Aunt Adelaide said, "But little girls love gardens. Just imagine how happy Lovejoy would be to have all this space. She risked everything for a garden smaller than our bathroom."
Merry said, "Give it to Lovejoy, then."
"I can't give it to Lovejoy, dear, she's a fictional character."
Merry nodded and did not say, "Exactly."
"And little Sara Crewe -- she was so excited to find that walled garden."
Merry shook her head. "That wasn't Sara Crewe, it was Mary Lennox. Sara Crew was the one in A Little Princess, Mary was the one in The Secret Garden. They're both by the same person."
"You see? You know the books so well; why can't you appreciate the garden?"
Merry knew Adelaide's favorite books well, yes. When she read about Dickon sharing his tea of bacon and bread with Mary, she wondered what that old-fashioned British bacon was like. She read and re-read the passage about Ermengarde's hamper, full of cake and "little meat-pies, and jam tarts and buns, and oranges and red-currant wine, and figs and chocolate." Merry never understood how Aunt Adelaide could cry over books and movies, but if Merry were that sort she would have cried when Sara gave her hot buns away to the starving "one of the populace." And Merry didn't care a bit for Lovejoy, who never seemed to eat anything; it was Vincent and his restaurant that she rooted for.
Aunt Adelaide loved the gardening bits. An Episode of Sparrows was her favorite; she was always exclaiming over pansies, because Lovejoy adored them. She wrote seven letters and spoke to four reference librarians to confirm exactly which rose was the one that Lovejoy called Jiminy Cricket. Then she waited eighteen months for a specialty nursery to root one just for her. Adelaide once mailed a check for twenty-five cents because she couldn't, and the cook wouldn't, drive the forty minutes back to the store that had returned too much change, but she relished Lovejoy's theft of handfuls of twopences from a church poor-box. They were stolen to buy garden tools, after all, and when it came to flowers Adelaide was a staunch advocate of the ends justifying the means.
These days, the means was Merry. Aunt Adelaide's back would no longer allow her to garden. Oh, she didn't expect Merry to do the heavy work -- crews of men from the most expensive landscaping business in Hood River came to mow the lawns and spread the manure and refresh the annual beds and prune the hedges, and do all of the other "obvious" work, as Adelaide put it.
As the perennial beds multiplied, new ones carved out of the lawn every year, Adelaide even agreed that much of the weeding would have to be done by the Landscape Men. She often came out to loom over them; she would extend her cane to point out the columbine and rudbeckia and baptisia seedlings that must be left in place, and to beg them to be careful, the lily bulbs are under there! Occasionally a Landscape Man would leave, wordlessly, before his shift was over, and the next week there would be a different one in his place.
But there were things that Adelaide couldn't bear to leave to the Landscape Men, things that only Adelaide understood and therefore needed Merry to do for her. To be fair, Adelaide arranged to relieve Merry of all of the other tiresome chores that might be expected of a child. Merry never had to sweep, or dust, or do any laundry, or take out the trash. People were hired for that.
And Merry never had to cook. That was the problem.
"But why would you want to cook? That's what we pay Jane for," was always Adelaide's response, when Merry begged to leave the weeds for another day so that she could make pain au chocolat, or teach herself to bone a chicken from the diagrams in Julia Child, or help Jane make those pastries, a melding of biscuit and scone and croissant, that only Jane understood. Jane had always kept the recipe a secret, but she was aging and recognized a committed acolyte, and was willing to teach Merry.
But Jane only worked in the afternoons, the most important gardening time, when Merry came home from school and Adelaide seemed to feel the weeds growing in the nursery beds, feel them in her back. Adelaide would go out and scrabble at the soil with her cane. If Merry didn't come out, then Adelaide would ever so slowly lower herself to a kneeling position and lean on one hand while the other hand shakily reached out for a weed. She would pluck it, and set it down in the path, and take a breath and gather herself, and lean on her hand and reach again. Sometimes she would moan.
"Don't fall for it," Jane would say, in the kitchen. "She's just trying to lure you out. Help me knead the butter. Remember, it needs to be cold and firm, but plastic, not brittle."
But Merry could never keep from falling for it. She'd run to the window that overlooked Adelaide's efforts, and the waiting butter got warm and soft, and Jane would lose her temper and snap, "Then go! Go weed; I'll just sell the recipe to Pilsbury!" And she'd push Merry out of the kitchen for the rest of the afternoon, and it was weeks before she would relent and offer to teach her again, and she never relented on a rainy day.
And anyway, on rainy days Adelaide would hobble out to the greenhouse, and prop her cane against the wall, and lean on the potting bench with one hand and try to scoop soil into flowerpots with the other. And Merry would abandon her half-made moussaka or eggs-in-aspic and rush out, sullen and resentful, and scoop it for her. Adelaide would retrieve her cane and sit in the chair in the corner of the greenhouse with a contented sigh. "Thank you so much, dear. Cooking is so smelly, anyway, and so greasy. Just imagine how delighted Lovejoy would be to have all these tulip bulbs."
And Merry would position the bulbs neatly in the pot and scoop the soil over them and tamp it down just just right, her mouth set and angry. Once she burst out, "Why don't you adopt Lovejoy and send me away to cooking school?"
Aunt Adelaide said, "Lovejoy's a fictional character, dear."
Image: Wikimedia Commons.