When the alarm went off, she lay looking at the darkened ceiling until the clock unwound itself from a nervous chatter, to a drunken slur of dings and dongs, and finally to total silence.
“It’s too early to get up!” her body groaned. “Just an hour or two more,” it seemed to plead, as she wearily pulled herself into an upright position. Her head swam for a swift second from the switch of horizontal to vertical. She got up and browsed around until she found her housecoat. Putting it on, she looked at the lighted face of the clock.
“Five o’clock,” she muttered in dazed astonishment. “Why, it is too early. No wonder you complained so, you creaky old bones.” She turned around and sat in the rocker that faced the bed and rocked until the sleep started to lift from her mind like the early morning fog lifts each day in the city.
“Oh yes,” she said aloud, “now I remember. Today I’ve got a very important question to be answered. Well, I’d better get started before I talk myself out of it.” She sat for another minute or so, thinking about what she was going to do today. Then with a deep breath and a long sigh, she got up and headed for the bath.
On a typical morning she was up at 6:30 and in her yard by 7:00. She spent two to three hours in her garden each day. One hour was spent grubbing the weeds from her vegetables in the back, and the remaining time was spent mowing her perfectly manicured lawns and tenderly spading and caring for her flowers. She was especially proud of her chrysanthemums in the corner section on the right side of her old, well-kept, proud-looking home. It had been her home for almost 48 years—the only house of her married life—and she had come into it as a young bride. The chrysanthemums were there when she arrived, and she had loved their sight and scent from the beginning.
She had raised a large family, with the exception of one small boy who had darted in front of a car back in the ’40s. She had been tending the fragrant flowers when it had occurred. The screeching tires and sickening impact had haunted her for years after.
She had just finished caring for her precious flowers one morning in ’59 when she received a phone call telling of an accident at her husband’s work. Two weeks later, father and son lay side by side for what she believed would be forever.
It had been hard after that accident that took her husband, but with help from the older children who were married and gone, she had managed to keep the house and property from becoming real estate owned by the Peoples City Bank.
When the remaining children finally grew and left, her flowers, gardens, trees, yard, and shrubs became her life. For the last ten years she had been one of the only two people in Rosmont to receive the prize of “Most Beautiful Yard in Rosmont,” which was awarded by the Rosmont Daily Journal. She had received this honor six times, and her arch-rival, Mr. Dunnelly, age 75, had taken it from her only four times.
Mr. Dunnelly, in her estimation, was a nose-in-the-air, know-it-all old man who treated his flowers like disobedient animals instead of the fragile creatures that they were. However, he wouldn’t be in the contest this year because of a stroke he had suffered in the early spring. He couldn’t spend enough time with his plants to give them the proper attention a championship yard needed.
Once about three years ago, they had both met in front of Annie’s Nursery, and in a matter of only a few minutes, they had raised enough commotion to force Annie to call Noble Jones, the town police officer. The next thing the two flower-fighters knew, they were in front of Judge Harold Burgerman. Each one tried to explain how horrible the other one was for using such and such on his flowers, when anyone who knew anything about flowers must realize that this or that was twice as good. Judge Burgerman called them both to repentance, fined them five dollars for disturbing the peace, and they left very indignant and with a mutual disgust for one another and the American judicial system.
It was 5:30 when she got to her vegetable garden. It wasn’t quite light yet, but in the predawn she could see well enough to distinguish what was to be left alone and what was to be hoed away. She worked slowly at first, letting her old muscles get accustomed to her steady chopping. Her thoughts ran back to the first time she had used a hoe a long, long time ago. It had been on her father’s farm in western Idaho, and she had been four at the time, maybe six. The ability to remember the exact time periods of events in her childhood had long ago eluded her. She looked at time the same as arthritis: it was something you were stuck with, which you hoped wouldn’t hurt too much, but even if it did, sooner or later it would all be over.
She had developed the habit of talking to herself while engaged in her hobby, and this particular morning was no exception.
“Well, you old fool, you’re up early today, and if they don’t come this way, it will be for nothing. What are you going to say anyway? You don’t know, do you? Why not just leave it alone?”
She stopped for a minute and leaned on her hoe. Why didn’t she just leave it alone? Why even talk to them? What did they have that she didn’t already have or couldn’t get? It was the last question that she couldn’t answer. It was questions like that which had been going over and over in her mind for the last week and a half. That was why she had to ask them.
