On their other side was a big house with a triple lot and a wrap-around porch and flowers, flowers everywhere. An old lady lived there. She was an active old lady. Every morning, from the first August day they moved in, Sheila saw her out walking, every morning right at 9:00. Her name, Sheila learned from her mother, was Mrs. Ruby Candell.
Mrs. Ruby Candell was tall with gray hair, neatly pulled back with a big barrette, that came to her shoulders. When she walked in the morning, she wore a skirt and a button-up blouse whose sleeves came below her elbows. Her shoes had two-inch heels and straps to hold them on; she strode along, every day, as if she were wearing tennis shoes. Usually she had letters in her right hand and Sheila guessed she must walk to the post office each morning.
Who does she write to, Sheila wondered. And how many bills could she have to pay? Who generates that much mail?
And then Sheila thought how pathetic she was, a twelve-year-old with nothing better to do than wonder about her elderly neighbor’s postal life.
In the afternoon, at 1:00, Ruby Candell worked in her garden. She wore neat jeans and a rainbow of matching, wordless, t-shirts. She pulled her hair back with a scrunchy. Sheila thought she looked as though she was in a costume: Woman Working in Garden. She thought that the morning clothes were the clothes that really expressed Mrs. Ruby Candell.
When Ruby Candell walked past Sheila, she nodded solemnly, a smile fighting to lift the corners of her mouth. She did not speak.
Sheila spent a lot of time on the porch that August, waiting for [dreading] the beginning of school.
She was going to a new school; she’d be in grade six, changing classes. At her old school, she had been known and liked and elected class president. Here she would be a stranger amid kids who knew each other, had their own leaders and established cliques and processes and habits Sheila knew nothing about.
The teachers would like her right away; she was smart and conscientious and offered answers when no one else cared. The kids would not. They would look at her and see a dull dumpy fat kid. It would take forever, Sheila knew, to make new friends, although she hoped it would happen, gradually.
Her mother was not helpful. Sheila reminded her about school clothes; they ordered online without pomp or ceremony. The packages came; everything fit: end of story. They walked down one afternoon to school to register her; her mother took the afternoon off work, and they stopped at a little coffee shop and had drinks on the way home. This was a luxury; Sheila knew money was tight, that her father was fighting sending child support.
Her mother said, “Well, they seem nice,” and Sheila nodded obediently. She thought the woman who talked them through the process was impatient and condescending; she imagined a thought bubble above her head that read, “Oh, JOY,” when she learned that Sheila was a new student.
But she would give it a chance. They walked home and sat on the porch a minute. Then her mother’s phone rang and she sighed and went inside, went to fight with her father over legal fees and money for Sheila’s upkeep.
She read a lot, those days on the porch, having discovered the library that was around the corner on the not-downtown side. Sheila turned at the big brick apartment building and there were city offices and a sprawling playground and, set back behind, the huge library. She loved to read. The library was a place to go that wasn’t her sparse, sad home. She brought home stacks of books–dystopian series, graphic novels, teen romances,—and she read through them grimly.
When she wasn’t reading, she was drawing. She brought a packet of looseleaf out on the porch, and she set a sheet on a big coffee table book her mother had (The Great Gardens of Europe was its title) and she drew whatever came to mind. Lean, nasty-eyed girls wearing clothing that was ripped and tight and dangerous looking. A rocking chair and a cat, in a corner with a vase of flowers and a rag rug. A fantastic landscape, rocky and tumbling, mountainous, with a tiny, long-legged figure balanced on top of the highest peak–just balanced, looking as though she might tumble into the abyss any moment.
More angry-eyed teen rebels.
One windy day, a sheet lifted and blew into the yard next-door, where Mrs. Candell was working. She was crouched on the ground, digging, and she sighed, sort of, and rotated her shoulders, and then straightened up and snatched the paper before it fluttered again. She held it carefully with two muddy fingers just at the edge of the page, and she looked at it a long time.
Sheila jumped up. “I’m sorry!” she said. “It just got away.”
Ruby Candell stood up, arched her back, and stepped over great blooms of flowers and a stretch of lawn to hand Sheila the drawing. It was one of the angry teens.
“There’s something,” she said, “in those eyes. Those eyes hold mine.”
Sheila looked at her a moment, not sure what to say.
“I taught art,” said Mrs. Candell. “You have something.”
Sheila thanked her for the paper, folded it into The Great Gardens of Europe, and took her books and drawings up to her room.
The next day, Mrs. Candell asked if she’d like to help her weed two afternoons a week, a job that would continue after school started. She would pay her two dollars an hour.
“I don’t know much about gardens,” Sheila said, honestly.
“I can teach you,” said Mrs. Candell.
So on Tuesdays and Thursdays, Sheila weeded. They started in front, where there were flowering shrubs–azaleas and rhododendrons, a gloriously wild forsythia bush that would be a riot of yellow in the spring, said Mrs. Candell; flowers that were perennial, flowers that needed to be planted each year.
Mrs. Candell told her they had vagabond deer who would eat just about everything. She tried to plant deer-resistant blooms; she mixed up a foul-smelling batch of homemade, organic repellent and put it on the rest after every rain. Sheila could smell it, old-eggy and ripe.
Mrs. Candell showed her how to get under the roots of dandelions and pop them out. “We’ll never conquer them all,” she said, “but we keep at them.”
They worked their way to the gardens on the side closest to Sheila’s house; it took two full weeks of weeding. Mrs. Candell told Sheila to call her “Miss Ruby.” It was friendlier, she said, than Mrs. Candell, which made her feel like a teacher again.
