I took the larkspur home for the next chapter of life.
Home was a roomy old house in a Catholic neighborhood a block from the church. The sidewalks were lined with cars parked half up on the curb, car alarms between 2:00 and 5:00 a.m., music in and out of windows, and mattresses left in the rain at the curb in case garbage trucks ever start picking up wet mattresses. But it also had little personal touches; beautiful old stone walls and bay windows and patterned roof tiles, a faded cross and a pious “J.M.J.” for “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph” carved in a massive pavement-crunching beech tree, an interested pair of parakeets peeking out the window cage of a driver ed school, a rubber tree kept alive in a tofu bucket on someone’s fire escape, and once an elderly man in white pajamas doing effortless tai chi in an alley full of broken glass with “Gimme Shelter” pounding from an upstairs window.
In our neighborhood there was always something going on, someone around to greet and visit. The Legionnaires Hall had a parrot show every year, a hall full of beautiful birds winning ribbons with their whistles and antics. The hospital had 12 Step meetings every night. The shrine behind the hospital had a Rosary candlelight procession every month. In a narrow space between one chain link fence and a garage, a gentleman from Sicily with a carved walking stick tended peppers and tomatoes, and if you stopped to admire he’d limp over and hand you a big fistful of fresh basil. At the Hebrew Rest Home (the real name was some beautiful Hebrew phrase, “gate of everlasting peace” or “mature cedar trees of remembrance,” but nobody called it that), elders on a concrete balcony called friendly snappy comments to the people passing by, and sometimes sold their homemade brownies & doilies. A young Deaf lady with a large vigilant dog opened the bakery every morning at dawn; we scared each other when I first rounded the corner jogging, but now we liked waving through the window. The convent had Irish Club on Tuesdays, where wisecracking teens from Dublin let me practice my Gaelic and jam with them on Irish whistle.
But that day, after the homeopathy appointment, I didn’t stop to pass the time of day with anyone. I just hurried back to my houseful of lovable and high-spirited roommates. There my bedroom faced southwest with two walls of tall old windows. The little bed was bright with a cozy afghan, squares in yellow and kelly-green and coral, crocheted in bed during my sick days in eighth grade. The desk was a big door, sanded and covered with white contact paper and laid out on milk boxes; it was perfect for sewing and drawing and plants. The windowsills were lined with indigo glass mineral water bottles from the recycling, each holding water and a rooting stem of spearmint; I loved waking up at night and seeing the bottles catch the moonlight in facets of sapphire.
The tall windows had sturdy curtain rod hooks with no curtains or rods. Instead they held hanging baskets of geraniums. Each was a trash foundling, tossed from a patio to the curb at first frost. Every day during that first week of fall weather, I ran out the door before dawn just ahead of the garbage collection trucks to snatch the nicest plants away and bring them home. After repotting and feeding and pruning and shpritzing, each geranium came back to life. Now they were blooming away in scarlet and magenta and rose and white. That room is still a happy memory, a bower for thoughts and dreams like the dream I carried home that day.
Stopping by the freezer for a fortifying pound of chocolate-coated peanut clusters, I went to my room and unfolded my counselor’s patiently typed directions. They said one shouldn’t take this larkspur soon after waking up or soon before going to bed, or soon before or after eating, and certainly not before or after brushing teeth, since the mint in the toothpaste would counteract the remedy. Well, that put a moment’s pause in my candy consumption; if chocolate counted as eating, then that wasn’t leaving much room to actually take the remedy, was it?
While thinking over that dilemma, I put the directions away and took out my sewing kit to stitch up a loose button. Then as brain fuel for perspective I finished the bag of clusters, pulled the afghan off the bed and around my shoulders, and fell asleep.
The sunset that summer night was rose and gold, rays flooding the room through the hanging garden, kindling the water bottles to dazzling peacock blue. I woke up and blinked, amazed by the beauty of it all. The plants made such a picture, it almost felt as if they’d gathered around just to greet me.
That reverie ended with the sound of the hall phone.
It was a new Young Man, calling for a date! In a flash I spruced up, picked out some nice clothes, and hurried over to his house.
