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Purple Roses

by Martha von der Gathen

Kristina sat comfortably on bus number thirteen, looking out the window. She took this ride once a week, past familiar streets and houses. She had grown up in this area, in a small stone house, and many of the longtime residents were known to her. Because of its natural beauty, this was the most desired suburb in a city of no less than fifty suburbs. Bigger and more opulent homes had been built, yet she hardly knew of the affluent newcomers.

She did not drive anymore since her back ailment caused her too much discomfort. Over time, she had befriended the bus driver who was usually assigned to this route.

“You look great today,” he said as she boarded the bus. She smiled and took the seat right behind him, which was reserved for the handicapped. Because of her heart condition and a bad back, she carried a certificate from her doctor that entitled her to special seating on buses and trains.

She felt comfortable in that seat. The bus was often crowded, and sometimes men had tried to engage her in a conversation. She was still a pretty woman, petite, with rosy cheeks and flashing, dark brown eyes.

Today, as usual, she carried two beautiful bouquets of roses; she was on her way to the cemetery. As it was the custom here, people flocked to that beautiful, park-like cemetery on a daily basis, especially on All-Souls Day. One gravesite seemed to rival the next with their beautiful plantings. Not a weed would be found in them, and even people who did not live nearby would make arrangements with local nurseries to take care of the plots. The dead were still very much a part of the living family.

All of her immediate family lay buried there; her parents and some of her siblings and cousins. The roses she carried were for her two husbands. Carl, her first husband, had died a long time ago, and his gravesite, reserved for fallen soldiers, was adorned with a simple stone cross. She would linger there for a while, get water from a nearby fountain, and place the fresh flowers next to the cross, arranging them lovingly. Her thoughts would wander...

They had not been married long when he was brutally taken from her during WWII. When they brought the news of his death to her, she had wanted to walk into the nearby lake to drown with her sorrow. Yet she needed to live for her two small children, her two-year old son and her baby girl.

For eight long years, she struggled to make ends meet; she supplemented her small war widow pension by working in a nursery right next door, whose owners had befriended her. She sold flowers part-time and, because of her sunny and friendly nature, she was well liked by customers.

She enjoyed working with flowers, and she especially loved roses. She created exquisite bouquets and wreaths, tying them with pretty ribbons, matching the color of the flowers. There were even purple roses, and I remember her telling me that purple was the color associated with death. Indeed, it seemed that every time people ordered flowers and wreaths for a deceased, purple was the most asked-for color.

One day, her father decided to introduce her to William, who was the son of one of his wartime comrades. That young man fell in love with her instantly, married her and adopted her two children. After a year, she had a baby boy. Her second husband, however, became sickly after a few years of marriage and, from the time he turned fifty, he was a semi-invalid.

Over the years his health deteriorated, and even though she had no training as a nurse, she willingly devoted herself to him and his care. She addressed his every need, and bathing and lifting took a toll on her back. She didn't know that someday, because of her devotion, she would be a semi-invalid herself.

After she had cared for him for close to twenty years, he finally succumbed to his ailments, and she was a widow once again. She moved into the cozy upstairs apartment of her oldest son's house. She spent her days sitting in his beautiful garden, enjoying her grandchildren, going shopping, or sometimes going on day outings with other women.

She had told me one day that she thought that after the hard life she had led, there just had be something more. “Something is coming to me yet,” she said. “This can’t have been all.”

However, she had no inkling what it would be. Lost in her thoughts, she subconsciously counted the stops until she had to get off the bus. Suddenly, the man who had been sitting next to her asked: “Excuse me, but aren't you the little rose from Heidhausen?”

She was startled. Since she never talked to men, she wanted to ignore him, but then she turned to see who would address her by that name. “How do you know my name?”, she asked him, rather annoyed.

Only people close to her would call her this name, which was a term of endearment. She had been born as the last child into a family of seven siblings. Her three sisters were all tall and willowy, and her dad would refer to them as his beautiful flowers. However, he called his last girl his “pretty Little Rosebud” because of her small stature. Indeed, she was the prettiest one.

As she looked at him, her face lit up with a surprised recognition: this was her first boyfriend, the one she had been in love with at seventeen, who ironically bore the same name as her second husband. He had actually courted her beautiful eldest sister, who rejected him. He then turned his attention to her and fell in love with her.

They had dated for a while, but after a silly argument, which, of course at the time was very serious to them, they had parted, never to see each other again. They had lived in the same city for fifty-seven years, but not once had their paths crossed. He, too, had been married and widowed, and he, too, was on his way to the cemetery.

They fell in love all over again, and soon they moved into an apartment not far from their children.

She lived up to her name: she bloomed like the pretty flower that she was. I had never seen her so happy. People would smile when they saw the petite woman walking hand in hand with her tall, handsome man. They made quite a couple. He had a full head of brown hair, even at the age of seventy-five, and he was often compared to Ronald Reagan.

They spent afternoons going on outings, alone, or with their grandchildren, going to family celebrations, to movies and dinners. For the first time in her life she went on a vacation, up to the nearby mountains that were such a popular vacation spot.

This, she thought, is what she had a premonition of; this was what she thought was still coming to her. She deserved it!

She had always been a great cook. One day, as she was preparing a meal for William as usual, she called out from the kitchen to ask him a question, but he did not answer. When she entered the dining room, she found him slumped over in a chair. He had died of a heart attack while she was cooking. Once again, she was alone.

Now, when she takes that bus to the cemetery, she carries three bouquets of roses. That woman, that pretty rosebud, is my mother. She is now ninety-one.

I know that I, too, will be carrying purple roses soon.

Copyright © 2019 by Martha von der Gathen

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