And every night Sheila’s mother came home at 5:25; they scrabbled together a dinner–hot dogs, chunky soup, grilled cheese sandwiches. They did the dishes and sometimes they watched TV–Gilmore Girls re-runs, old episodes of Lost.
And school started.
It was just the way Sheila expected it to be. No one was mean, not one person was sarcastic, but she felt pretty much invisible. She had a music class; in Spring semester, it would switch to art–something to look forward to. They were reading Hunger Games in English. She brought two library books with her every day, and read, by herself, all through lunch.
The teachers liked her.
One night, her mother had a different kind of conversation on her cell phone; it was the lawyer, she said, and child support would start arriving in October. So that, she said, was a good thing, at least.
That night, Sheila heard her sobbing through the thin wall that separated the bedrooms.
There was, apparently, no visitation agreement. Her father never called or emailed.
At Miss Ruby’s, they started planting mums, offsetting the ones that were budding up, that had survived the winter and the hot summer and were getting ready to bloom. Miss Ruby gave her a hard-bound sketch pad, three wonderful pencils, and a little pencil sharpener. She waved away Sheila’s thanks.
“They were sitting in a drawer,” she said, “and they’re meant to be used.”
Life settled into a pattern. There were agreeable parts, and Sheila watched her mother carefully for signs that she was growing stronger, happier, more interested in life. Some days she swore the signs were there.
And then one Sunday, coming in from a drawing binge on the porch, she found her mother curled up, sobbing, in the battered old barca lounger. “Las Vegas tragedy” read the banner on the TV screen.
“Sixty people,” choked her mother. “I can’t stand it.”
She jumped up. Sheila rushed to hug her, hold her tight, but her mother put up a hand.
“No,” she said. “Don’t.” And she pulled the throw tighter around her and went upstairs.
Dread settled: this wasn’t right. The only thing Sheila could think of to do was get Miss Ruby.
Miss Ruby spent a long time with Sheila’s mother; she heard their voices rising and falling from her mother’s bedroom. Gentle. Soothing.
Finally she came downstairs.
“She’s going to sleep a little,” she told Sheila. “I said we’d wake her in an hour. Then we’ll all have dinner. I think,” she said, “we’ll have beef stew. You can help me make it.”
After dinner was eaten–the rich broth and tender veggies, the meat that fell apart when touched by a fork–they settled Sheila’s mother in the lounge chair and sat on the porch.
“She’ll have to have help,” said Miss Ruby. “We’ll start on that tomorrow. And you, too,” she said. “You need someone to talk to.”
Sheila told her about an advancement at school: that just this week, another girl joined her at the lunch table. She brought books with her, too. They read in companionable silence, and awkwardly shared rudimentary information as they packed up to go.
“Promising,” said Miss Ruby. “But you need a little more structured conversation that that.”
They were quiet for a good stretch. Then Sheila asked, “How do you cure sadness, Miss Ruby?”
Miss Ruby stretched out her hands and slowly cracked the arthritic knuckles. She stared across the street, watched a young mother hump a stroller up the porch of an aging duplex. She sighed.
“You don’t cure sadness,” she said. “It’s always there. The best I can do is to temper it by growing something. Making something.” She smiled at Sheila.
“I plant my sadness in my garden,” she said. “You can draw it in your pictures. We use it, like Rumpelstiltskin. We weave it into something we can live with.
“Your mother,” she said, “has it all packed tight inside. She needs someone’s help to start teasing it out, letting it go. We’ll call a counselor I know tomorrow, and she’ll want to talk with you too.”
There was quiet again; Sheila felt dread and a little squirrel of hope battling in her stomach.
“It will get better,” Miss Ruby said softly. “Not with a crash and a bang, but slowly, and one day you’ll wake up and find out you’re looking forward to the day ahead.
“But the world,” she added, “is always going to bring us unspeakable things. I’m sorry, but it’s true. You’ll get stronger; you will. But somehow, we need to put the good stuff out there. The best way I know is to make something beautiful grow.”
They sat for a moment more, and then Miss Ruby said briskly that they’d better get at those dishes. They filled the sink, and set up a rhythm; to Sheila’s surprise, her mother came out and grabbed a towel to help her dry. Afterwards, they walked downtown to get ice cream.
The panic in Sheila’s gut subsided, although it didn’t go away.
That night she took her bath and then she stood in her bedroom window, surveying Miss Ruby’s gardens. She was thinking of doing a sketch for her for Christmas–maybe of the whole garden from a bird’s eye view, a little abstract, with colored pencils. Or a focusing in on just one detail–the stone pagoda tucked in by hosta, maybe.
The gardens were huge, she thought; it would be hard to pick what to draw. And then she thought about what Miss Ruby had said, and she thought about the work it must have taken–she appreciated that work now–to make the gardens what they were. There was planning and shopping and planting and tending. Fertilizing and weeding. Pulling out. Starting over. Seeds and cuttings and mistakes, and poison ivy, bees and insects and pesky deer.
And yet: Miss Ruby’s garden was a splendor. How much sadness is planted there? Sheila wondered, and then it was like a small door cracked open, and she saw what it was like to grow up, to have to deal with senselessness and insanity. She wondered why people killed each other, and she wondered why parents would refuse to give their kids the money they needed to be healthy, or even to call those kids and say, “Hey, how are you?”
She wondered how you could love someone once and then hate them afterwards, hate them and want to hurt them.
There are bad things, she realized, but the life that was right around you could get better, too. I can grow something, she thought. She gripped her new pencils, looking at the expanse of Miss Ruby’s garden.