My cousin Joanne lived just three doors down the block and even though she was a grown up seven and I was only four, we were the best of friends.
When she went off to school in the fall of 1943, I thought I’d die without her. I gave up trying to count the long hours of each weekday, convinced that the weekend would never arrive. But somehow the days ticked slowly away until we could once again be together, make up for lost time, and play our favorite games in my back yard.
But then something terrible happened.
We’d been warned not to play piggyback. Caught in the act, we’d been told it was too dangerous. But the older kids in the neighborhood all did it. As soon as our parents were out of sight, Joanne would boost me up on her shoulders and away we’d go, wobbling, pitching, and stumbling until we’d tumble to the ground, giggling so hard we could barely pick ourselves up again.
One Saturday afternoon, as Joanne strutted about the yard with me on her back, our laughter sent us sailing with such speed around the front of the house that we nearly fell headlong into Mom’s Snowball bushes. Joanne tried to stop the fall by taking a quick step backward, but her feet got tangled and she ran straight into the sharp corner of our front porch, jabbing her side and hurling us into a sorry heap.
I thought, at first, she was still laughing but, when I tried to roll her over, I could see she wasn’t. She was crying. I begged her not to go home, but she didn’t seem to hear me. I watched her limp along down the block, holding her side and sobbing.
I hoped she would come back after supper. I waited and waited, but she didn’t come.
I waited for her the next day, again, but she still didn’t come.
At our house, a strange thing was going on. Mom and Dad seemed to have a secret. They would often whisper to each other, then stop when I came into the room.
Finally on Monday evening, Mom told me Joanne was sick. She had a ruptured appendix. Auntie Sep had been told by their doctor that there was a new drug called penicillin that might cure her, but it was not yet available in our small town. Auntie Sep was beside herself with frustration and fear.
“Is Joanne better yet?” I kept asking my mother on Tuesday, but each time the answer was no.
On Tuesday night, I heard the phone ring, then Mom’s voice sounding sad.
When she hung up the phone, she looked at me and said, “Coralie, come into the living room. Let’s sit down. I want to talk to you.”
She took my hand and led me to the sofa in the living room.
“That was Auntie Sep on the phone,” Mom continued, looking at me in an odd way.
“Is Joanne better?” I asked.
“Coralie,” she hesitated, “Joanne isn’t going to get better.” She put her arm around me as we sat of the sofa. “She’s gone to heaven. She’s one of God’s special little angels now...She was very sick, you know, and now she won’t be in pain anymore.”
“She’s going to be an angel? Then I won’t see her anymore?” I tried hard to imagine what that meant.
In my restless dreams that night, I could see Joanne’s face. Her short, soft curls spilled out from underneath the brim of her favorite hand-knit Scandinavian cap, forming a soft golden halo around her sky-blue eyes. But when I reached out and tried to touch her, I couldn’t, because she was an angel, floating in heaven with all God’s other special angels. Her face was happy, but I woke up crying and sad. I would never see my friend again.
“Can I go to the funeral?” I asked Mom.
“No, dear, you are too little. Only the grown-ups will be there,” Mom answered, her eyes red-rimmed.
Standing in our back yard on the day of Joanne’s funeral, I could see the mourners in black walk slowly in the cold drizzling rain from their cars to Auntie Sep’s back door, then disappear inside. I stood silently watching until there were no more people, only empty cars. I felt small, chilled, and terribly alone.
I would never see Joanne again. I didn’t have anyone to play with. Even when Mom read me my bedtime stories, I felt sad and lonely. All winter long, I thought about her, dreamed about her, and sometimes even pretended that she was with me, just invisible.
There were hushed conversations I sometimes overheard during those winter months. “I don’t know how she’s ever gonna’ get through it,” Dad told Mom, referring to his sister, Auntie Sep. “She hardly eats enough to keep a bird alive and she cries all the time.”
I worried about her. I missed Joanne, but I missed my favorite aunt, too.
It was a long winter.
When spring came, I stood at our northerly dining room window, looking off across the street to the field where topsy-turvy patches of burnt brown Indian tobacco, wild wheat, and weeping white milkweed waved invitingly in the sun. I wished Joanne were there so we could go exploring for buttercups, birds, and berries.
“I think the strawberries are ripe,” Mom said brightly, interrupting my daydreams. “How would you like to go and see?”
“By myself?” I’d never been across the street alone before.
Mom hesitated, then went to the kitchen sink, rinsed out her little tin measuring cup, dried it on a blue and white striped kitchen towel and handed it to me. “By yourself. It’s time you learned to cross alone. I’ll walk you to the edge of the street, but when you come back, remember to look both ways for cars, just like we’ve talked about.” She pressed the tin cup into my hand, smiled, and walked me to the street.
Excited about my adventure, I looked back only once to see if Mom was still watching me, but she’d gone back inside. So, I made my way through the waist-high waving grass, stooping now and again to press grass and leaves aside to look for berries.