She thought back to the first time she had seen them—two young men, “boys” to her, who were about the same age as some of her grandsons. She had been trimming the hedge when she saw them come out of the alley and turn toward her, two well-groomed young men in suits. The sight made her lift her eyebrows in mild surprise and curiosity. It seemed different to see decent kids again, she had thought, picturing her own grandsons who had that awful long hair and were doing things that kids just shouldn’t do. “But,” she said, addressing the hedge, “they are still the best grandkids around.”
She wondered what these two young men did in their suits and on bikes at 9:45 in the morning. She wasn’t left to wonder too long. When they got to where she was working, they stopped. One called out, “Howdy, ma’am.” She stopped snipping and tilted her head way back so as to get a better view of them through her glasses, which always dangled precariously on the tip of her nose.
“Good morning,” she replied.
“Ma’am, my name is Elder Blackburn and this is my companion Elder Lyon.
“We are representatives of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, more commonly known as the Mormon church.” (With the mentioning of the word Mormon, her mind reeled with the many things she had heard. Pictures of wild-eyed religious fanatics with long, flowing beards and thousands of wives raced through her head.)
“Have you ever heard of the Mormon church?” the one called Lyon asked.
“Wha-what was that?” she stammered, as her thoughts popped like an over-occupied toy balloon.
“Have you ever heard of the Mormon church?”
“Well,” she began slowly, trying to think of a way to get out of the situation, “yes, I have, but I’ve got my own church.”
“That’s wonderful,” the one called Blackburn said, cutting her off before she had the chance to say she wasn’t interested. “We are new in the area of Rosmont, and today we are going around talking to our new neighbors. We live over on Richardson Street, behind Mrs. Garrett. Do you know Mrs. Garrett?”
“I know her quite well. I’ve lived here for 48 years.”
Lyon began again: “We are also talking with our neighbors about a visit that the Sav—” This time it was her turn to interrupt.
“Boys, I hate to be rude, but I’ve got a lot to do, and I’m really not too interested right now, but thank you for saying hello. That is very sweet. More young people need to be as nice as you. Good-day.”
“Well, it has been nice talking with you, ma’am.” It was Blackburn again, and with that they were gone to the next house.
So then she knew who they were and what they were doing. As the days went by, she would see them leave between 9:30 and 9:45. They always waved as they passed and said hello. They even stopped every once in a while to chat. In a few months a new face took Elder Blackburn’s place. He was introduced as Elder Daringjer. (Same first name again, she thought.) The one called Daringjer had been a horticulture major before coming on his “mission” as they called it. They became instantly talkative, and she showed him all of her little plants and beauties.
One Monday morning she was surprised to find them in ordinary clothes, waiting in the garden for her. Elder Daringjer explained that they would like to work with her and help if they could. Elder Lyon mowed the lawns and trimmed the walks and hedges, while she and the other cared for her little fragile babies. While they worked, she found out many things about who these boys were and why they came out on missions. She also found out that they didn’t really all have the same first names; it was only a title.
By noon what would have taken her days to finish had been completed. They had wanted to come over and show her a film-strip on something or other, but she had politely refused. The fact that they didn’t push things at her seemed to make her think of them with more curiosity than before. She was thinking of them almost daily.
“Why do I bother with fanatics,” she asked a row of carrots one morning after several weeks of letting the elders come and weed, trim, and talk to her. She was very amazed when they told her that both of their families had vegetable gardens back home, and that their prophet had counseled the people to raise gardens, fix yards, repair homes, and care for their farms.
As the days went by, instead of holding her breath when they turned out of the alley toward her like she had during the first few weeks she had known them, she found herself holding her breath hoping they wouldn’t turn away.
“I wonder what makes young men spend two years visiting with people about a religion that doesn’t even have a professional clergy to give sermons? It sounds rather hastily set up. Some day I’ll just have to ask them inside to talk a little more.”
By 9:00 her morning work was done, and she was kneeling in her chrysanthemums, acting very busy with weeding, looking for any evil little bug that would bring harm to her small, delicate beings. Her thoughts kept wandering to the events that had happened just last week.
Her morning had started as usual, but at 7:30 her phone rang and it was bad news from her daughter. Her grandson, one of those with the long hair and bad habits, had been involved in what started as a stay-out-of-Africa rally and ended in a blood bath between students with rocks, signs, and knives and a local garrison of guardsmen with their clubs, shields, and guns. The rally ended with one dead national guard member and five dead students, of which her grandson had been one.