That was the start of three weeks of excitement.
For once I had someplace to go evenings and weekends just like normal people, and someone to do things with. For those three weeks I got to eat pizza and watch sports on a TV the size of the beluga tank at the Bronx Aquarium.
To make up for all that TV time I started leaping out of bed in the dark to catch up on chores and came home so late that I only dropped my gear and crawled into bed without even turning on the light. Still, little things fell by the wayside. The first was early Mass before work, and then early bedtime of 8:30 for half an hour of Bible study. There really wasn’t time any more to cook up big batches of bean soup loaded with cruciferous and brassica vegetables. There was no time to take long hikes around the neighborhood, to sew or draw or practice music or write letters; no time for confession and Vespers every Saturday, or to volunteer in the church kitchen after Sunday Mass, or hang out with my housemates. There was no time to stop and chat with the neighbors, or to run after garbage trucks rescuing plants that year when the first crisp nippy morning came along. But I knew that’s what women do if they want to be married some day; not think about themselves so much, and think about their spouse and kids.
Somewhere in all this I saw that the larkspur jar was gone, leaving only the ignored instructions. In that whole three weeks, I’d never remembered to take a single dose at the proper time. After the trouble my homeopathic counselor went to, I certainly didn’t want to ask him for another batch. Besides, things with the boyfriend were so friendly and good-natured, evidently I’d gotten over that memory, whatever it was, and moved on with life all on my own.
At the end of three weeks, the new boyfriend kindly let me know that he’d like a girl who knew runs batted in, politics, NASCAR, stocks & bonds, microbrews, ski resorts, cinema verite, computer operating systems, jazz, science fiction, fashion, and other real world things. He kindly complimented my good nature and intelligence, and suggested I stop wasting them on every passing unfortunate on the street. To lighten the mood, he made a little joke. “You like visiting neighbors so much, why not move in to Hebrew Rest Home? They’ll throw you a nice bar mitzvah.”
A bar mitzvah is not a party, it’s a 14-year-old boy. But I was too crestfallen to point that out as I packed up my cashews, dried craisins, and Imprimatur biography of Florence Nightingale and the nursing sisters of Bermondsey, and walked home.
That was a pensive little trip.
The temperature and season had changed overnight. At Hebrew Rest Home, the seniors were nowhere in sight; the balcony was too chilly for them now. I inquired at the nursing station, and learned that one of my favorite residents was moved to a rehab hospital and another favorite resident had passed away. With the new school year the Irish club had moved out to the suburbs. The Sicilian garden was cut down and put to bed. At home, the landlord let us know that his relatives would like the house, and he was going to renovate the whole place for them. Our little household in our quaint neighborhood was breaking up.
When I stopped at the freezer for some carob-coated graham crackers and opened my bedroom door, a drizzly dusk was falling. For the first time in days I actually turned on the light and took a look at my room. One mineral water bottle had fallen off the sill, and there was a forlorn little pile of indigo glass in the corner. The heat in the steam radiators had come on, adding hot dry air to days of gardening neglect; now every plant was dead, leaving the afghan sprinkled with brown petals from all the geraniums that trusted me to save them and give them a new life. I turned out the lights, got into bed for a little cry, turned on my cassette of tunes taped off the radio, and listened about 27 times to the Winter Hours song “Hyacinth Girl.” Then I remembered what my counselor said about my inner world of treasure. It began to dawn on me: my single life-before-boyfriend, the life I was eager to trade in for a chance to be a normal grownup, had been a really lovely place.
Luckily I found a little studio unit a mile away, and moved my stuff an armload at a time. That was the start of a long cold winter. I got sick for a while, and in spring had to leave a stressful job. One day in summer there was some hand mending to do. I opened my little sewing box. There was the larkspur inside it! Holding the jar I took a fond look back at all my earnest effort at self-improvement and boyfriend preparation from the year before. Then I broke open the seal, took a dose of remedy, and sat down waiting for something to happen.
So I dropped the jar back in the sewing kit. “Placebo!” I laughed. I went right on with my chores, and didn’t give the remedy another thought….