in from all over the world. Cobble stone pathways carved out separate pathways and wooden benches were throughout, so Elizabeth could sit and hear the birds sing while she enjoyed her garden. As a gesture for his deep love and commitment to her, James had everything planted in pairs. There were two of every tree, flower and plant placed in the garden, side-by-side growing together. He told Elizabeth they were parts of each other, separate but together at the same time, forever for eternity. Elizabeth would sit in her garden often. It was her place for reflection and solace.
They were secure in their happiness and Lillie had always felt so lucky growing up. Their house was known for being filled with love. Her parents enjoyed hosting parties for their friends and family and there was always some new event to look forward to. When Elizabeth passed, the parties stopped, James couldn’t bear to have anyone in the house any longer. It had become a shell of its former self…a too quiet place filled with distant memories.
But the garden remained. James had gardeners come every week to keep it alive and vibrant. Elizabeth would always have her garden; this he could do.
Despite her grief, Lillie did very well in school. She managed to stay at the head of her class. There was even a possibility of planning for college ,which was unusual for young women of her age, but Lillie knew she wanted to attend Princeton. Exploring the world was in her heart and could be in her future. Princeton College was close enough to strike out on her own without leaving what had always given her the security she knew she still needed: her home.
One warm June morning Lillie was awoken by a commotion that seemed to be coming from the backyard. She quickly put on her robe and went down stairs to see what the noise could be. As she walked out onto the back porch she could see her father with the gardener at the furthest wall in the yard. They were planting a new shrub that caused the gardener difficulty in pushing the shovel through the ground. It seemed he kept hitting a large rock of some kind. “Dad, What are you doing out here so early in the morning?” Lillie shouted out.
“Early? Daughter you had better get a good look at the clock, it’s 10 am. It’s almost early afternoon”. He peeked out from under his very large brimmed straw hat. This was his favorite hat to wear while working in the garden. Her mother had bought it for him, and although it had seen better days, he wouldn't dare think of wearing another. Lillie felt groggy, lately she just couldn't seem to fall asleep without escaping into a good book. Last night it was Emma by Jane Austin. She read more pages than the hours she needed to face her day.
She walked out towards her dad who seemed to be planting a shrub she had never seen before. It was quite unusual. There was some sort of vines growing from it that were filled with tiny green leaves covered in thorns. The gardener had placed one of each at the opposite end of the property and was fastening the vines to the wall with wire. “Dad what are you planting? They’re covered in prickly thorns.”
“In the late fall these vines will be covered with deep red berries and the thorns will protect them from the birds. See, we are planting two of them that each year will grow until they meet in the middle and join, becoming one. They will be intertwined; together forever .” James gazed out at the two plants. “Fire thorns, they’re called fire thorns,” James said softly.
“That’s beautiful dad. Mom would have loved them.” Lillie gave her dad a hug and a kiss on the cheek and went in to have breakfast.
Charlie Murphy grew up in a very different part of the neighborhood than Lillie Whitman. His mother and father had come to America from Dublin shortly after they were married. They had Charlie a year later. His dad worked hard delivering blocks of ice to support his family and his mom took in odd jobs sewing. Despite their long work days, his parents made sure they always had time for Charlie. They taught him strong family values and a personal ethic of honesty and fairness. At 6’1 with black wavy hair, deep green eyes, a well-chiseled face and a strong jaw line, Charlie was quite handsome. He could have easily become conceited about his looks, but his heart wouldn't allow it. He was a sincere, caring person that could ease even the most cautious of hearts.
When he was barely seven, Charlies father died suddenly. Ellen, his mother, worked two jobs to keep food on the table and a roof over their heads. When she came home exhausted, Charlie would try to help with dinner and clean up. He managed to do his homework and take care of his other needs by himself. It was the only way he could help.
When he turned twelve, he started working odd jobs to help his mother with the monthly bills. Then at fifteen, a job opened up at the local grocery store. Charlie worked there after school and on weekends. Being very skilled with his hands, a dream of his was to get a job in construction after graduation. He enjoyed taking boards of wood and molding them until there was a perfect piece of something that seemed come from a not- so- perfect piece of very little. Charlie also loved the smell of the new wood and the feel of running his hands over a freshly sanded surface. It was much easier to think freely when he was building, his head was quiet and thoughts could just flow through his mind with ease. Often when a day was particularly difficult he would go in the garage for hours to work on a piece of furniture. He looked forward to making side tables and rocking chairs that he could sell for extra income. His work was precise and beautiful and displayed great character. Charlie took pride in each piece that he created.
Unfortunately there was not enough money to be made in doing this to make a living. But if he could one day work full time in construction it would give him the benefit of a comfortable income plus the ability to build with his beloved wood. Mr. Johnson, the owner of the grocery store, helped Charlie set up a meeting with Mr. Whitman. They had been friends since they were boys and had gone to school together. If Mr. Johnson had recommended Charlie then James Whitman would take the time to meet with him. Mr. Johnson liked Charlie and knew he was a decent boy. It made him unhappy to see him leave, but he knew Charlie needed to earn more money. He was growing up and one day would meet someone and have a family. That future couldn't be realized on the salary Mr. Johnson could afford to pay him. This would be the opportunity for Charlie to have a higher paying job for all his plans. He had arranged for Charlie to go and speak with James Whitman after church on Sunday.
Charlie had gotten up early that Sunday, he was so nervous. While at church with his mom, all he could think about was his meeting with Mr. Whitman. They had passed the Whitman house many times when he was younger and he remembered how he had mowed the lawn for their neighbors. The Whitman’s had full time gardeners so he had never been any closer than their sidewalk. He often wondered what it might be like inside. It must be grand; it was by far the nicest house in the neighborhood.
After church, he escorted his mother home and started over to the Whitman house. While walking, he was lost in thought. He had so many memories of when he was just a boy and his mother would come home exhausted from work. He would try to help her with dinner and clean the dishes so she could rest. Someday he would be able to pay her back for all she had done for him. Wouldn't it be in the bag, just perfect, if someday he could take care of her so she wouldn't have to work anymore. That someday could be now if he could just get this job.
