An American Beauty

An American Beauty

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Stories of Faith

An American Beauty

A bit of fragrance always clings to the hand that gives roses.

~Chinese Proverb

In the 1930s, after the death of her husband, a middle-aged woman named Marguerite left Germany to make a new life in America, away from Hitler and the Third Reich. Marguerite’s younger brother, Wilhelm, stayed behind with his Jewish wife and family to protect their assets, unaware of the horrors to come.

In her adopted country, Marguerite lived on a small pension and supplemented her income by raising a variety of roses, which she sold to local florists and hospitals. She sent some of the earnings from her roses to help support her brother in Germany. And, as the war advanced, she also sent money to help Jews escape from Germany.

Marguerite’s neighbors viewed her as a quiet, unassuming woman who spent most days in her garden or greenhouse. Not much was known about her, nor did the community try to befriend the foreign-born woman. But when the United States entered the war against Germany, Marguerite became suspect. While her neighbors and shopkeepers had never been friendly or particularly kind, they were now openly hostile. There were mutters and whispers about her being a Nazi, always just loud enough for her to hear.

Without fanfare, Marguerite continued to send money to Jewish families and to her brother in Germany. Then, one day, she received a letter from her sister-in-law with devastating news. Her beloved Wilhelm was dying of cancer. He was praying for a miracle: to be able to come to the United States where he could receive better medical care. At first Marguerite was panic-stricken; she didn’t have the extra money. But soon, she was overjoyed when a hospital requested an unusually large order of roses. This was the extra income she needed to make the miracle happen!

For weeks she tended her roses, nurturing and fertilizing them with tender care. Each rose meant another dollar to help bring Wilhelm to America.

In August, Marguerite entered a local contest for the most beautiful roses grown. If she won, the prize money of $25 would ease her financial burden when Wilhelm and his family arrived.

On the day of the festival, she rose early to cut the flowers before they were wilted by the sun. As she stepped into the garden, she nearly fell to her knees with shock. All one hundred rosebushes, lovingly planted and nurtured over the last seven years, lay in shambles before her. Every plant was slashed and chopped to the ground. They all but bled before her eyes. She could barely take it in: her beloved flowers, and her livelihood, gone, possibly forever. And the worst of it was that Wilhelm would not be able to come to America.

Marguerite was devastated, but more determined than ever to show up at the festival. She would not give the hooligans the satisfaction of her absence. She would still enter the contest, even if they had left but a petal. She walked down the garden path to see if she could salvage anything from the debris.

Clinging to life by the back fence, obviously missed by the vandals, was one single red rose. It was an ‘American Beauty.’ She took the rose into the house, cut the stem on an angle and placed it in the icebox to keep it fresh until the contest. Then, shaking with distress, she cleaned up the ruined rose garden as best she could. When she could do no more, she put on her best hat and took a trolley to the contest, holding the lone rose in her hand.

When Marguerite’s turn came to show her entry, she held up her single ‘American Beauty.’ In her halting English, she proudly described its origin, how she had bred it, and the special fertilizer she had used to enhance the color of its petals. But, when the winners were announced, she wasn’t surprised at the absence of her name. Why would they give the prize to a rose from the garden of the enemy? She went home that evening trying to think of some other way she could earn money.

The next day, Marguerite attended church, as was her custom, to pray for strength and guidance. When she arrived home and opened the door, the scent of flowers filled the air. Someone had placed a large vase filled with summer flowers on the entryway table. As she walked toward the kitchen, she saw that every room in her home had more bouquets of flowers in Mason jars and pitchers. It was heavenly!

As she approached the kitchen, she saw a fresh coffeecake in the middle of the table. Under the cake plate was an envelope addressed to “Marguerite.” She opened it to find $300 in single bills and a card that said simply, “Many thanks from your friends in town.”

Stunned and happy, Marguerite realized that this was the miracle Wilhelm had been praying for! Now she could bring him to America.

The miracle did come to pass. With the $300, Marguerite bought steamship tickets. Within a few months, Wilhelm and his family arrived. Marguerite and his wife cared for him tenderly, and he received excellent medical attention that added years to his life.

For years Marguerite tried to discover who her benefactors were, but without success. Many years later, a local woman was going through the personal effects of her late grandfather, who had been a cantor in the local synagogue. She found his journal—and in it, an entry of particular interest. The journal stated that while attending the rose festival, the cantor had overheard two men in the audience brag about ripping up “the Nazi’s” rosebushes. He knew who they meant. Marguerite had never sought recognition for her charity, but many Jews in the community knew that her roses helped Jewish families escape the nightmare of the Holocaust.

That day the cantor set about calling on members of his synagogue, explaining about the vandalism and the financial loss Marguerite had suffered. The men and women in the synagogue gave with their hearts and pocketbooks to the “rose lady.” Several women who shared Marguerite’s love of gardening gathered flowers from their own gardens to honor her for all she had done for their people. Rather than have her feel an obligation, they took an oath to remain anonymous until death. They all kept the promise.

With patient love and care, Marguerite’s roses bloomed again. And Marguerite bloomed as well. She made many friends in town in the years following the war, never knowing that many of them were her secret benefactors. And she continued to send money to Germany to help Jewish families until her death in 1955.

~Arlene West House

Chicken Soup for the Gardener’s Soul

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