As I rounded the corner I saw an ominous sign- a black dress on a hanger in the back window of an unfamiliar vehicle. I looked up to the deck at the back of the house; a fluffy down comforter was hanging over the railing. This was an odd time of year, I thought, to be airing out the bedding.
I have a vivid imagination. I love to tell stories, to anyone who will listen. If another set of ears is not available, I will entertain myself with a possible tale. I take a single clue and weave an entire story around that one little bit. A sound I hear or the sight of an object that seems a bit unusual will pique my imagination and off I go. The trajectory of that flight of fancy soars into the blue for miles. Return to Earth happens when the reality of facts, unknown to me at the take off, pull me back into its atmosphere.
My latest story was sparked by the observation of a vegetable garden in obvious need of tending. Vegetables that I’d observed being planted and tended all spring and summer, were begging to be harvested! I had my eye on this patch of ground for several months while walking my Norwegian elkhound. He was a bit older and our walks were more leisurely strolls with many pauses to sniff and for me to take in the scene. Norwegians are scent hounds. They relish every opportunity to engage their olfactory equipment, to the detriment of either one of us getting any real exercise.
That spring I strolled down that particular street, past that house on many occasions. I’d seen an elderly woman, grey hair pulled back into a bun, crouched on her knees, working in the soil of her garden. If I spoke in greeting she’d nod and then be back to her work.
Each time I passed that corner, I would check the progress of the plantings, seeing seedlings start push through the earth. On occasion the old woman would be bent over the rows, pulling out a weed or two that threatened to take away nourishment from the tender new plants was so intent that she did not see me or respond to my greetings.
Nor did she express any interest in my canine companion, which was rare since Norwegian Elkhounds usually garner lost of attention as we walk. “What kind of dog is that?” is a very common question. Many a person will fondly reminisce; “Our family owned a Norwegian Elkhound when I was a kid. I loved that dog”. This comment usually followed by lots of petting and a wagging tail accompanied by joyful yips from our dog. My husband and I jokingly wonder why so many adults have such great memories but seem to have no interest in owning a Norwegian Elkhounds at the present time.
As the growing season progressed, I was able to distinguish the feather tops of carrots, green straight tips of new onions, tendrils of what would be snap peas climbing up the stakes she’d put into the ground. A frustrated gardener myself, due to lack of space to plant on our own small property, I envied her the variety produce that I supposed she would be harvesting later in the summer.
Now on my latest walk, I saw abundance! A garden full of the fruit of the old woman’s labors appeared untouched since my last visit. Peas ready to be picked. Rows of little baby lettuce and other greens crowded together and needing thinning out so that mature plants would have the room and nutrients needed.
What was wrong here? Looking around I saw no one at the house, or in the yard. Several cars were parked along the edge of the yard, not vehicles that I recognized either. The usual vehicles were in the driveway. I remembered especially the Prius, since I owned a similar vintage. Mine was Salsa red; their Prius was the Cobalt blue. Maybe the old woman truly was ill, or worse had died! Maybe, the black dress hanging in the car was worn at her funeral service! The bedding was being air as a prelude to being packed away, never again to warm the older woman on a cold night.
What could have happened to the old woman to bring about her demise so suddenly? Certainly nothing in her manor on the occasions I’d seen her out in the garden indicated poor health. I had admired her agility at her older age, to be able to stay down on her knees, bent into the work, without seeming to be uncomfortable at all. I envied her this too, along with the abundant space available to till and plant! I have bad knees and if I did have the luxury of soil to be planted, I’d need that to be in raised beds, preferably hip height.
No one in the household seemed to be aware of ripe, ready to pick vegetables. Should I offer to help out? Intrude into the routine of caregivers busy with the tasks to help this sick woman? A family who may be in the midst of grieving the loss of this old woman might welcome the assistance of a prepared meal arriving at the door. Receiving freshly harvested raw vegetables, needing to be cleaned and prepared might not be welcomed at all.
