We have a Rosa rugosa bush right outside our side door, and the first flower bloomed this morning. The initial thing that hit me wasn’t its magnificent magenta color, it was the smell that catapulted me back to a moment of nostalgia. I time-machined right back into Mr. Murphy’s rose garden. He was an old, scruffy gentleman, probably younger than I am now, but to a 10-year-old, he was ancient.
He sat in the shade at the top of the steps of his open cellar door. It should have been creepy and forbidden for us to wander over there unescorted. It would never happen in these helicopter parenting days, but then in the postwar, sleepy early ’50s, while our mother worked full-time and couldn’t afford a babysitter, it was not unusual for kids to be left alone all day. There were plenty of things to do, and my sister and I always began our day sitting in Mr. Murphy’s rose garden.
I think it was the first beauty I was exposed to, and I was drawn to it with a magnetic power I couldn’t have explained then. We lived in the downstairs flat of a two-family house, with a kitchen floor made of chipped linoleum stained dark in spots from wear and tear, and no matter how much my mother scrubbed on her hands and knees on her only day off, those stains remained stubborn, almost mocking her heroic efforts.
There was a maple table with a wobbly leg and peeling wood windowsills, with frayed sashes so the windows would suddenly slam shut without warning.
And it was cold. In winter it was freezing, and in summer it would have given us some relief, but once school was out we only went back inside when it was time to go to sleep.
The back porch, such as it was, was a postage-stamp square made of shaky, see-through slats. My mother would hang the clothes on the line, and one of our family jokes was that even though my father never wore pajama bottoms, she hung them out anyway. What would the neighbors think? The neighbors thought all kinds of things, and the unwritten law of the land was that your dirty laundry is more interesting than ours. Literally.
There were foreign smells from the Rotinos upstairs, but we never exchanged conversations about what our families were eating. I now know that exotic smell I smelled all week and especially on Sundays was garlic. Our only spices were salt and pepper.
So between not much beauty aesthetically and absolutely nothing adventurous food-wise and mostly broken and hand-me-down furniture, it’s no wonder when I grew up and was invited to go antiquing with new friends that my response was I don’t ever want to walk into a dark place and look at broken-down chairs with one spoke missing. I grew up with them, and the only dark barn I want to revisit is the safe and sweet space Mr. Murphy provided two little lonely girls in midsummer, when roses filled our souls with a promise of better days to come.