The closer Charlie came to the house the more nervous he felt, was his suit too tattered, he thought. He wished his shoes could have been in better condition, they were shined with a kit Mr. Johnson had given to him last Christmas, but they were old. Nonsense he thought, Mr. Whitman isn’t going to hire me for my suit, it will be my ability. And I know I can do a good job. Charlie arrived at the house, walked up to the porch and knocked on the door making sure his tie was adjusting just so. It wouldn’t do to have a crooked tie. A gentleman opened the door and led him into the study. There was a huge wooden desk that held a luxurious Tiffany lamp and a silver letter opener with a carved ivory handle. The velvet chair was plush and large with carved legs covered in brown leather. There were bookcases that stretched from floor to ceiling filled with books on every imaginable subject. The windows were hung with heavy, dark drapes patterned in gold and brown paisley with a lighter beige panel underneath. The wood window framing was meticulously hand-carved and very intricate. It was so rich and posh, Charlie held back on running his hands over the wood, instead he stayed seated. After several minutes, Mr. Whitman strolled in with the confidence of a true gentleman.
“Charlie. Mr. Johnson tells me wonderful things about you and your work ethics. He tells me I’d be crazy not to hire you.”
“Mr. Whitman I know I can do a great job. I love working with wood and construction and I will do the best job you've ever seen.” Charlie spoke with excitement. He pulled a small wooden box from his pocket. He had carved the lid with a design of roses. “I brought this piece I made so I could show you the type of work I am capable of doing.”
James took the box from Charlie and examined it closely. He was impressed with the intricacy of each rose petal. “This is very skilled work Charlie. Well, we can’t have my friend thinking I’m crazy, how about you start 6 am. sharp on Monday morning?“ James rose from his chair and went over to Charlie and shook his hand. Charlie thanked him several times and gathered himself to leave. He couldn't wait to get home and tell his mother.
As he headed towards the front door he heard someone call him. “Mr. Murphy.“ Charlie turned and saw a girl running down the hall towards him. As she came closer he realized it was Lillie Whitman. Charlie had been attending school with Lillie since they were both in the first grade, but he could never get the courage up to actually speak to her. And now here she was coming towards him and shouting his name. Just answer her; he thought to himself, she’s going to think you’re goopy or something. I don’t want to look like a jerk in front of Lillie.
“Yes. Miss Whitman did you need something? “Charlie was barely audible squeaking out his response. She is sooo beautiful, Charlie thought as Lillie came closer, and the prettiest girl in class.
“Mr. Murphy, my father forgot to tell you to make sure you see the foreman Tommy Monahan. He’ll be able to get you started on Monday.”
There she stood Lillie Whitman. She smelled so good. He could barely muster the courage to answer her. “Okay, I will, thank you.”
“So, you’re going to be working for my father? He’s a good man. I think you’ll like working with the other guys too, they’re a swell bunch.” Charlie wanted so badly to speak, he could hear the words rolling around his brain, but every time he looked into her warm hazel eyes he would get lost and nothing would come out.
“Mr. Murphy, Mr. Murphy, Charlie are you alright?” Lillie was tugging at his arm.
“Uh...Yes... yes I am. Thank you again. Good day.” Charlie quickly grabbed the front door and exited to the porch. That was the dumbest thing you’ve ever done Charlie Murphy. Lillie Whitman talks to you and you can’t even answer her. Now she thinks you’re goopy for sure.
Lillie went back and told her father she had caught Charlie before he’d left and gave him the information. “He was a bit silly. I was talking to him but he didn’t answer me, he just sort of looked right through me.” Lillie handed her dad the morning paper.
“Lillie, he was just overwhelmed with all the beauty that was in the room.” James winked at his daughter.
“Oh dad. Now you’re being silly. I’m going over to Claire’s house, we’re going to go over our plans for graduation. I’ll be home around 4:30 in time for supper.” Lillie kissed her father and gathered the swatches to show Claire. Graduation ceremony was fast approaching and she needed to start working on her dress.
Claire Dumont was Lillie’s best friend and had been ever since the third grade. Claire was with Lillie the day her mom passed away. And Lillie was with Claire when they were both ten and a motorcar hit her dad on his way home from work. Lillie stayed glued to Claire, going to the hospital every day until he came home. The girls shared a friendship and a bond that few people had in their life. Oddly enough, they were so different even James wondered how they seemed to get along so well. Claire was a little rough around the edges. She had always been a naturally pretty girl who rarely wore make up and was not comfortable in anything frilly or overly feminine. She spoke her mind openly despite the current opinion that women should be seen and not heard too often. Women should wear it long in both hair and dress. Instead, Claire wore pants and kept her hair rather short. She rallied for women in congress and thought men were often goofy and simple- minded. She felt someday women would gain their rightful place in society and government and the world would a better place. But for all her brass, Claire was a kind person and would help anyone who needed it. This was the person Lillie knew and loved.
Lillie arrived at Claire’s house and the two girls quickly ran up to the bedroom laughing and whispering all the way. “Hey, do you remember that boy in our class, Charlie Murphy?” Lillie grabbed a swatch of material and laid it out on Claire’s bed.
“Vaguely. Why?” Claire seemed uninterested in this subject.
“No reason. He came by our house today. He’s going to be working for my dad starting Monday. He’s good looking, but sort of odd.” Lillie grabbed another swatch.
“They’re all odd, boys, I mean. If you ask me, you never know what they’re up to.” Claire walked over to her desk and picked up an article she had clipped from the newspaper.
“Have you’ve seen this advertisement for woman's undergarments, it’s downright criminal. It must have been written by a man. No self -respecting woman would think up an idea like this.” Claire threw the paper down on the floor.
“Honestly Claire sometimes you get so worked up. It’s just an advertisement. Now come over here and help me pick out material for my graduation dress.”
