“Now, this,” Daddy often said, sweeping his arm in an arc like a game show host, “this is a proper garden.” But that was at the old house, before the storm.
Daddy loved grand houses and proper gardens. Mother said he was too hoity-toity for his own good. Our house, a century-old Queen Anne Victorian, commandeered the corner, wooing passersby with her frilly white fretwork and demure buttercup hue. But behind the brick fence and solid expanse of hedge was her secret enchantment: an English garden, overgrown and wild.
When we moved in I was six and, for me, the house was magical, with nooks and crannies and hidey holes begging to be explored. And it was walking distance to the square, downtown, where Daddy worked. There was an ancient, grimy malt shop across from his office and on Friday evenings Daddy would roll up his sleeves, take off his tie, and lead us down the narrow, tree-lined streets for an ice cream sundae, with extra toppings.
“Helen, this is my favorite house of all time, is it yours?” Daddy would ask, now and then, to remind us. Mother would nod and smile and keep doing whatever it was she was doing. Even though it was far too big for the four of us, the house was Daddy’s proud gift of something beautiful and solid to lean against.
“How about you, Meg? Is this your favorite house of all time?” and I would nod and smile and bask in the warmth of being included in grownup conversation.
Summer was our best season. Other summers, afterwards, didn’t come close. Even the air was saturated with joy at the old house. In the mornings, Mother would throw the French doors open to the garden and we could hear Glenn Miller’s Big Band music—Mother’s favorite—while she rolled out biscuits and fried sausages and eggs, or, on Sundays, made cheese omelets with broiled tomatoes from the garden. Almost every weekend, Mother and Daddy would serve a cold supper or throw a barbecue party under the vine-draped pergola while the cicadas buzzed along to Frank Sinatra. They drank cold beer and highballs and joked around and played cards with their friends, after Jonathan went to bed, while I hid in the hedge and eavesdropped and made tiny dolls from corn husks and sticks.
“Paul, clear all that out and put in a swimming pool,” one friend said, pointing to the insurgence of blossoms and greenery.
“You should hire my gardener. He would make short work of this,” another said.
“Now why would I go and ruin a perfectly proper English garden? Besides, I like to putter around back here,” Daddy said, and they laughed and shook their heads, as if Daddy were a hopeless romantic. And I suppose he was.
In the long evenings, when he got home from work, Daddy would clip the privet, or mulch the vegetable garden, or deadhead the roses and I played Spy with Jonathan to keep him out of Mother’s hair while she made dinner. We tracked each other, sneaking over the little footbridge spanning the koi pond, through the tidy rows of peas and squash, winding around the massive elms, and behind the greenhouse. When it was time to eat, Daddy would whistle and we would race to toss a Wishing Pebble—really just plain old pea gravel from the path—into the dark pond, startling the sleek, speckled koi. Daddy’s rule was that you had to tell your wish, which was the opposite of everyone else, who said it was a jinx, but I trusted Daddy’s wisdom on such things.
“How will anyone know what you wish for if you never say it out loud?” Daddy said, and it made perfect sense.
“I wished for a bicycle. What did you wish for, Daddy?”
“Well, Meg, I wished for just one hour of perfect happiness, right here in my perfect garden,” Daddy said, and he swung Jonathan onto his shoulder, and his eyes laughed. “And I’m a lucky man because my wish came true!” I felt greedy for wanting more.
After we went grumbling off to bed, while daylight still dripped off the weeping willow, Mother and Daddy would sit on the veranda and listen to the radio, ice tinkling in cocktails, their voices floating up to us on wisps of smoke from Daddy’s Pall Malls. And just beyond the music and the murmurs was Daddy’s garden, the pagan soul of our home, lulling us to sleep with its warm, loamy breath.
Just before I turned thirteen, the storm came. A tornado barreled into town in the middle of the night. It was like a freight train slamming into the house, before it tore a crooked path across the cotton fields, evaporating in the dark. We spent the rest of that night camped out in the musty basement, huddled around the glow of Daddy’s kerosene lantern, the old house moaning in protest as the wind screamed to get in. In the morning, Daddy paced back and forth in his undershirt, sweating and smoking, surveying the damage. We hung back, leaving space for his glowering temper to air out.
