Author: Viola Shipman
Publication Date: April 28, 2020
Publisher: Graydon House
In this heartwarming and feel-good novel filled with echoes of Dorothea Benton Frank, Debbie Macomber and Elizabeth Berg, two women separated by a generation but equally scarred by war find hope, meaning – and each other – through a garden of heirloom flowers.
Iris Maynard lost her husband in World War II, her daughter to loneliness and, finally, her reason to live. Walled off from the world for decades behind a towering fence surrounding her home and gardens, the former botanist has built a new family…of flowers. Iris propagates her own daylilies and roses while tending to an heirloom garden filled with starts – and memories – of her own mother, grandmother, husband, and daughter.
When Abby Peterson moves to Grand Haven, Michigan, with her family – a husband traumatized during his service in the Iraq War and a young daughter searching for stability – they find themselves next door to Iris and are slowly drawn into her reclusive neighbor’s life where, united by loss and a love of flowers, Iris and Abby slowly unearth their secrets to each other. Eventually, the two teach one another that the earth grounds us all, gardens are a grand healer, and as flowers bloom so do our hopes and dreams.
LATE SUMMER 1944
We are an army, too.
I stop, lean against my hoe and watch the other women working the earth. We are all dressed in the same outfits—overalls and sunhats—all in uniforms just like our husbands and sons overseas.
Fighting for the same cause, just in different ways.
A soft summer breeze wafts down Lake Avenue in Grand Haven, Michigan, gently rustling rows of tomatoes, carrots, lettuce, beets, and peas. I analyze my tiny plot of earth at the end of my boots in our neighborhood’s little Victory Garden, admiring the simple beauty of the red arteries running through the Swiss chard’s bright green leaves and the kale-like leaves sprouting from the bulbs of kohlrabi. I smile with satisfaction at their bounty and my own ingenuity. I had suggested our little Victory Garden utilize these vegetables since they are easy-to-grow staples.
“Easier to grow without weeds.”
I look up, and Betty Wiggins is standing before me.
If you put a gray wig on Winston Churchill, I think, you’d have Betty Wiggins, the self-appointed commander of our Victory Garden.
“Just thinking,” I say.
“You can do that at home,” she says with a frown.
I pick up my hoe and dig at a weed. “Yes, Betty.”
She stares at me, before eyeing the front of my overalls. “Nice rose,” Betty says, her frown drooping even farther. “Do we think we’re Vivien Leigh today?”
“No, ma’am,” I say. “Just wanted to lift my spirits.”
“Lift them at home,” she says, a glower on her face. Her eyes stop on the hyacinth brooch I have pinned on my overalls and then move ever so slowly to the Bakelite daisy earrings on my earlobes.
I look at Betty, hoping she might understand I need to be enveloped by things that make me feel safe, happy and warm, but she walks away with a “Hrumph!”
I hear stifled laughter. I look over to see my friend Shirley mimicking Betty’s ample behind and lumbering gait. The women around her titter.
“Do we think we’re Vivien Leigh today?” Shirley mimics in Betty’s baritone. “She wishes.”
“Stop it,” I say.
“It’s true, Iris,” Shirley continues in a Shakespearian whisper. “The back ends of the horses in Gone with the Wind are prettier than Betty.”
“She’s right,” I say. “I’m not paying enough attention today.”
I suddenly grab the rose I had plucked from my garden this morning and tucked into the front pocket of my overalls, and I toss it into the air. Shirley leaps, stomping a tomato plant in front of her and grabs the rose midair.
“Stop it,” she says. “Don’t you listen to her.”
She sniffs the rose before tucking the peach-colored petals into my pocket again.
“Nice catch,” I say.
“Remember?” Shirley asks with a wink.
The sunlight glints through leaves and limbs of the thick oaks and pretty sugar maples that line the small plot that once served as our cottage association’s baseball diamond in our beachfront park. I am standing roughly where third base used to be, the place I first locked eyes with my husband, Jonathan. He had caught a towering pop fly right in front of the makeshift bleachers and tossed it to me after making the catch.
“Wasn’t the sunlight that blinded me,” he had said with a wink. “It was your beauty.”
I thought he was full of beans, but Shirley gave him my number. I was home from college at Michigan State for the summer, he was still in high school, and the last thing I needed was a boyfriend, much less one younger than I was. But I can still remember his face in the sunlight, his perfect skin and a light fuzz on his cheeks that were the color of a summer peach.
In the light, soft white floaties dance in the air like miniature clouds. I follow their flight. My daughter, Mary, is holding a handful of dandelions and blowing their seeds into the air.
For one brief moment, my mind is as clear as the sky. There is no war, only summer, and a little girl playing.
“You know more about plants than anybody here,” Shirley continues, knocking me from my thoughts. “You should be in charge here, not Betty. You’re the one that had us grow all these strange plants.”