Charlie ran the whole way home. Bursting with excitement, he couldn’t wait to tell his mother about starting the new job on Monday. “Mom, he shouted. Mom where are you?”When Charlie reached the front door he ran through nearly taking it off its hinges. When she didn’t answer he went from room to room looking for her. As he reached her bedroom he saw she was sitting quietly in a chair gazing out the window. “Mom, didn’t you hear me calling you?” Charlie walked over to his mother and knelt beside her. “Mom. Are you alright?” She looked up at him. She was very pale. Charlie grabbed her hand; it felt oddly cold and clammy. “Mom! Please...what’s wrong?” Charlie lunged for her just as she collapsed in his arms. He laid her on the bed and ran to the phone to ring the doctor. While waiting for him to arrive, he sat on the bed next to her. He whispered in her ear that the doc was on his way and everything would be all right. She didn’t speak a word.
Charlie heard the knock on the front door and quickly went to let the doctor in. Doc Clarkson was an older man. He had been the town doctor for more than 40 years and had delivered nearly every baby in town, Charlie included. He was kind and gentle with his patients and everyone in the community trusted and adored him.
It seemed as if hours passed while Charlie waited for Doc Clarkson to examine his mother. When he finally came out of the bedroom he was gazing down at the floor . Charlie knew it would not be good news… the Doc wouldn’t act this way otherwise. “I’m sorry Charlie, it seems your mother has suffered a stroke. She is paralyzed on her right side. Her left side is in a weakened state and her speech has been greatly affected. She will need constant care. I will refer you to a nurse who can come and care for her during the day. Charlie walked him to the front door, and after they spoke further about his mother’s condition, he closed the door and began to cry. After a few moments he gathered himself and went to his mother. She was sleeping so peacefully. A stroke, Charlie couldn’t believe looking at her that she had gone though something as severe as this. Charlie knelt down beside her bed and laid his head in her lap. He took her hand and whispered. “Don’t worry mom. I’ll take care of everything. Everything will be fine.”
Charlie stayed with his mom through most of the night. In the morning the nurse Doc Clarkson had contacted arrived. She was a pleasant woman with 20 years experience in the nursing field and fiery red hair that seemed to match her name: Eileen O’Grady. She spoke with an Irish accent that had lessened after years of living in the states. As he left for his first day at Whitman’s Construction he thought, yesterday this was going to be the best day I’d ever had. Now all he could think about was his mother.
The morning thankfully went by quickly and the crew were a swell bunch of fellows. The work kept his brain occupied and focused. To see a project start from a mere pile of wood and turn into someone’s house was mesmerizing, but Charlie couldn't help but worry about his mom. Was she doing any better? He thought. Was the nurse taking good care of her? I should be there with her. I should be the one caring for her, not a stranger. He knew it was impossible to stay home with her, but that didn’t make reasoning with it any easier. Finally it was quitting time. Charlie gathered his belongings and went straight home. When he arrived there, he was disappointed to see there had been little change. The nurse told him she managed to feed her a little bit of soup. After giving her a sponge bath and changing her sheets, she was resting and had slept most of the day. As Charlie walked Eileen to the door, he thanked her and said he would see her tomorrow morning. He stood in the empty living room and thought about how hard he had worked this year. This year he had to study even harder to graduate early and start working full time. He wanted desperately to make life a little easier for his mother and himself. But now everything had changed and he didn’t know how to fix it.
The phone rang, it was Doc Clarkson calling to see how his mom was doing. He wanted to perform very important tests at the hospital. Could Charlie be available to take her on Thursday? Charlie told him he would speak to Mr. Whitman and would call him back tomorrow. He then went next door to his neighbor Mrs. Russo. He asked her if she would mind sitting with his mom while he went to speak with Mr. Whitman. Mrs. Russo was a chubby, small Italian woman whose husband was the local butcher. They were a kind, generous couple who gave of themselves freely. Charlie knew his mom would be well taken care of.
He was very nervous on the walk over to the Whitman house. He had just started his new job today and now he would have to ask for Thursday off. What will Mr. Whitman say?
Well it didn’t matter. He had to take his mother for the tests and that was that. Charlie felt a moment of courage for however brief it was, but as soon as he reached the Whitman’s front door his fear greeted him all over again .
Charlie waited in the same room he had been in yesterday. So much had changed in just a day. He told James what had happened to his mother and asked about Thursday. James was completely understanding, he offered his assistance for anything that Charlie or his mom needed anything. Charlie felt a wave of relief pour over him and thanked James for his kindness and turned to leave. “Charlie. Wait I’d like to show you something before you go”. James motioned for him to follow. They walked to the back of the house and out the door to the back porch. There Charlie saw the most unique garden he had ever laid his eyes on. It was not in season, yet the placement of bushes, ferns and flowers made it appear as if everything in the garden was reaching out to the visitor to be touched, to be hugged. It was magical.
“This garden was for my wife, Elizabeth, we lost her when Lillie was just a child. She loved this place, she would often come here to think.” James Whitman looked out towards the vast greenery that seemed to go on forever. “ This is a peaceful place, a place to sort out what ever weighs heavy on your mind or heart. When your mom is feeling better, perhaps you would like to bring her here, it might assist her with recovery. It feels like spring even in the coldest months of winter. I know it’s helped me over the years.”
Charlie heard a door close and someone calling. “ Dad? There you are. I searched the whole house looking for you. Oh, I’m sorry I didn’t see you had company.” Lillie came over to her father and Charlie. Charlie looked at Lillie as if he was seeing her for the first time, she had a beauty that went straight to his heart. He stuttered briefly and then regained his words.
“Hello Lillie. Nice to see you again.” Charlie stood up and nervously put his hand out. Lillie gently took his hand and squeezed it with a small shake.
“Yes. Lovely to see you again, too. What brings you out to our beautiful garden this evening?” James proceeded to explain to Lillie about Charlies mother. “Oh...Charlie I am so sorry. Is there anything we can do to help?” Lillie sat down beside her father.
“No. But thank you both for your concern and generosity. It is really a matter for the doctors now.” James got up and started back towards the house.
“Charlie why don’t you sit here for awhile, gather your thoughts and enjoy the garden. I think you would do well with some peace right now. Lillie why don’t you keep Charlie company for a few minutes. I will call you when supper is ready.”
“Of course dad. I’ll see you in a bit.” Lillie looked over at Charlie and smiled.
Charlie felt anything but relaxed at this moment. He was sitting alone with Lillie Whitman and he hadn’t a clue what to say.