“Goddammit. Goddammit. Jesus, Helen, just look at this. Goddammit.”
The tornado barely nicked us, but it tore a patch off the roof and the veranda collapsed in fear.
“It’s not that bad, Daddy. We can fix it,” I said, eager to soothe Daddy’s wild and terrified eyes, to bring his focus back to us. I didn’t understand that things separated from their foundations could become unstable.
“This is no time to be flip, Meg.”
Mother dragged me away by the arm and said, “It’s a very old house, Margaret. Imagine if this house were a person, older than Gramma Nell.” And when she put it that way, I saw a fancy old lady who might not survive the beating she’d taken.
We stayed at Gramma Nell’s for a few days before a moving van took most of our things to the edge of town and unloaded it all into a suburban tract home. Our furniture was too large and too old for such a modern house and everything we owned seemed out of step with the times. Who needs a pie safe anymore? The new place was small, with thin walls and floors hushed up with matted blue carpet instead of wide oak planks that talked back, even when you tiptoed.
On a sweltering August afternoon, we went down to the old house. A sign said Danger Keep Out No Trespassing, but it was a weak admonishment and I lifted Jonathan up so he could stick his fingers and toes through the chain-link fence. He hung there, bouncing, and we watched two men in overalls and tool belts dismantle the veranda board by board, because that’s what Daddy told them to do.
“Save it all. Everything!” he said, and his voice meant it. They numbered the boards and stacked them in the greenhouse while Daddy ran his hands through his hair.
“Goddammit, Helen, this is gonna cost a fortune,” he said. “We’ll just have to pinch our pennies,” Mother said.
“How long ’til we come home Daddy?” I asked, hoping it would be before school started.
Daddy didn’t seem to know how long it would take and he rubbed the back of his neck.
“For now, just for now, Meg, we’re gonna live like peasants out there in the sticks. But it won’t be long before we’re back in the house and she’ll be better than ever,” Daddy said and Mother pursed her lips.
Living in the evenly spaced streets of suburbia ‘just for now’ turned into forever. Even though I was barely thirteen, I hated the new house for being so predictable and because Daddy hated it, too.
“Paul, this kitchen. It’s tiny. How can I bake in here?” Mother said and looked around like she didn’t know where she was. Maybe Mother hated the new house, too, because there was no place for her record player, so she stopped listening to Glenn Miller and didn’t cook fancy meals anymore.
Mother started picking up fried chicken and hamburgers from the takeout joint, which had been a rare treat in the old house. Jonathan and I thought it was fun and we would snicker and eat with our mouths open and kick each other under the table while Mother poured another cocktail and watched the street, waiting for Daddy. Sometimes he came home after we were already in bed and Mother would yell at him. “Where in the Sam Hill have you been?”
“I was tending the garden, Helen, that’s all.”
“More like tending to your own wishes and never mind the rest of us, if you ask me,” Mother said, hissing through her teeth so we wouldn’t hear. But we did.
Mother and Daddy spent most of that summer drinking gin and tonics, smoking Pall Malls, and watching tv. They didn’t argue, but they didn’t not argue either. Their unhappiness settled in my stomach like a ball of vipers, twisting and biting.
After the storm, there were no barbecues or cold suppers or canasta parties. We didn’t have a veranda or garden, or even a pergola, just a flat expanse of Bermuda grass behind the house with a wood fence around it. Just like everyone else. Daddy didn’t understand the appeal.
“There’s no soul in a lawn. Where’s the artistry, Helen?” he would ask and Mother would shrug, having heard it a hundred times before.
I missed the old garden, and I knew Daddy did, too, but when I asked if we could plant some privet or maybe a weeping willow, he got angry.
“I will not be planting up another man’s property. We’re tenants. Do you know what that means, Meg? It means we’re living under another man’s roof, we’re here at his pleasure. He could kick us out like that,” he said, and snapped his fingers.
“Why don’t we go home, then?” It seemed like an obvious solution.
