Smelling the Roses

Smelling the Roses

From Chicken Soup for the Soul Celebrating People Who Make a Difference

Smelling the Roses

Let us be grateful to people who make us happy; they are the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom.

Marcel Proust

Stressed out again. My car flew through the streets of my quiet town as my mind was a blur with the mental image of my to-do list for that day. Better than a Blackberry, my brain ticked off the list one by one, sending each item into a time slot on my mental schedule, slowly realizing that there was definitely going to be spillover into tomorrow. Will my to-do list ever end? I thought in exasperation as I turned onto a busy street lined with cookie-cutter houses. They all looked the same, except for one.

I tried to slow my car in time to get a better look, but it appeared that on the front lawn of the gray house in the middle of the block was an old man slumped in the dirt amid a breathtaking garden. I looked at the zooming cars around me as I quickly pulled over, wondering if I was the only one seeing this, the only one concerned about the old man’s welfare. I threw the car into park and jumped out, running toward the old man. The words, “Sir, are you okay? Is everything all right?” escaped my lips just as I got close enough to notice that his stooping figure was, not only alive and moving, but it appeared to be pushing something into the dirt.

“I’m fine, sweetheart,” he answered as he turned around at the sound of my approaching steps. He looked at me curiously. “Just a lonely old man taking care of his garden.”

His eyes were deep blue, set back with pockets of soft skin surrounding them. There was a certain far away look in his eyes that caught me immediately.

He seemed to be about eighty years old and was very frail looking. His back already had a hunch, and I was immediately concerned about his bending over so much to do gardening.

“Were you worried about me for a specific reason?” he asked.

“Well, I was driving by, and from the street it looked like you had keeled over,” I said without really thinking, both relieved and concerned about him all at the same time.

He chuckled in a sweet way that made the soft skin around his eyes crinkle at the corners. “Come to think of it, I can see how it would look like that,” he mused. “You know, I’ve been out here for weeks at a time every spring for about the past ten years, and no one has ever stopped.”

“Don’t you have anyone to help you?” I asked, immediately regretting the question as a look of sadness passed over his gaze.

“It’s just me and my flowers,” he said.

My heart went out to him as I began to get a sense of what the garden meant to him. I can push my to-do list off by an hour, I thought. Can’t I?

“Just you and your flowers, until now,” I said to him and smiled. “Can you ask them if they wouldn’t mind my joining you guys for a while?”

Amused, he introduced himself as Mr. Jenkins and patted the tender earth next to him again and again for me to join beside him. Meanwhile, I tried to convince him to sit on the lawn chair a few feet away so that he could let me do the bending over while he rested.

He repeatedly refused, and as soon as I found myself beside him digging small furrows in the soft ground and planting marigolds, I felt terrible for not having successfully convinced him to sit down and relax. What am I accomplishing here if he is still straining his back and neck bent over the ground? I thought. Some help I am.

However, as he began to speak I realized that my purpose there was much more than just being an extra hand for planting and weeding. “My grandchildren used to play here in the garden every summer,” he said. “My wife would bring out lemonade, and we would all sit together and enjoy the flowers. But then, within one year my son moved away with the grandchildren and my wife passed on,” he added sadly.

“Well, don’t they visit?” I asked.

“Rarely,” he said. “That was a long time ago. They are older now and all off doing their own things. If anything, they come visit in the late fall or wintertime.”

“And yet, you still keep the garden flourishing so perfectly. That’s a huge amount of work,” I noted, a hint of a question in my tone.

He smiled wistfully. “It’s a small price to pay for seeing my wife still in the roses, and hearing the voices of my grandchildren amidst the bushes. The memories that it sets the stage for is worth every minute of work,” he said.

“There were so many times during those summers that I would busy myself with something else in the house, would have something that needed fixing or doing, and I missed so many precious moments in the garden with them. I guess I kind of feel that, better late than never, I’m making up for lost time.”

The afternoon flew by as I found myself pushing off my to-do list hour after hour to keep Mr. Jenkins company and help him make his garden beautiful. At one point, I finally convinced him to take a break, and he let me go inside and bring out lemonade. We sat on the lawn chairs together and chatted about his life for hours.

“You know,” he said at one point as he slurped a few final drops from the bottom of his glass through a red-and-blue-striped straw. “I haven’t had someone really listen to my stories for such a long time.”

The time finally came for me to leave, and I got up to go. “Not just yet,” he said softly. Suddenly, he got up from his seat and walked around the garden plucking various flowers from the earth. Roses, lilies, beautiful things whose names I didn’t even know. He excitedly pulled at stalks and yanked out roots, putting them all together in a large bundle he finally handed to me with a big smile. “Thank you for helping me today,” he said, “with more than you know.”

I looked at my bouquet of mismatched stem lengths and colors. It was beautiful. I left that day slightly sunburned, quite tired, a to-do list completely abandoned, but realizing that by helping Mr. Jenkins, he had helped me so very much as well. He taught me about the pure joy that can come from helping others, how life is too short not to revel in the precious moments, and so much more. Most important, he taught me that no matter how busy life gets, no matter how crazy things are, one should never forget to make time to stop and smell the roses with those they love.

Beth Pollack

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