“I really am so sorry about your mother. But Doc Clarkson is a very good doctor. He’ll make her well again.” Lillie placed her hand on Charlies.
“I hope so. It just seems so unfair. I finally could do something for her and now she can’t even appreciate it.”
“She will. She’ll know Charlie, it will just take some time.” Lillie and Charlie sat and chatted for several minutes. Charlie was surprised at how at ease he felt with her. He couldn’t remember why he was awkward with her all these years. It started to get dark and James called Lillie in for supper. Walking home Charlie could not stop thinking about Lillie, he wondered when he would get the chance to sit and talk with her again.
Later that evening Claire stopped over to see Lillie and show her what she had decided to wear to graduation. “I found the perfect thing to wear for your graduation party. I was walking down town and right in the window of Sherman's department store there it was. It seemed to just find me: the most darling black suit I had ever seen. It’s a few sizes too large for me, but Mr. Sherman said he could take it in just in time for the party. Here look, I had to bring it by for you to see. I’ll bring it back to him in the morning.” Claire laid the suit out on the bed. “ Isn’t it delicious, just feel that gorgeous silk!” Claire looked over at Lillie who was running her hand over the fabric.
“It’s beautiful Claire, just like you. You’re going to look so elegant.” Lillie gave Claire a hug. She knew her friend had always moved to a different beat and she admired her for her strength and honesty. As she gazed over at the suit she thought to herself, maybe I should invite Charlie.
Over the next few days Charlie’s mind was divided over his mother’s health and thoughts of Lillie. Thinking about Lillie somehow made his worrying seem less painful. It was odd, even though he hadn’t spent any time with her since their talk in the garden, it was enough to keep a smile on his face.
It was Thursday morning and Eileen arrived to help Charlie prepare his mother for her appointment with the doctor. He rang for a taxi to drive them and Eileen thought it best she accompany them. When they arrived, a husky gentleman dressed in hospital clothing came out with a wheelchair and lead them to the waiting area. Charlie filled out medical papers while they wheeled his mother away for testing. The nurse told him it would be a few hours before she would be finished and advised that he get a cup of coffee and a sandwich. Eileen decided to wait in the hospital cafeteria. Charlie was too nervous to eat and decided to go for a walk instead. The shops down town were just a few minutes away. Maybe buying flowers for mom would be a good idea. Charlie grew thirsty in the unseasonal, humid air. After his purchase, he decided to go to his favorite dinner. As he pushed open the door he was greeted by a large, noisy crowd. During the week it was always busy at lunch time with many coming in from the nearby offices. The rush would begin at eleven thirty and it wouldn’t quiet down until about two o’clock. He glanced around looking for a free space at the counter to order a soda, but every stool was taken. As he was about to leave, he heard someone calling his name. “Charlie...Charlie.” He turned to see Lillie sitting at a booth with Claire. She was motioning for him to come over. His heart began to beat so fast he could feel it pushing through his chest. And his hands sprouted a dampness that not even rubbing them on the sides of his pants could dry. Walking towards Lillie, all the noise in the shop seemed to vanish. Everything became very still and the only voice he could hear was hers. As Charlie made his way over, Claire got up from her side of the booth and sat next to Lillie. “Charlie, sit down and join us.” Lillie pointed to the open seat.
“Thanks. I was just leaving. It’s so crowded in here and I just came in for a soda.”
“I know, it seems as if the entire town came in for lunch.” Lillie squirmed in the booth.
”What brings you here today? Oh, that’s right, today is the day your mom was getting her tests done. How is she? Any news?” Lillie sounded concerned.
“No. No news yet. She’s still at the hospital. The hospital said it could take a few hours, so I thought I’d just walk around for awhile, fill some time, and here I am almost lost in this crowd.”
Lillie’s stomach was positively doing flips, her hands were damp, and her heart felt as if it forget how to beat regularly, but in a strange way this all felt good. He’s so adorable and seems so sweet. I just have to ask him to my party. All of a sudden, it seemed Lillie was the one without words. She could feel herself wanting to say them but couldn’t seem to pull them from her mouth! What’s going on here, she thought. There isn’t one boy alive who makes Lillie Whitman nervous, get a hold of yourself. But she couldn’t, every time she looked into his emerald green eyes she became lost. Could she really be falling for him? Lillie could hear Claire asking Charlie about his mom, perfect it’ll give her time to take a breath and then ask him. “Charlie, about graduation, do want to come to my house. I mean, I’m having a graduation party on Saturday I’d like it if you could attend.” Lillie was cringing with embarrassment, but Charlie didn’t seem to notice, all he could think about was that she asked him to her party. His heart was leaping and racing like a puppy waiting to spring loose from his leash.
“Yes, I’d liked very much to come, but,” Charlie heard the word but coming from his mouth. What was he saying, but no but! What was he thinking! He stopped for a minute and realized he wasn’t thinking clearly.“ I would like to attend Lillie, but I have to wait and see how my mom is doing, she can’t be alone right now.”
Lillie felt all the air escape from her body but she knew Charlie had to put his mom first. “ I understand Charlie, you are welcome if you can make it.” Lillie felt angry with herself for feeling so upset. How could she be so selfish when Charlie was going through such a terrible ordeal with his mother? “Charlie, I want to help, is there anything I can do? Lillie stretched her hands across the table and put them over his. For a brief moment it felt as if they were the only two people in the diner. He looked at her face, it was so perfect, so beautiful.
“No, but thank you. Just talking about it makes me feel a little better, thanks for listening. I’d better get back though.” Charlie got up from the booth and Lillie and Claire wished his mother well as he left.
“What’s going on with you?” Claire turned to Lillie laughing. “ I think you REALLY like this boy!”
“Oh don’t be silly. I’ll admit he is kind of cute, his eyes are very green did you take a gander? How could you not notice! But, no, I was just being polite.” Lillie peered out the window. She didn’t dare look Claire in the eyes. Claire was her best friend and if anyone knew she was trying to avoid something, it would be her.
“You were being polite! You are so full of air, you like him! Admit it Lillie you have a crush on Charlie Murphy.” Claire pressed up against Lillie pushing her into the window.
