Picking Pansies

As a young girl I often preferred to play alone. I had no problem going for long slow walks by myself as I filled my head with outrageous ideas and stories that I concocted as I observed the people and surroundings in my small town neighborhood. I could often bring myself to tears as I imagined witnessing a terrible car accident and singlehandedly dragging the small unconscious child from the backseat of the burning car as his poor mother went up in flames with the green paneled station wagon. Or, the common daydream I had, of being snatched away by a “stranger” and shoved into the back of a seatless van with small drapes covering the tinted windows. I could walk and think for hours about how I would make my daring escape and find my way back to my devastated family. I loved to imagine their joy and the tears they would shed when I limped back through the front door, dirty and bruised and exhausted.

I remember one such walk when I found myself in the backyard of an elderly man and woman in the culdesac across from my house. WelI…I was physically in their backyard…but in my mind I was wandering what I imagined to be a deserted island. I was excited as I unexpectedly came upon an abandoned cottage which was surrounded by beautiful wild flowers. I immediately saw all the possibilities I could create with all these flowers so I started picking and gathering them up in my arms without a second thought.

I was startled when a loud gruff voice with a English accent called out, “Who is out there picking my pansies?”

I looked around, but didn’t see anyone. I slumped a bit in an attempt to hide myself and began creeping around the side of the house to make an escape.

“Why are you picking my pansies?” the voice called out again.

I peeked up over the planter box into the covered carport-turned patio- and saw my neighbor, who was only the topic of childhood gossip to me, sitting in a vinyl lounge chair surrounded by a halo of cigarette smoke. I squirmed under his gaze as he squinted at me and waited for me to respond.

“Um. I’m sorry. I didn’t know they were your flowers.”

“Well who else would they belong to?” he demanded. “They are in my yard!”

“I didn’t know I was in your yard,” I said, as I started to drop them back into the planter box.

“Well, you might as well take them home to your mother now. I sure can’t do anything with them like that.”

I mumbled a quick thank you and scrambled away back to the safety of my house.

I took my walks in different directions for awhile, but something pulled me back in that direction after a few weeks.

“Hey! Aren’t you the little girl that was picking my pansies?” He called out one day when I walked by his house.

I hesitantly walked up his drive way and noticed that his wife, or so I thought, was sitting next to him.

I slid into one of the lawn chairs that was set out and for the next few minutes answered questions such as, “What is your name? Are you Lewey and Dorothy’s granddaughter? Why were you picking my pansies?”

The thought crossed my mind as I sat there getting to know this couple, that my mom and dad might not be happy if I went home smelling of cigarette smoke. Also…. that I was spending time with a couple that, as I found out in our chat, were not married, but lived together in the same house! That was sure to be a problem with my parents.

Well, those thoughts weren’t given time to reside long in my head as I learned from Bob and Jeanette that they knew my parents and grandparents quite well and thought fondly of them. My grandmother had been visiting Jeanette regularly for years and my mom had taken meals in to them on many occasions, so they must not be all bad. My mom later confirmed that she would be happy for me to get to know them better.

My walks took me more frequently in their direction and I enjoyed my short visits, even though I was still quite intimidated and a little scared of Bob.

I quickly learned that Jeanette was an artist. She had paintings all over her home that she had painted. I also had an interest in art and she loved to show me her work and tell me about why and how she painted each piece. I remember her being particularly fond of painting flowers.

A few years later when I was in my young teens with my time much more dictated by friends, boys, homework, and MTV, and my visits had become very infrequent, even many months apart, my mother informed me that Jeanette had become sick with cancer and was bedridden and needed people to sit with her often to help keep her spirits up. It was decided that I would take art lessons from her. I would pack up my paper, pencils, and water colors, and I would walk down to her house, and sit next to her for an hour each week while she gave me direction and advice on whatever I was working on. Bob would answer the door, and after all those years he would still greet me with, “Oh look! It is the little girl that picked my pansies!” But the tone of his voice was very different than it had been when I was seven years old. Even though he still did not remember my name, I could tell he had grown some sort of affection for the little pest down the road. Looking back I understand how he must have appreciated the break in the monotony of his day as he took care of his dear Jeanette, whose body was slowly deteriorating. My mom’s brilliant plan had given both Jeanette and I the idea that I was there primarily for art lessons. She did not feel like a burden for needing someone to sit with her and I didn’t go to my lessons out of pity, but instead, excitement to learn from an artist that I admired.

I don’t remember how long the lessons lasted. Not long. Maybe four months. I also don’t remember any details of the stories she told me as I sat and attempted to create a picture worthy of her praise. But I do remember as we talked the picture in my mind of Jeanette developed from an elderly shut in down the road to a fascinating woman who was highly educated, had extensively travelled the world in her youth, and had been a successful business woman in her prime. I remember the feeling of contentment and warmth and love for this woman, and even her gruff intimidating partner, as they welcomed me into their home and allowed me to be a part of a difficult and emotional time in their lives. What I didn’t realize at the time was that they were the ones helping me through a trying and emotional time in my life, as I dealt with the hardships of a changing body and hormones, difficulties from peer pressure and trying to find who I was, and an ongoing struggle with fatigue and school attendance. My hour a week with Jeanette was my sanctuary from the drama of my adolescent life.

Jeanette’s illness came to a point that she was no longer able to give me art lessons, and I was not able to stay longer than just a few minutes to hold her hand and tell her I loved her, before I had to slip out to let her rest. And then she was gone.

I still visited Bob off and on throughout the next few years as I accompanied my grandparents or parents on their regular visits. Even into my later teens I was still “the girl who picked his pansies”, but it had become an endearing name to me and I didn’t mind.

Then he was was gone.


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