During a recent time of grief in my own life, I relished the distraction of preparing food for my family. A long standing family tradition, Pork and Sauerkraut served on New Year’s Eve, just after midnight, had morphed into a New Year’s Day event, but still was well attended by everyone in the clan. The most recent gathering was for my own mother’s memorial service. Though she died in the late fall, the majority of the family had already made plans for the usual New Year’s Day feast and so our memorial for Mom was scheduled to coincide.
I considered harvesting the biggest of the peas, some of the larger greens, leaving them at the front porch with a note. What should I say in my note? I had not yet confirmed any of the possibilities that my imagination supposed. Could I knock at the door? Maybe later without my canine companion I’d return and catch someone coming or going from the house. I decided this was a less intrusive course of action. I certainly was not prepared to do any harvesting at that very moment anyway… the dog was whining, anxious to continue our walk. I went off, looking back over my shoulder, to see if more evidence would present itself to help me solve the riddle of the untended garden.
Back at home common sense prevailed over my impulse to harvest. I convinced myself that any intrusion into this situation would be unwelcome. I did not actually know this family. We certainly were not on speaking terms beyond the friendly hello and nod when I passed by admiring the garden on my walks.
The next day my courage returned. I went back up the block to the brick red Master Craft home. Reader, I did not mention this before, but this house was one of the old style homes probably build back at the heyday of the catalog homes. There were several in our community. I enjoyed seeing this one in such wonderful condition.
Seated on the front porch steps was a woman dressed in modest running gear. She was a very fit person, several years younger than I. Her body benefitted from regular vigorous exercise.
“Hi there, I am an envious neighbor who wishes she had as much success as you do with your garden plot.” She looked up at me but did not comment, just continued to lace her athletic running shoes.
“I am curious about the older woman I’ve seen on many occasions working out here in the yard, is she doing well? I notice that lettuce is beginning to bolt and the peas will become a bit tough if they grow much larger. They need to be picked soon.” “I offer my assistance if that would be welcome. Or you are here today do the harvesting already?”
She chuckled, “The woman you saw is my Mom. She doesn’t live here but has enjoyed helping out in my garden. We’ve been very lazy of late. My husband and I need to get out there and cut some lettuce at the next opportunity.”
Still uncertain about the older woman I pressed on. I sheepishly explained without giving too much detail of my fantasy story; “I’d assumed your mother was the owner of the home, given its age especially. I’d supposed that the lack of harvest had to do with her inability to complete the task and I would be happy to help out.”
“No, my Mom is just fine”. The younger woman, obviously the owner of this home, was looking at me a bit more closely; I thought to myself maybe even a bit suspiciously. Maybe she wondered that I paid too much attention to her garden! She stood and I felt I was being dismissed. “When you walked up, I was preparing to go for a run. I need to get going now. Thank you for your concern about my Mom and your interest in my garden.”
“We usually have more produce than we can use and often put out baskets on the curb to share with others. Please feel free to help yourself when the occasions arise.” There was no more conversation or opportunity for me to learn more about the family.
I started to think about the fluffy goose down quilt that covered my king-sized bed and decided upon my return to home that I would air it out a bit. It was a nice sunny day with a gentle breeze, perfect to do the job.
More strolls later in the season revealed the generosity of this errant gardener. I delighted in the occasional offerings in baskets of greens and even the occasional bouquets of flowers. My old canine companion succumbed to the arthritis plaguing his rear legs. Most days I loaded him into the car and we drove to the local beach with a flat level boardwalk that better suited his gait than the hilly terrain of our residential neighborhood. Our neighborhood strolls curtailed, so was the opportunity to see and possibly chat with the older woman again.
I never discovered who owned the black dress hanging in that strange car. Perhaps a visitor who’d later be attending a formal gathering and needed a change of attire? The bedding hanging over the railing was another mystery to remain unsolved. Perhaps this would be fodder for a future mystery novel.