“Fine then, I do like him, I’ll admit it. But don’t call it a crush, it makes it sound childish.” Lillie looked at Claire and Claire knew in an instant; no, not a crush, this was much more.
Charlie listened to the doctors’ explanation of his mother’s condition. But the more he listened the less he heard. They spoke in a language filled with medical terms that were was almost impossible to understand. Finally Charlie interrupted, “What is it the both of you are trying to tell me? Please keep it simple.” They apologized and told Charlie his mother had suffered extreme damage to her brain and she would never be the same. They recommended he transfer her to a rest home where they could give her the constant care she would need for the rest of her life. Charlie would not think of it, he would never put his mother in a rest home. No, they had the nurse and he could care for her when he was home. He would be taking her to her home.
Charlie was silent on the ride home. Everything he had wanted to do for his mother had been shattered in a matter of days. When they arrived home, he settled her in bed and then prepared supper. It was quiet in the house and his mind wandered to Lillie and the time they spent together today. He wondered what it would be like to hold her hand for more than a second or to kiss her soft lips. He had more than a feeling about Lillie, it was a yearning. His body surged with heat and his hands become sweaty again. His heart pumped wildly as if his entire body would explode. He missed her already and the more he thought of her, the more he longed to be with her all the time. The teakettle had begun to whistle and it startled him. He felt guilty for getting lost in his own selfish thoughts. His mother needed him, Lillie would have to wait.
The finishing touches were put on her Lillie’s graduation dress and the food and flowers for the party were ordered. Not satisfied with the center pieces on the tables though, she and Claire went to Wilson’s Flowers. Claire convinced her that daisies would make a more lively addition than roses. “Roses were so formal and stuffy”, Claire said. Lillie looked at her friend and smiled, she’d be lost without her, she thought. Choosing flowers for her party was such a simple task, but one a girl wants her mother there to help her with. Claire knew this and she felt her friend’s pain. She knew she would always be there to see her through, just as Lillie had always done for her. The two girls finished deciding on the flowers and went to the bakery to confirm the cake order. This was the first party at her house since her mom had passed away and Lillie wanted to make it as easy as possible on her dad.
Later that evening she had called Claire to discuss their plans for the next day. When Claire came to the phone, it was clear by the sound of her voice something was wrong. Lillie prodded her until she finally confided in her. Showing her feelings did not come easily for Claire, not even with Lillie.
Claire’s home was very different than the one Lillie shared with her father. Although Claire had both of her parents, she might as well have lived alone. They made little effort to understand her, and it seemed as if they didn’t want to either. Her mother and father, who both came from a long line of wealth, could not understand their daughter in the least. Her mother was ashamed of Claire’s insistence to wear pants and rally for woman's rights.
She felt that any self- respecting lady would not bother with such issues, after all, that was something for the men to worry about. It was this way of thinking that embodied everything Claire despised and it is what kept a wedge between her parents and herself for most of her adult life. Claire could not understand why it was such an issue for a woman to want to have her voice heard or to wear what she wanted, whenever she wanted.
This evening was particularly hard for Claire. Her cousin Gwen had come to visit from Connecticut and she was everything her mother wanted in a daughter and didn’t have in Claire. Gwen was her mother’s perfect combination of looks and manners. She had the prettiest dresses and knew exactly what to wear and how to wear it. She said all the “right things” at the “right time”, and as for politics, it held no interest for her. Her goal in life was to marry a rich man, settle down, and have a family. She would, of course, make a lovely home somewhere on Long Island. Claire’s mother practically fainted with joy every time Gwen came into the room and graced everyone with her presence. And with each passing comment or look from Gwen, she would glance over at Claire with disapproving eyes and a constant reminder of her inadequacies.
Lillie’s heart sank for her friend. She knew she had to remove her from their presence or she would continue to be miserable. ”Tell your mom I need you, tell her something has gone wrong with the decorations and you simply must come and spend the night to help me. She’ll understand something like that.”
Lillie waited for Claire to respond. “ I don’t know Lillie, she really wants me to spend time with Gwen. She thinks Gwen might have a positive influence on me. Can you imagine, a positive influence on me. That woman hasn’t a clue to who I am. I choose who has an influence on me. I like who I am, I don’t want to be some fluffy-headed little girl who needs a man to take care of her, I can take care of myself!” Claire was so frustrated she turned her head from the phone trying to hide from Lillie that she was tearing up.
“ I know, said Lillie, “I’ll go talk to my dad. He’ll ring up your mom. I know she won’t say no to him.”
“Do you think he’ll do it?” Claire seemed hopeful.
“I know he will. He loves you like a daughter Claire, he’d do anything for you.”
Lillie told Claire to hang up and wait for his call. About a half hour went by and Claire heard the telephone ring, after a minute or two, her mom came into her room.
“ Mr. Whitman says Lillie’s in a tizzy about decorations for her party. He asked if you could go over and help her. I told him you would come over straight away. Oh, and bring your overnight bag, he asked if you could spend the evening. It seems the girl is having a difficult time of it with her mother gone, graduation and all. See, how fortunate you are that I’m here. Honestly Claire, I wish you were a little more like Lillie, or your cousin Gwen. Well hurry up, Henry will drive you over.”
Henry had been the driver for Claire’s family as long as she could remember. He was a small, white- haired man with an engaging smile and a large heart. Claire always felt safe when Henry was driving and she could be completely herself with him. Henry didn’t care if Claire was different, he always seemed to enjoy their conversations.
When Claire arrived, Lillie was waiting on the porch for her. As they strolled through the house, she saw Mr. Whitman and thanked him for his help. They spent time in the garden until a chill made it impossible for them to stay any longer. Lillie raced with Claire up to her bedroom. Falling over from laughter, they made themselves comfortable in a pair of overstuffed chairs talking all through the night . They shared what was serious, light-hearted and everything in between. When they finally got around to falling asleep Claire felt better. She knew in Lillie’s home she would always be welcomed and loved.