“Because we can’t. It’s gonna take a lot of money to fix the old house, and I don’t have it. Not yet,” Daddy said, and he looked out over the lawn that needed mowing and his jaw clenched. Then his mood shifted like sunlight through clouds and he turned to Mother.
“All we’ve done is mope around here like someone died. We need a goddamn vacation, Helen.” Mother glared back at him, so I went in search of the road atlas to inspire possibilities. The next day, I asked Mother when we were leaving and she sighed, and wiped her hands on a towel, and said Daddy wasn’t up for a trip.
“But it was his idea! It’ll be fun and cheer Daddy up,” I said.
“I said Daddy’s not up for it, Margaret, so stop asking. I know he seems fine but there’s more to it,” she said. “Besides, vacations cost money.” My ball of vipers churned and my eyes burned with unspent tears.
A few weeks later, I came home from school and found Daddy in the living room, curled into himself on the sofa, hugging one of Mother’s needlepoint throw pillows. He should have been at work and his red face, bunched up and wet with tears, scared me. I stood there, with my mosquito bitten arms and scabby knees and tangled hair, and a strange sadness came over me. It dawned on me, later, that my last childhood summer had ended. Daddy must have felt it too.
“Margaret, homework. Come on now, Paul, let’s get you in the shower,” Mother said, and it was like she was talking to Jonathan when he had the flu and threw up all over himself in bed.
At dinner, Daddy was red-eyed and silent. He watched us eat while he drank bloody Marys. The air was thick with Daddy’s shame and cigarette smoke. Mother sighed.
“We don’t have to sell if you really don’t want to,” Mother said, her voice snapping the tension like a whip.
I caught my breath. A bolt of realization buzzed through me and I jumped up, knocking over my chair.
“WHAT! How could you sell our favorite house in the whole world?” I screamed, startled at my own reaction. I didn’t recognize myself in this taut tendon of rage and sorrow and righteous indignation. This had to be Mother’s doing. She was passionless and practical. Now I understood why Daddy had been crying his heart out. All he’d ever wished for was an hour of happiness in a proper garden.
“I thought you were fixing the old house. I thought we were moving back. I can’t believe you’re going to just sell it like a thing. It’s not a thing. It’s part of the family. It’s our favorite house ever,” I screeched, and for a moment my pent-up angst was a lake of fire, its dam broken by my voice, gushing out into the street, scorching a path across the perfect squares of suburban lawn.
“Meg, goddammit, sit down. Do you think we wanna sell? Believe you me, we’d keep the house, but the repairs are too much,” Daddy said and it sounded like a lie that Mother told him to say. “We have a buyer, a man with money to fix it up, like it should be. We have to let her go,” he said, as if to convince himself.
I was out of breath from bawling.
“Margaret, for Pete’s sake. We’re going to be just fine. Why do you have to be so dramatic?” Mother said and pressed her fingertips to her eyelids. “Pick up your chair and take your dishes to the sink. Jonathan, go get ready for bed,” Mother said, and we knew better than to argue.
“I’m going over to the house for a bit,” Daddy said, and Mother didn’t look up as she scraped plates into the garbage.
“Do you want me to go with you?” she said, but her voice was tired.
“I wanna go!” But I knew from the set of Daddy’s shoulders he wouldn’t take me.
“I won’t be long. I just need to tend the garden,” Daddy said and his voice creaked like the tobacco-colored oak floors in the old house.
“Paul, it’s too late…” Mother said, but he was already out the door.
Daddy’s car had big round headlights that pushed a yellow tunnel into the dark as he drove away. I sat on the curb and threw a rock into a puddle, whispering my wish into the muddy ripples: that Daddy’s wish—just one more hour of perfect happiness—would come true.
Pamela Donison has been a writer in one iteration or other her entire adult life. She is a former award-winning military journalist and editor, was acquisitions manager for a division of Harcourt Brace, and is currently a practicing attorney. She has published numerous non-fiction articles and three chapters in legal anthologies. Pamela is currently editing her first full-length novel, a murder mystery set in Regina, Saskatchewan.