THORNS AMONG THE ROSES
by Ellen Fink
The first time my sister brought home the man she intended to marry, my mother threw her hands up and said in German, “Wherever she found this one, she’d better throw him back.”
At first glance, Fred didn’t look like every mother’s dream. His face was pitted and marked, both from acne and the fights he’d engaged in while growing up in a tough neighborhood. He’d broken his nose several times, and an ugly scar creased his forehead. He enjoyed telling gruesome stories about how he’d gotten that scar along with how he'd lost the tip of his little finger.
While Fred was no GQ model, it didn’t take long to realize why my sister had fallen head over heels in love with him. Behind the war-torn face lived a big-hearted man with a booming laugh and a devilish sense of humor. After five minutes of talking to him, no one even thought about Fred's looks. He even managed to draw out my father who, as a rule, had little to say. Of course I thought Fred was great. I was only five years old and the first thing Fred did was show me how to balance a spoon on the end of my nose. It endeared him to me forever.
My mother wasn’t won over. She picked out all Fred’s negative points and told my sister he had bad manners, dressed like a rag picker and didn’t speak well (neither did she, but no one had the nerve to point this out to her).
Fred picked up on Mom’s disapproval in no time and knew exactly which of her buttons to push. He learned to speak fractured German which drove her crazy, and sent the rest of us into gales of laughter. He mixed up his meat, gravy and mashed potatoes into one glob before eating them, waiting for Mom to shake her head and say, “How can anyone eat like that?” Worst of all, he drummed his fingers on the kitchen table because he knew she’d slap his wrist and snap, “Don’t do that.”
Against my mother’s wishes, Fred and my sister got married the following spring. After the wedding, whenever the two of them stopped by, Fred and my mother kept their distance from one another. An accomplished carpenter, Fred spent his time with my dad in his workshop or watching a ball game on TV.
One evening in June, Fred dropped by to help my dad move a stone bench into the back yard. When Fred opened the gate, his mouth dropped open. My mother had transformed what had previously been nothing but dirt clods into a dazzling tapestry filled with varying shades of reds, purples and yellows. From Memorial Day until the first frost, the garden was in constant bloom. Mom was a master gardener and well-known throughout the area. People were thrilled to receive one of her bouquets.
To my mother’s annoyance, Fred’s only comment was, “Nice weeds, you have here, Martha.”
Our front yard was filled with blooming shrubs, heavily scented peonies and blue and purple hydrangeas. But it was the roses that left Fred speechless. Pink climbers journeyed in and around the fence, while the sidewalk leading up to our house was lined on either side with lush blooms of every size and color.
Of course, Fred couldn’t give my mother a compliment. Instead he infuriated her by saying, “Hmm, more weeds.”
My sister laughed and nudged him to be still, but it was too late. My mother, who had no sense of humor, was highly insulted. Fred, of course, wasn’t about to tell her he was kidding. Instead he told her that with the amount of fertilizer she’d used she should have planted corn instead.
“You’d have had yourself a cash crop,” he laughed as my mother stomped back into the house.
Shortly afterward, Fred’s mother died in an automobile accident. To our amazement, Mom drove over and spent the afternoon consoling him. When Fred got laid off from his job and times got tough, Mom ignored his objections and forced him to take money from her “just to tide him over until things got better.”
My dad had been ill for some time and when he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, Fred was always available to help, whether it was to repair a faucet, or to sit with my dad so my mother could leave the house for a while and take a break.
Although Mom and Fred knew they could count on each other in times of necessity, their bickering never ceased. They sparred with one another like two boxers, afraid to actually hurt one another, but unable to resist taking a heartfelt jab now and then. Fred said my mother was a busybody. My mother called Fred a name in German which translated into English meant something like “doofus.”
When my dad passed away, Mom announced she was selling her house and moving into a retirement home. Fred startled all of us, including my sister, by asking our mother to move in with them.
For once Mom was speechless. When she finally got over her shock at Fred's offer, all she said was, "I'd rather not."
Fred, however, was adamant. He sweetened the deal by turning his garage into a small apartment where Mom could have her privacy. At first Mom resisted Fred's offer. But when the apartment was finished, she couldn’t resist the cozy little kitchen and the family room with the wood paneling. She decided that maybe it wasn’t such a bad idea after all.
“I’ll try it,” she said grudgingly, “but only for a little while. Then if I don’t like it, I’m moving into the old folks' home.“
When the day of the move finally arrived, my mother was visibly upset about leaving the home she’d lived in for over forty years. The ride to my sister’s was quiet and we all felt apprehensive. I was sure that at any minute Mom would make us turn around and head for the old folks' home she was always talking about.
We needn’t have worried. When we pulled up to the driveway, my mother gasped in surprise. On either side of the driveway, Fred had planted roses of every size and color. Hydrangeas he’d nabbed when my mother wasn’t looking, now bloomed on the side of the house along with various cuttings he’d taken from her peonies. He’d planted lilac bushes outside the kitchen window, along with apple, cherry and plum trees.
“So what do you think of my weeds, Martha?” Fred asked, his scarred face scrunching into a knot the way it always did when he smiled.
“Well, I think they look pretty good,” Mom said. For a moment, I actually thought she might cry, but instead she squared her shoulders and peered at the array of pots sitting on the back step.
“What is all this?” she asked, surveying the multi-colored display.
“Oh that’s for your garden,” Fred said breezily waving towards the dirt pile in the back yard. “I bought myself a tiller yesterday, and thought maybe you and me could do some planting. Just because you’re moving in with us, I don’t want you to get the idea that you’re just going to sit around and do nothing.”
I saw my mother’s feathers begin to ruffle, but my sister rushed in and saved the day. “He’s just kidding Mom. Fred, behave yourself.” Fred’s shoulders shook with laugher as he went to get my mother’s belongings out of the truck.
Mom lived with my sister and Fred for ten years before she died. During that time she and Fred disagreed on many things- how to run a household, how to raise kids, what kind of furniture to buy, even how to cook a steak. But the one thing that always brought them together was when they worked side by side in the garden.
Fred took my mother’s passing as hard as the rest of us. In her honor he built an arbor through which delicate pink, white and yellow roses twirled and twined. One Sunday afternoon we all gathered to admire the arbor's graceful lines and delicate latice work .
“It’s just beautiful,” I breathed, reveling in the delicately perfumed air. The garden lay beyond, an extravaganza of color, presided over by families of butterflies and fat yellow bumblebees.
“Yup,” Fred chuckled. “But just so you all know, I had a lot of help. It was like I could hear Martha nagging at me the whole time I was building this thing. I knew I’d better build it right, or I’d sure hear about it the next time I saw her.”
Ellen Fink has been writing since she was eight years old. She recently finished her first children's novel, ":Penny Candy," and pursues her love of writing every chance she gets. She resides in Roswell, Georgia with her husband and Welsh terrier, Murray. Contact Ellen.