The girls woke early and spent most of the morning just sitting around being lazy. They knew the next day would busy and wanted some time to just enjoy doing as little as possible. After a few hours passed Claire thought it was time she went home to see Gwen. She had promised to go shopping with her that afternoon and wouldn’t want to be late. Lillie giggled as Claire pretended to be Gwen who was horrified at her tardiness! Lillie gave her friend a big hug and watched as she got into the car and drove away. Just look at Claire driving, she is one of the only girls she knew who drove, thought Lillie. The rest of the day was spent concentrating on last minute preparations for the party. She wanted everything to be in the bag, altogether beautiful.
It was Saturday morning, the day of the graduation party. The Whitman house was bustling with staff and delivery people coming and going. Gardeners were taking special care to set up everything as exactly as planned. James Whitman had lanterns hung along the back of the property line and from various trees in the yard. There were green vines on all the trellises and round tables with white linen cloths. They set out the most elegant silverware, and as a surprise for Lillie, James had her mother’s finest china unpacked from storage. The grounds looked spectacular.
Inside the kitchen the most tantalizing smells filled the air as the cooks prepared a meal that would have dazzled royalty. Flowers were delivered and placed throughout the house on both the front and back porches. Inside the house, the central staircase was draped with vines of tiny flowers and ribbon. The centerpieces were arranged with the daisies Lillie and Claire had chosen at the florist and set on delicate lace doilies that were handmade in England.
Upstairs Lillie was sitting in her room thinking about her mother. She missed her so much and thought how different this day would have been if she were here. There was a knock at her door and Claire came charging in before Lillie had a chance to answer. She looked at Claire and instantly felt better. Claire had been like her sister all these years and if she couldn’t have her mom then she was thankful she had her. As she watched her walk across the room, she thought, how beautiful she is. Claire wasn’t one of those “glamor girlies” the type that wouldn’t do a thing that could possibly ruin her hair. She was strong and intelligent and darn proud of it. Claire never worried what other people thought or what was the popular fad at the moment. Claire made her own way and most definitely had her own style. She was beautiful both inside and out.
“ What’s the word, why are you still in your pajamas?” Claire pulled some of Lillie’s clothes out of the closet. “Come on lazybones we have to go downtown, you made that appointment at the beauty parlor and I have to pick up my suit from alterations at Sherman’s.” Lillie jumped off her bed, got dressed and off they went.
Charlie had a few errands to run and since it was Saturday he asked Mrs. Russo if she would sit with his mother . He went to the butchers for their meat, mailed a letter to his aunt who lived in New Jersey and picked up his mother’s prescription from the drug store. Once he was home and putting the meat away in the icebox, Mrs. Russo came in from his mother's room, “She’s sleeping. I made her a bowl of soup and then she drifted off.”
“Thank you so much for staying with my mom.”
“You’re welcome. Charlie did you hear about the big party at the Whitman’s house tonight? I think all the young people in town will be there. How about you, are you going, too?”
“I was invited, Lillie asked me to come, but I have to look after mom so I have to stay to home. Anyway, the only suit I own is so old I would be embarrassed to be seen in it. I know all the other guys will be wearing suits that would put me to shame.”
“Nonsense Charlie Murphy, a nice, young lady invites you personally to her party and you’re not going? Now, isn’t that rude! Yes, you will go and I will stay with your mother tonight. As for a suit, Mr. Russo has some beautiful suits he can’t fit into any more, you know he loves his pasta a little too much. I’ll go get a few for you to try on. I’ll be back in a minute.”
As she started to leave Charlie called to her. “Mrs. Russo, thank you, I can’t think of what I can do to repay you.” “Just have a good time Charlie boy.” Mrs. Russo went next door to fetch her husband’s suits.
Charlie crept into his mother’s bedroom and sat down on the edge of the bed next to her. She was sleeping so peacefully you couldn’t tell she had something as serious as a stroke happen to her. He was so excited about going to the party, but he couldn’t let go of his nagging sense of guilt. How could he have fun when she was just lying in bed unable to go anywhere? He pulled the blanket up, carefully tucked it under her chin, and kissed her on the cheek. He heard Mrs. Russo come back into the house and she was calling to him. Charlie silently left the room and made his way downstairs.
“Mrs. Russo I can’t go, I can’t leave her here and go to a party and pretend everything is fine, it’s not.” Charlie sat down on the couch and Mrs. Russo went and sat beside him.
“Charlie, you’re such a good boy and what a son…no one is better than you. You take care of your mother and give her everything she needs, but she also wants you to be happy. If she knew that you had stopped living because of her, ooh, Charlie, momma would be so sad. You know Charlie, part of taking care of her is taking care of you, too. So you go to the party and I don’t want to hear anything about staying home, you understand? Mrs. Russo handed Charlie the suits. He couldn’t help but smile as she shooed him into the other room to try them on.
Lillie walked amongst her guests making sure she hadn’t missed anyone who had arrived. The lanterns were lit with tiny lights that glowed in the trees. The large branches built a canopy that magically twinkled overhead. Lillie smiled and laughed as everyone congratulated her on graduation, but inside she was nervous and waiting for one special guest. An hour had past and Lillie was giving up any hope that Charlie was coming. She slid over to were Clair was sitting and took a seat.
Claire was captivating the boys at the table with her political savvy when Lillie suddenly turned and looked behind her. She saw Charlie standing on the porch peering through the crowd of guests; he had spotted her. He was here, her heart began fluttering and her head began to spin. She wanted to jump up and run to him but instead she held her breath for a moment and walked over with grace.
“Charlie I’m so glad you could come, how is your mom?” She wanted in the worst way to feel his arms around her, but instead she maintained her calm.
“She’s about the same, thank you for asking. Our neighbor Mrs. Russo is staying with her tonight just so that I could be here.” Charlie couldn’t believe how lovely she looked. He wished he could take her in his arms and never let go. There was a burning in his chest and the noise around him faded away until he could hear only Lillie. She asked him to join her on a walk around the garden. Charlie put his arm out for Lillie to hold and she wrapped her arm through his squeezing gently.
Lillie began to point out all the different plants, trees and shrubs. She began to tell him all about their origins and how long they’ve been in the garden, but there was something in his patient, giving eyes that led her to open up about her mom. They came to a bench and sat down. There they began to share their lives and their dreams, it was all so easy and natural. They spoke as if they’d known each other all their lives and as if they would know each other all their lives. The more time they spent together, the more they knew they wanted the night to never end.