The shock lingered long after the telephone call. She sat staring at the kitchen wall for an hour, and finally she had dragged herself down to her flowers. There she sat, trying to forget. It was then she looked up, and instead of seeing two young men in suitcoats and on bikes turn out of the alley, only one was coming. His white shirt was missing its usual tie, and his bike and coat were gone. With head down and hands jammed hard in his pockets, clenched in fists of frustration, he was kicking rocks and old cans as he stomped toward her. She could see that he was talking to himself, and as the distance narrowed, she caught snatches of the angry words he was saying.
She sat and listened as he began having a mental battle with himself. First he’d mumble a scripture on patience, or brotherly love, or humility, then a quick comeback on patience being gone, and brotherly love destroyed by this or that, and humility nonexistent. The more he talked, the more the scriptures began to win until he was murmuring only pieces of scriptures and phrases of hymns that she had never heard before.
There had been a disagreement of some sorts; that was obvious. By the time he had reached the spot where she sat staring in the chrysanthemums, he had slowed and stopped. He stood looking at his scuffed shoes, totally unaware of her presence, his mind frantically searching for what to do. Pride said go, but love said stop. The hardness of his brow softened, the firmness around his mouth that had kept his gritted teeth solidly in place weakened, and she could see his eyes fill with tears. She became very conscious of her position and wished she were one of her beautiful little flowers blowing in the breeze.
Then from the alley a voice boomed: “Elder, wait! I—I’m sorry!” The young man near her slowly turned and looked where his partner was standing in his stocking feet.
For what seemed enough time to plant and harvest a section of wheat, the air remained empty of human sounds or movement. Then Elder Scuffed Shoes looked at her and, in a rather husky voice, asked if he could please have a flower. “A flower of forgiveness,” he had muttered. Mutely she clipped one for him and watched as he retraced his steps until he stood in front of the other. They were too far off for her to hear what was said, but she saw the flower exchange hands and watched as they walked back to their apartment in the alley, each with an arm around the other’s shoulder.
She had sat there in the flowers trying to figure out how one young man could know so much about love and have such an abundance of it, while another lay lifeless on a mortician’s table because of his gross lack of it. Both had been searching for what life really was. One had found it; the other hadn’t. Why? She couldn’t answer her own question. Finally she got up and left to prepare for a funeral many miles away. Even as she left, she knew she had to find the answer to “Why?” when she returned.
She was kneeling in the chrysanthemums when she saw them coming.
“Turn up!” she whispered. “Turn up!” They looked right and left, they both saw her and waved, and then together they turned away. Her heart sank like a rock in a lake. She felt as if a building was falling on her, making her hands and mind feel heavy. She watched silently as they rode a little way and then stopped. They were talking to one another. She just sat in the flowers thinking that they were gone and she’d have to try again tomorrow. She considered just going to their small apartment to talk with them.
“I could bring something nice like fresh cookies,” she whispered to her small spade, knowing that she would never find the strength to do it.
The elders sat on their bikes looking back at their neighbor.
“What makes you think she wants to talk to us, Elder? The only things she talks about are her flowers.”
“I know, but did you see the way she was watching us? Did you see her eyes? I have a little sister who used to wait by the big window every day when I came home from work, and I could see in her eyes that she wanted to tell me what had happened to her in kindergarten that day.”
“Well, Elder, look at her eyes, and besides that, she didn’t even wave at us. She always waves.”
“Maybe she’s mad.”
“I don’t really think so. Let’s just ask her if we can help her in some way. Look, she’s still watching us.”
“Okay, let’s go chat.”
They turned their bikes around and came back. When they stopped, Elder Lyon said, “Ah, ma’am? Could we help you?”
She just looked at them, and her eyes filled with tears. “Yes, Elder,” she said, through a slightly cracking voice. “Let’s go in the house, and you … well … I’ve got some questions I need some answers to.”
They walked up the stairs and onto the front porch. Before they went in, a thought came to her, and she said, “I hope this won’t take all morning, because there is an old man I must see today, an old man who suffered a stroke in the early spring. He must be awfully depressed watching his beautiful lawn go unattended. I think I’ll take him some flowers, flowers of forgiveness.”