Of all the events that happened in the months after I met Sol, the first I remember is the day he sent me twenty-five roses. The bouquet was the first gift I received from him – in fact, the first flowers from any man. When Sol didn’t call me after the incident in the library, I worried that my angry outburst had given him second thoughts. For three days, I waited in agony for his call. I blamed myself and once again regretted how I often acted without thinking.
Later in our courtship, Sol gave me a brooch once belonging to his maternal grandmother. I loved the ivory brooch, but it was never the thrill of finding roses when I arrived home from my class at the university, when I thought all hope was lost. Roses, unlike jewelry, are living things and, like all living things, are here for a short time and then are gone. I doubt he ever told his mother he’d sent me roses, but she eventually learned he’d given me the brooch. I’ve never forgotten her words when she saw it.
My mother was at home that afternoon working on a dress for a wealthy client in Westmount. Thinking back, I imagine her kneeling on the floor cutting out a pattern with her large shears, her tongue poking out to the side from between her lips. The doorbell rings. She stands and smoothes her house dress, wondering if it is Mrs. LeClerc, our next door neighbor. Opening the door, she sees a truck with a sign ‘Robichard Fleuristes de Montréal.’
“Fleurs pour Rebecca…ah,’ the delivery man examines the invoice, “Wiseman. Signer ici.”
Of course, I don’t know if the man hesitated, but in my imagination he does. My mind always enhances my memories until sometimes I can’t remember what is real and what I make up. I blame this exaggeration on my life-long habit of reading one or two books a week.
My mother tried to act as if nothing unusual had happened. I could see she was excited, but guessed she had a new commission for a dress. “Come,” she said and taking my hand, led me into the dining room. I smelled the roses before I saw them. The bouquet filled a deep blue vase in the middle of the table. The late afternoon sunlight, coming through the windows, seemed to illuminate only the roses. The red color of the delicate petals was hypnotic.
“From Dad?” Had I forgotten my parents’ anniversary?
She looked at me as if I’d asked a stupid question. ‘No, they’re for you. From Sol.”
My mother laughed, clasping her hands under her chin in delight. “Of course. How many Sols do you know who’d send you flowers?”
My hands trembled as I took the card from its place between two roses. I was annoyed I couldn’t be calm and sophisticated as if this gift were only to be expected.
A rose for each day of our budding friendship.
In my confusion, I dropped the card. My doubts about our last date vanished. I couldn’t wait to call Jackie. In fact, I wanted to shout the news from our front porch so all Montreal would hear.
“I’m sorry I didn’t leave them in the box,” I heard my mother say. “I wanted to put them in water as soon as possible.”
We stood side-by-side staring at the flowers without speaking. I heard a radio through the open window from the house next door. A CBC news reporter was describing the crowds lining the streets to welcome Princess Elizabeth to Canada. I pretended the people were cheering for me.
“I’ve never seen roses so perfect,” my mother said, shaking her head as if unable to comprehend such extravagance. “The flowers at my wedding weren’t as beautiful.” Then she turned to practical matters. “Remember to save the petals in a linen bag for your bureau.”
I hugged my mother, unable to resist teasing her. “Only you would think of that.” She saved everything and still had remnants of material from dresses she’d made years before.
“Why not? You’ll remember this day for the rest of your life.”
“I’m so happy,” I whispered, burying my face against her neck.
“He must like you very much,” she said softly. Then pushing me to arm’s length, she saw my tears. “Now, none of that. Enjoy them.” I nodded, pressing my lips together to stop the trembling. “You’re young only once,” she said, lifting her apron to pat my cheeks dry. “I hear your father.”
“I don’t want him to see me like this. Don’t show him the flowers until I come down.”
Upstairs I washed my face in cold water. I remembered what she had said about the flowers at her wedding. She’d struggled since coming to Canada as a 10-year-old from Safed, a small city in Palestine. With her sister and parents, she travelled in steerage on ships to Marseilles, Lisbon and Cobh, Ireland. Learning that Cobh was the last port of the Titanic that had sunk the year before, she was terrified crossing the Atlantic, waiting for the grinding crunch of an iceberg despite travelling in the August heat. Disembarking in Halifax, Nova Scotia, she swore she’d never board a ship again.