The guests were beginning to thin out and go home when Charlie realized it was getting late. He needed to get back home. There was no way he wanted to take advantage of Mrs. Russo’s kind offer.
His heart ached at the thought of leaving Lillie, but he knew he had to. When he rose to go Lillie felt her heart plummet into her stomach, she knew it was late and he had to leave, but she could feel herself wanting to say please don’t go yet, but she didn’t.
“ Lillie, I had a wonderful time tonight and you look beautiful in your dress.” For the first time that evening Charlie felt nervous. He didn’t know if he should kiss her or not, but he knew how badly he wanted it.
“Well, thank you. And you look so handsome in your suit, it becomes you.” He put his arm out as Lillie walked with him to the front porch.
“Lillie, I really did have a wonderful time, maybe we can get together again sometime soon?” Charlie was anxious with anticipation.
Lillie’s insides jumped and twirled, they danced with the joy of their first evening together. In a soft voice saved just for Charlie she answered, “Yes, I would like that very much.” He looked into her eyes for a moment longer. He was sinking fast, a minute longer and he wouldn’t be able to stop himself from kissing her. But he knew Lillie was above all else a lady. There was only one thing left to do, he would thank her again and take leave his leave of the party.
Lillie stayed with her lingering guests until the very last one had left. She was thoroughly exhausted. While the staff was still busy cleaning up, Lillie kissed her father on the forehead and went up to bed. Alone and in blessed privacy, she buried herself deep under her covers and cuddled up to her downy pillows. She closed her eyes and gave in to the thoughts of the most perfect of nights: the twinkling lights, the delicious food, and the garden as witness to the beginning of her and Charlie. She imagined them together with a family and just so happy. Could it ever happen? How she wished it come true. She knew he would be a fine husband and would someday make an excellent father .One look at how he cared for his mother and Claire knew he had all the tenderness and warmth she would ever need or want.
When Charlie got home he thanked Mrs. Russo for staying with his mom.
“So how was your evening Charlie?”
“It was amazing, the party, and the lights and the food, there was so much to enjoy!”
“Yes, and what else?” Mrs. Russo tried to be coy.
“What do you mean, what else?” Charlie was just playing with her now, he knew exactly what she meant.
“Charlie Murphy how was Lillie?” Mrs. Russo sounded a little exasperated.
Charlie chuckled, “I know what you meant, she was lovely. We had a great time and I asked to see her again. She said yes, so I’m going to call on her for lunch during the week.”
“Oh wonderful, she’s such a good girl Charlie.” Mrs. Russo gave Charlie a big, motherly hug and then walked home.
Lillie couldn’t believe school was over. She knew life would be different now. How often would she be able to see her friends and which ones would she not see again? It felt strange to think about not spending time with the same people you’ve grown up with for years. Very strange indeed. Claire plucked up her courage and knew she was ready. The girls decided to go downtown and have lunch to celebrate what was to come. Would they decide to stay at home or embark on new adventures… only time would tell.
On the way, they passed by the new housing development her dad’s company was working on.
“Claire do you mind if we go in, I want to see if Charlie is here.” Claire smiled as they headed over to the construction site. Charlie was hammering on the second story of one of the houses when he caught a glimpse of the girls walking over. He quickly climbed down to talk with them.
“Lillie, what are you two doing here?” Charlie tried to appear matter of fact.
“We thought we’d have a bite to eat in town, how is your your mom?” Lillie once again wanted to kiss him, but remained composed. It was getting more difficult each time she saw Charlie.
“She’s about the same, thank you for asking though.” Claire started to laugh a little. “What’s so funny?” Lillie snapped.
“My, the two of you, stop dancing around each other. Charlie, just ask her on a date already, will you!” Charlie began to blush and Lillie was mortified, Claire was so rude, she thought.
“Claire how could you?” Lillie spoke in a sharp tone.
“No, she’s right,” Charlie turned to Lillie, “Lillie, would you care to join me for lunch this Saturday? I will meet you at your house at one o’clock.” Lillie was so excited she didn’t think she could stay calm for another second.
“One o’clock would be perfect, I look forward to seeing you on Saturday.” Charlie felt as if he could float to the second story of the house he was framing. He said goodbye to the girls and reluctantly headed back to work.
The girls arrived at the diner not prepared for what they saw. The patrons, usually chatting about the weather or the diner’s delicious apple pie, were in turmoil. It seemed newspapers were being passed around with a headline that sparked a very powerful response. It read U.S. cautiously watches war in Europe. The men were in a heated conversation about the fate of our country going to war, while the women were nervous with the thought of sending their husbands, sons and fathers to fight. The reports were saying how this was the worst war ever and that if we did become involved it would be like no other we’ve seen before. Many young boys and men had already been killed in Europe and the situation was escalating. Germany was relentless in its efforts to gain vengeance.
The girls sat down at a booth and ordered lunch. They listened to what was being discussed around them and grew more disturbed with each passing moment. They quietly ate their lunch, finishing quickly so they could leave as soon as possible.
The week dragged on endlessly. Lillie thought to herself, would Saturday ever come? She tried to keep busy by getting ready for her trip to Princeton. She wouldn’t be leaving for several weeks, but it at least gave her something to do. Finally, Saturday arrived and Lillie woke up early to dress. She choose a pale blue sundress to wear with a cream hat. It was adorned with tiny blue flowers tucked into a deeper blue ribbon that encircled the crown.
Charlie meet with Lillie at her house. They both looked forward to the picnic lunch they were about to have at Greyson Park. There was so more they wanted to talk about. Lillie went into greater depth about her mother, and Charlie discussed how hard his mother worked to support them after his father had died. Afterward, Lillie invited him back to sit in the garden. There the conversation continued well into early evening, neither one of them wanting their time together to end.