“Flowers,” I say. “Not plants. My specialty is really flowers.”
“Oh, don’t be such a fuddy-duddy, Iris,” Shirley says. “You’re the only woman I know who went to college. You should be using that flower degree.”
“It’s botany. Actually, plant biology with a specialty in botanical gardens and nurseries,” I say. I stop, feeling guilty. “I need to be at home,” I say, changing course. “I need to be here.”
Shirley stops hoeing and looks at me, her eyes blazing. She
glances around to ensure the coast is clear and then whispers, “Snap your cap, Iris. I know you think that’s what you should be saying and doing, but we all know better.” She stares at me for a long time. “The war will be over soon. These war gardens will go away, too. What are you going to do with the rest of your life? Use your brain. That’s why God gave it to you.” She grins. “I mean, your own garden looks like a lab experiment.” She stops and laughs. “You’re not only wearing one of your own flowers, you’re even named after one! It’s in your genes.”
I smile. Shirley is right. I have been obsessed with flowers for as long as I can remember. My Grandma Myrtle was a gifted gardener as was my mom, Violet. I had wanted to name my own daughter after a flower to keep that legacy, but that seemed downright crazy to most folks. We lived next door to Grandma in cottages with adjoining gardens for years, houses my grandfather and father worked themselves to an early grave to pay off, and now they were all gone, and I rented my grandma’s house to a family whose son was in the coast guard.
But my garden was now filled with their legacy. Nearly every perennial I possessed originally began in my mom and grandma’s gardens. My grandma taught me to garden on her little piece of heaven in Highland Park overlooking Lake Michigan. And much of my childhood was spent with my mom and grandma in their cottage gardens, the daylilies and bee balm towering over my head. When it got too hot, I would lie on the cool ground in the middle of my grandma’s woodland hydrangeas, my back pressed against her old black mutt, Midnight, and we’d listen to the bees and hummingbirds buzzing overhead. My grandma would grab my leg when I was fast asleep and pretend that I was a weed she was plucking. “That’s why you have to weed,” she’d say with a laugh, tugging on my ankle as I giggled. “They’ll pop up anywhere.”
My mom and I would walk her gardens, and she’d always say the same thing as she watered and weeded, deadheaded and cut flowers for arrangements. “The world is filled with too much ugliness—death, war, poverty, people just being plain mean to one another. But these flowers remind us there’s beauty all around us if we just slow down to nurture and appreciate it.”
Grandma Myrtle would take her pruners and point around her gardens. “Just look around, Iris. The daisies remind you to be happy. The hydrangeas inspire us to be colorful. The lilacs urge us to breathe deeply. The pansies reflect our own images back at us. The hollyhocks show us how to stand tall in this world. And the roses—oh, the roses!—they prove that beauty is always present even amongst the thorns.”
The perfumed scent of the rose in my pocket lingers in front of my nose, and I pluck it free and raise it to my eyes.
My beautiful Jonathan rose.
I’d been unable to sleep the past few years or so, and—to keep my mind occupied—I’d been hybridizing roses and daylilies, cross-pollinating different varieties, experimenting to get new colors or lusher foliage. I had read about a peace rose that was to be introduced in America—a rose to celebrate the Nazis leaving France, which was just occurring—and I sought to re-create my own version to celebrate my husband’s return home. It was a beautiful mix of white, pink, yellow and red roses, which had resulted in a perfect peach.
I remember Jon again, as a young man, before war, and I try to refocus my mind on the little patch of Victory Garden before me, willing myself not to cry. My mind wanders yet again to my own.
My home garden is marked by stakes of my experiments, flags denoting what flowers I have mixed with others. And Shirley says my dining room looks like the hosiery aisle at Woolworths. Since the war, no one throws anything away, so I use my old nylons to capture my flowers’ seeds. I tie them around my daylily stalks and after they bloom, I break off the stem, capture and count the seeds, which I plant in my little greenhouse. I track how many grow. If I’m pleased with a result, I continue. If I’m not, I give them away to my neighbors.
I fill my Big Chief tablets like a banker fills his ledger:
Little Bo Beep = June Bug x Beautiful Morning
(12 seeds/5 planted)
Purple Plum = Magnifique x Moon over Zanadu
(8 seeds/4 planted)
I shut my eyes and can see my daylilies and roses in bloom. Shirley once asked me how I had the patience to wait three years to see how many of my lilies actually bloomed. I looked at her and said, “Hope.”
And it’s true: we have no idea how things are going to turn out. All we can do is hope that something beautiful will spring to life at any time.
I open my eyes and look at Shirley. She is right about the war. She is right about my life. But that life seems like a world away, just like my husband.
Mary races up, holding her handful of dandelions with white tops.
“What do you have?” I ask.
