Granny’s Roses

{Aspect of Miss Jean Louis’s bio –a GISHWHES activity]

Jean loved roses. And not just red ones. White ones, pink ones, curious-colored purple ones, rose of Sharon bushes in full bloom. Her love for roses no doubt came from her grandmother, who had the lushest garden anyone had ever seen. Granny had good soil, keen knowledge, and persistence, and she was especially diligent about her roses, though to a casual observer it might seem like the roses had just always been there—that they had decided that this was where they wanted to live, and every year, with stubbornness, grew again and again, fuller and more intense with color each year.

The year Jean was eleven years old, a photographer from a big city newspaper snapped a photo of Granny’s roses, and then it started. People descended on their little town of Warchexit, wanting to see the roses and take their own photos. Jean’s parents set up a booth and sold lettuce, beans, squash, berries and peaches, and asked for a “suggested” admission to the rose garden. Their sudden increase in income made them dizzy with greed for more and more. They had a designer make up little souvenirs, and to Jean’s surprise, people bought the printed photographs, mugs, bags, and coasters featuring one of Granny’s signature white roses.

The summer wore on, and the tourists still came. Granny was running herself ragged. She had little time to talk to Jean. Jean didn’t like all the strangers tramping around Granny’s garden. Once a man had leered at her, and sometimes someone would notice her and smile and ask if she helped grow the roses. Jean hated sickly sweet smiles and she especially hated patronizing questions. So Jean climbed her tree and watched from a few feet off the ground, sheltered in the cool branches. From up there, she could watch, and she could see how people’s eyes roved over the roses, and it seemed to Jean that they were always looking for something—something else—as if they weren’t seeing the roses disrobed right in front of them. True, they were starting to wilt in the heat, go brown, and their leaves were beginning to fall off. Soon they will be gone, Jean whispered to herself. And at the same time that the tourists gushed over the roses’ beauty and the marvel of it all, they seemed to always want or expect something more. Did they think they were hiding something from them? Jean wondered. Wasn’t it enough?

At the end of the day, Jean’s parents counted up the money and gave Granny a small percentage. Granny never questioned it. Jean asked her parents why they got to keep the money. Her mother replied that they were saving for her college education. There was no future here, her father explained. All the young people were leaving. You could be a lawyer, even a judge, her mother said, adjusting her glasses and then looking down at her ledger, where she kept the accounts for the farm. Or you could go work on Wall Street, Jean’s father said, gesturing to the paper nearby, though Jean wasn’t sure why. Jean’s aunt Katie, who lived a few blocks away, said she should go to college so she could meet a rich man to marry. Granny said nothing.

One morning, Granny came into Jean’s little attic room and shook her awake. She put a finger to her lips to indicate that she should be quiet. She gestured for Jean to follow her. Jean quickly got dressed, put on some shoes, and followed Granny down the stairs and out into the garden. It was so early the dew was still on the grass. The air felt fresh still, and the sun glowed yellow as it peeked over the horizon.

“I’m going to tell you a secret,” Granny said, once they’d reached the tree Jean liked to climb, at the edge of the rose garden. “You must never tell anyone. I am only telling you.” Jean knew then that this was the moment. This was the moment when everything changed.