I dried my face and brushed my hair. After taking a deep breath on the landing, I smoothed my skirt and returned downstairs. I kissed my father as he washed his hands at the kitchen sink.
“We’re eating in the dining room tonight,” my mother said, steering my father, thin and over six feet tall, back toward the living room.
“Go relax in the living room,” I said.
“I’d rather stay out here and talk with my girls.”
“No, you’re tired.” Mom was insistent. “Put your feet up and read the paper.”
He looked at me with a quizzical expression. “Okay, okay. Don’t push me out the front door.”
Mom and I took out the good china and cloth napkins and giggled, little girls playing house.
“You’re not fooling me,” he called from the living room. “You’re up to something out there.”
Finally, we allowed him into the dining room. He looked suspiciously at his place at the table, checking his chair before sitting down. My mother said a prayer and started serving the soup. My father frowned and looked from one of us to the other. “I give up.”
“Michael, you wouldn’t see a bear till it bit you. I’m surprised customers aren’t shoplifting right and left under your nose.” My father was the assistant manager of Woolworth’s on Park Avenue.
Passing him a bowl, she caught his eye and tilted her head toward the center of the table.
“What?” he said.
When that didn’t work, she pointed to the roses. “Sol sent these roses to Becca. Can’t you smell them?”
I half expected my father to ask “Who’s this Sol?” He could be absent-minded, especially when Mom wanted him to fix something around the house. “Your new beau, eh?” He whistled.
“He’s only a friend,” I said.
“Pretty fancy gift for ‘a friend.’”
My mother nodded in agreement. “That’s what I told her.”
“Nothing’s too good for my girl.”
I pulled a rose from the vase and snapped off the end. I walked around the table and slipped the stem through the button hole of my mother’s sweater. I kissed the top of her head. She looked away from us, her voice thick and tight. “Eat your soup now before it gets cold.”
My mother wasn’t against sentimentality. She just didn’t like it in herself, especially when it crept up behind her unexpectedly. A childhood in Palestine and the scarcity of the Depression had honed a sharp edge on her view of life.
I never thought of our family as being poor when growing up. Only later, I realized money was a constant worry. My mother supplemented my father’s income with her talent for sewing. She could take a generic dress pattern and transform it into something beautiful and unique. Even becoming overweight in her mid-fifties never stopped her from getting down on her knees to hem a dress or cut out a pattern on the living room floor.
She always looked youthful. Her hair, once reaching halfway down her back, remained a silky black, well into her sixties. One day, without warning, she had it cut short. “I’m tired of combing it out every day.” My father was quick to hide his shock and said he liked the new style. Throughout her life, she wore a scarf over her hair, a habit begun in childhood. I was so accustomed to her wearing one that, when I saw her bareheaded, I needed an extra second to recognize her.
Her skin was darker than that of most people, with a clear and smooth complexion. Her eyes were small and piercing; her teeth slightly crooked which discouraged her from smiling. This and her thin lips often gave the impression of disapproval, which was rarely the case.
When she became frustrated by her failure to lose weight, my father reassured her by saying he liked her ‘pleasantly plump.’ “A man’s got to have something to hold on to when he twirls his woman across the dance floor,” he’d say, grabbing my mother and swinging her in a circle. She’d tell him to put her down before he hurt his back, but her smile and repressed laughter proved her delight.
My parents rarely argued. When they did, the subject was, usually, one of my father’s business ventures. He’d have an idea, like opening the first store to sell television sets. He’d be full of confidence, talking about his plans, but when he hit an obstacle, like failing to raise the necessary capital, he’d soon lose interest. We’d never hear about it again. My father was a dreamer, but my mother, practical and down-to-earth, always fought for everything to make life better for my brother and me.
Before I went to bed that night, I crept back downstairs to look at the roses. The house was dark except for the light from the streetlamp through the living room windows. The pale light revealed no color, no delicacy, only form and structure; only a fragrance hinted at the fallacy of sight.
Returning upstairs, I met my mother coming from the bathroom. “I’m too excited to sleep,” I said. “I had to see the roses again.”
“Sol is a wonderful young man who cares about you very much.”
“I like him more than anyone I’ve ever met.”
Kissing her goodnight, I returned to bed, relieved she hadn’t asked me if I loved him. I knew she wouldn’t have done so, but it was a question I had begun to ask myself.
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