“Just a bunch of weeds.”
I stop, lean against my hoe and look at my daughter. In the summer sunlight, her eyes are the same violet color as Elizabeth Taylor’s in National Velvet.
“Those aren’t weeds,” I say.
“Yes, they are!” Mary says. She puts her hands on her hips. With her father gone, she has become a different person. She is openly defiant and much too independent for a girl of six. “Teacher said so.”
I lean down until I’m in front of her face. “Technically, yes,
but we can’t just label something that easily.” I take a dandelion from her hand. “What color are these when they bloom?”
“Yellow,” she says.
“And what do you do with them?” I ask.
“I make chains out of them, I put them in my hair, I tuck them behind my ears…” she says, her excitement making her sound out of breath.
“Exactly,” I say. “And what do we do with them now, after they’ve bloomed?”
“Make wishes,” she says. Mary holds up her bouquet of dandelions and blows as hard as she can, sending white floaties into the air.
“What did you wish for?” I ask.
“That Daddy would come home today,” she says.
“Good wish,” I say. “Want to help me garden?”
“I don’t want to get my hands dirty!”
“But you were just on the ground playing with your friends,” I say. “Ring-around-the-rosy.”
Mary puts her hands on her hips.
“Mrs. Roosevelt has a Victory Garden,” I say.
She looks at me and stands even taller, hooking her thumbs behind the straps of her overalls, which are just like mine.
“I don’t want to get dirty,” she says again.
“Don’t you want to do it for your father?” I ask. “He’s at war, keeping us safe. This Victory Garden is helping to feed our neighbors.”
Mary leans toward me, her eyes blazing. “War is dumb.” She stops. “Gardens are dumb.” She stops. I know she wants to say something she will regret, but she is considering her options. Then she glares at me and yells, “Fathead!”
Before I can react, Mary takes off, sprinting across the lot, jumping over plants as if she’s a hurdler. “Mary!” I yell. “Come back here!”
“She’s a handful,” Shirley clucks. “Reminds me of someone.”
“Gee, thanks,” I say.
Mary rejoins her friends, jumping back into the circle to play ring-around-the-rosy, turning around to look at me on occasion, her violet eyes already filled with remorse.
A pocket full of posies,
We all fall down.
“I hate that game,” I say to Shirley. “It’s about the plague.”
I return to hoeing, lost in the dirt, moving in sync with my army of gardeners, when I hear, “I’m sorry, Mommy.”
I look up, and Mary is before me, her chin quivering, lashes wet, fat tears vibrating in the rims of her eyes. “I didn’t mean to call you a fathead. I didn’t mean to get into a rhubarb with you.”
Fathead. Rhubarb. Where is she picking up this language already?
From behind her back, she produces another bouquet of dandelions that have gone to seed.
“I accept your apology,” I say. “Thank you.”
“Make a wish,” she says.
I shut my eyes and blow. As I inhale, the scent of my Jonathan rose fills my senses. The rumble of a car engine shatters the silence. A door slams, followed by another, and I open my eyes. The silhouettes of two men appear on the perimeter of the field, as foreboding as the old oaks. I notice the wind suddenly calm and the plants stop rustling at the exact same moment all of the women stop working. A curious hum begins to build as the men walk with a purpose between the rows of plants. The women lean away from the men as they approach, almost as if the wind had regained momentum. Row by row, each woman drops her hoe and shuts her eyes, mouthing a silent prayer.
Please not me. Please not me.
The footsteps grow closer. I shut my eyes.
Please not me. Please not me.
When I open them, our minister is standing before me, a man beside him, both of their faces solemn.
“Iris,” Rev. Doolan says softly.
“Ma’am,” the other man says, holding out a Western Union telegram.
The world begins to spin. Shirley appears at my side, and she wraps her arms around me.
The Secretary of War desires me to express his deepest regrets that your husband, First Lieutenant Jonathan Maynard, has been killed…
“No!” Shirley shouts. “Iris! Somebody help!”
The last thing I see before I fall to the ground are a million white puffs of dandelion floating in the air, the wind carrying them toward heaven.
Excerpted from The Heirloom Garden by Viola Shipman, Copyright © 2020 by Viola Shipman. Published by Graydon House Books.
Viola Shipman is the pen name for Wade Rouse, a popular, award-winning memoirist. Rouse chose his grandmother’s name, Viola Shipman, to honor the woman whose heirlooms and family stories inspire his writing. Rouse is the author of The Summer Cottage, as well as The Charm Bracelet and The Hope Chest which have been translated into more than a dozen languages and become international bestsellers. He lives in Saugatuck, Michigan and Palm Springs, California, and has written for People, Coastal Living, Good Housekeeping, and Taste of Home, along with other publications, and is a contributor to All Things Considered.
Author Website: https://www.violashipman.com/