Suddenly, I came upon a huge boulder hidden in the grass. Bigger than me and polished by years of sun, snow, and rain, it had a smell all its own, like the shoreline of a lake. I ran my hands over the pocked surface, found a notch halfway up just big enough for the toe of my white sandal and scrambled up.
Stretching out on its cool surface like a tricky toad, I moved not at all, blending into my surroundings so convincingly that the orange and black Monarch butterflies fluttering by could not tell me from the rock. The breath of their wings tickled my knees as they landed, then took off again.
To the musical trill of a meadowlark nesting nearby, I gazed up toward the serene sapphire sky, letting my thoughts float along with the puffy white clouds overhead as they scudded slowly along, taking the shapes of dancing dogs, circus elephants, and...angels, like Joanne.
Spring came and went. Then, one day in early summer, the phone rang.
“Coralie, that was Auntie Sep. She wants you to come for a visit. How would you like that?” Mom asked, obviously pleased.
“You mean I can go alone?” I’d been across the street, but never on a visit by myself.
“Yes, I think you’re big enough now,” Mom said in her sun-shiny way.
I was thrilled. Not only was I going on a visit by myself, but I would finally get to see Auntie Sep again, too.
Mom slipped my white embroidered pinafore over my head, then hooked each of my long curls around her forefinger and brushed it into a perfect bobbing spiral. She polished my white sandals, gave me a pair of white anklets to pull on and, finally, gave my face a few swipes with a warm wet washcloth that smelled sweetly of Fels Naphtha.
Heady with happiness, I hopped along down the sidewalk to Auntie Sep’s house, counting the sections of cement and carefully skipping over each crack.
I slowed when I reached the pruned entrance to the yard and walked like a lady to the back door. There, behind the screen door, stood Auntie Sep waiting, but she had a strange lookon her face. Was something wrong? I didn’t know what to do. We just stood there looking at each other for what seemed like a long time, until I began to wonder if I should go back home.
But then she opened the door, stepped out, and looked off over my head.
“The wrens have come back,” she said wistfully, pointing to the tiny birdhouse hung in the maple tree just outside her kitchen window. “They are such hard workers. Never stop from dawn ‘til dusk.” Her thoughts seemed far away as she watched the little brown birds flitting back and forth from her garden to their house.
“They’re so tiny!” I exclaimed.
“Yes, they are, tiny but hearty,” she answered, turning and walking toward her back yard garden.
“Look at all those sad little faces,” she said more to herself than to me as we examined clusters of bright lavender, purple, and yellow pansies peering up at us.
I followed her from flower to flower enjoying the colors of her garden. Grouped in perfect little patches were pink carnations, white Shasta daisies, and blue bachelor buttons, bordered by orange nasturtiums, yellow four-o’clocks, and red moss roses. At each new plant, she stopped and pulled away dead leaves and stems.
“Your flowers are so pretty. I love the colors,” I said, hoping to cheer her up, hoping she would look at me. She didn’t seem to remember I was there.
“Yes, the garden is comforting,” she replied. Her voice was somber, her thoughts far away, her eyes clouded over. She seemed lost from me.
But after several seconds, she finally spoke again. “Come,” she said looking off across the garden, “I have something to show you.”
I followed her to the far corner of the garden. “These are new this year,” she said pointing to a clump of pink and white flowers.
I walked over to get a closer look. Here grew the most amazing flowering plant I had ever seen, abundant green branches weighted down with small pink heart-shaped flowers, each split down the middle by a white pendulum.
“They’re called Bleeding Hearts,” Auntie Sep said, studying the flowers.
“They look like broken hearts,” I said. Just like mine, I thought.
She didn’t respond at once. I began to wonder if she’d ever look at me.
“Yes, dear.” I heard grief in her voice. “They are one of God’s little miracles. He knows when our hearts are sad and has given us a symbol of His understanding to remind us that He understands our pain.”
“Can we pick them?” I thought how pretty they’d look in a vase.
She fell silent...thinking. I looked up at her and tried to see her eyes but they were still turned from me. However, she seemed to be making an important decision. I wondered what it was.
“I have a better idea,” she finally answered. “We’ll let them be for now. Then we can come back each day and see how they’ve grown.”
With this, she summoned up her courage and turned to look me squarely in the eyes. She forced herself to smile through her tears. “Would you like to come and visit me again,” she asked, “tomorrow?”
“And we can walk in the garden again?” I asked.
“We certainly can, Coralie. We can walk in the garden...together,” Auntie Sep answered.
Then, as she reached out taking my tiny hand in hers, I felt the wonderful warmth of her touch ease the pain of my broken heart, I knew everything was going to be all right. I had thought Joanne was lost forever, but there in the garden I felt her presence, her memory blessed by the Bleeding Hearts.
Our visits to the garden became the most important events in our lives during the summer of 1944. As hand in hand we shared the beauty, peace, and joy of God’s wonders, we also held Joanne silently within our grieving hearts. And through this gentle companionship of love and hope and grace our hearts, at last, began to heal.Click HERE to go to my book blog to find ordering information for The Wishing Years and A Tree Grows in Trout Creek!