“ This is truly the most beautiful garden I’ve ever seen, your father must have loved her very much.” Charlie fidgeted with the buttons on his jacket and then he placed his hand on Lillie’s face lightly touching her chin. Very slowly and gently he pulled her face towards his. And then it happened….their first kiss. Her lips were as warm and sweet as summer honey. He dipped down for one more taste of her while brushing the hair away from her face. Lillie felt her whole body tremble and her head felt as it floated towards the late afternoon clouds of deep, peach and pink. As they sat together in a comfortable silence, Mr. Whitman had come out to say it was getting late and perhaps Charlie should be heading home. Lillie slowly walked him to the front porch where Charlie kissed her ever so sweetly again. Charlie walked home in a state of bliss, his feet moving without thought, his head wrapped up in Lillie, only Lillie.
That night in a dream, Lillie replayed how glorious the day had been and smiled.
That summer was a haze of days and nights falling deeper in love. Lillie and Charlie spent as much time as they could together despite Charlies busy work schedule and caring for his mom. Their favorite spot to be was in the garden. There they would often sit on its scattered benches breathing in its heavy fragrance and holding on to each other in complete contentment.
Outside the gates of their garden, the war was growing worse in Europe. The uneasy feeling of impending doom weighed heavily on everyone in their town. Charlie watched as his closest friend Pete and some of the other boys from school signed on to serve their country. They wanted to be ready for the looming threat of war for the U.S. and the current conflict with Mexico. It pained him not to join them but he knew he could not leave his mom, she needed him and right now that was more important.
It was a warm Friday night and Mrs. Russo agreed to stay with Charlies mom so he could enjoy the evening with Lillie. He didn’t know how he could of managed his life without her. She had helped him tremendously over the past few months and he would have been lost without her. Charlie and Lillie dined with the Whitman family, happily, but only as a prelude to the garden. This was their sanctuary. The place away from the impending war, his mom’s illness and the outside world. Here it was only Lillie and Charlie for whatever time fate had graced them with.
Charlie held Lillie’s hand in his. He had never seen a hand so small and delicate, yet each time she held his work-hardened hands in hers, it gave him a stronger belief in himself. And how could he stop himself from just looking at her? It was impossible. The light from the moon gave her skin a glistening glow and her hair looked so silky and soft. He loved her, he knew this, but he could not tell Lillie. Not yet. There were so many things that he still could not provide for her. She was used to the best in life, and all he had to offer was himself. That was not enough, not for someone as special as Lillie. But some day, with hard work and devotion, he knew he’d be able to give her the life she deserved.
“ Charlie, look at how beautiful the trees look in the moonlight. The willows, it’s almost as if their branches are covered in fairy dust drops. Look at how they twinkle, do they have a secret only the willow knows and they’re giggling at the rest of the world for being left out?” Lillie smiled and moved closer to Charlie for warmth. There was a light chill in the air, a sure sign summer was coming to a close.
“ Are you cold?” Charlie put his arm around Lillie.
“Just a bit of a chill, but I feel warmer now that you’re closer to me.” Charlie wanted to feel her body next to his. He'd dreamed of running his hands through her long hair and kissing the nape of her neck. And now it was happening. Gently caressing her shoulders seemed to bring her scent of lilac and roses to the surface of her skin. Lillie always smelled so good, like the garden, sweet, warm and safe.
To Lillie, Charlie felt strong, capable and smart, as if he could accomplish anything. “Charlie, what do you think will happen after summer’s over? I will be going off to college and you will be here, do you think we will be able to see each other?” Charlie felt dreadful, the thought of Lillie leaving took his breath away and stilled his heart.
“What do you mean, of course we will still see each other. It won’t be easy but I will come up to visit and you’ll be able to come home too. I already spoke with Mrs. Russo and she agreed she would help out when I needed her. So don’t worry, we’ll make it work. You’re not getting away from me that easily Lillie Whitman, not at all.” Charlie pulled Lillie closer and she rested her head on his chest. But she did worry, what if Charlie found someone else, someone who was here when she wasn’t. Maybe she shouldn’t go to away to college, maybe she should stay right here. Lillie felt sick with anguish, the thought of losing Charlie would be too much for her to bear. She was falling in love with him and she didn’t know what to do.
“ Charlie, I want to tell you something, but you must take it very seriously, please don’t laugh.” Lillie was practically holding her breath; she couldn’t believe the words that were coming out of her mouth. After all, she had never been this lost with a boy before. She was Lillie Whitman, the one in control. She was not the kind of girl to feel this helpless. What was Charlie doing to her? ”I do worry about when I go away, what if you find someone else, someone here. Someone who is here for you now, not just on the weekends or holidays? What if….”
Charlie put his hands up to Lillie’s face and gently whispered,” That is impossible, there is no other girl for me, and for you Lillie Whitman, I would wait an eternity.” He leaned in and kissed her on the cheek. Lillie felt a chill run through her body.
The two lovers sat in the garden for most of the evening. They were surrounded by the wonder and beauty that James had so painstakingly nurtured. They seemed to become part of all the living plants trees, flowers and vines in the this garden, the garden of two.
As Charlie rose to leave, he reached for Lillie and enveloped her in his arms. They kissed melting their bodies into one. That evening they knew in their hearts no other would come between them, ever. And in that moment he made a decision, he knew it didn’t matter what he had to give Lillie, as long as he gave himself. Tonight he truly understood that was the only thing she desired from him. “Lillie, I love you. I love so much my heart aches, I will never find anyone else because I will never want anyone else.” He leaned into her and kissed her lips gently; she was his forever.
Lillie was breathless, her emotions overcame her ability to speak. She managed only four words, the four most meaningful words known to all, “I love you, too” she sighed. Then she nestled her body into his and just let him hold her. After several minutes and one last kiss, Charlie went home. Lillie sat in the garden for a while before going up to bed and to dream anew of their life together.
Lillie was getting ready to start her first semester at Princeton which brought both excitement and sadness. Leaving Charlie was almost too difficult. If she thought too much about it, it was as if she was slowly suffocating and her heart was breaking and then she wouldn’t be able to leave. But she knew this was the right choice, Charlie had his work and his mother depended on him now more than ever. She was also going to miss Claire; she had seen her practically every day since they were nine. But Claire had her own adventure to embark on, she had landed a job working with a local congressman and yearned to carve a path in politics. Her life was changing and Lillie knew it was time to let go, even if it was painful.