Elizabeth’s Trowel

My memento of a dear—and unusual—friend.

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ILLUSTRATIONS BY KERRY CESEN

I spent 30 years of my life working in medical offices, and the best part of those years was meeting and getting to know some very interesting and wonderful people. One woman always wore a barn coat with big patch pockets on both sides of the front, even in very warm weather. She’d hang the coat on the coat rack near the door, and I’d overhear her mumble something before checking in at my desk. After the first few times she did that, the little head of a brown-and-white Chihuahua popped up and surveyed the room. I was a bit worried about the little fellow, but the woman assured me that he’d be fine—“He’s used to waiting for me.” And wait he did, more patiently than most spouses did in the same room.

When I gave Elizabeth the sweet corn, she took a deep breath and pushed it back to me.

It was the conversation about her pet that led to my eventual great friendship with its owner, Elizabeth. She barely reached five feet tall and had snow-white hair and sparkling deep-blue eyes. I knew her husband, Otto, only a short time before he passed away. They were both in their 80s when we met. Along with the tiny dog, Elizabeth had a huge orange cat named, ironically, Peanut. Since she and Otto had no children, their pets was our love of gardening that drew us together.

I was at our local farm stand buying some bicolor sweet corn one Saturday morning and decided to pick some up for Elizabeth, in a feeble attempt to return the favor of her sharing a basket of pansies with me. I was pretty sure I knew where she lived.

Elizabeth and Peanut were at work in the garden when I arrived (well, one of them was). Her garden was exactly as I pictured it would be—without a single weed, each row perfectly spaced between paths of straw and grass clippings. At the end of the gar-den, though, there was a strange contraption of wood and vines that didn’t fit into the picture of perfection.

“Come in, my dear ‘shild,’“ she said, in her thick German accent. “We’ll have coffee and cookies, and a nice apple to clean your teeth.”

I followed her in, slipping my shoes off at the kitchen door, following her lead. “Welcome to our home,” she said, gesturing to me to sit at the table. Looking around the room, I spotted a picture of Otto as a young man in his German Luftwaffe uniform. I knew that he had served as a pilot in World War II, but somehow I’d never pictured him wearing Nazi insignia. He was a quiet man with kind eyes, as I remember. The uniform had pilot’s wings that were above both pockets, and I couldn’t help but compare them to the Naval Aviator gold wings on my own sons’ uniforms: Scott in the U.S. Navy, flying a P-3 Orion fixed-wing aircraft, and Brian, a U.S. Marine helicopter pilot of a CH-46.

I gave Elizabeth the sweet corn. She took a deep breath and pushed the bag back to me. “You take it home and eat it with your husband.” I guess my confused look prompted the rest of the conversation:

“You see, I have never eaten corn for a long, long time. My mother-in-law and I were waiting for Otto to come home, but news of the Russians coming closer and closer to our town in East Germany made us decide to run for our lives. News of what was happening was terrible, and we couldn’t stay in our farm home anymore. We fled with just the clothes on our backs and whatever we could put in the wagon quickly, in the dead of night. We hid in the daytime and traveled at night, stealing corn animal feed from barns along the way. It was all that we had to eat, and it soured in our bellies. We cleaned ourselves with snow and were on the road for many months.”

She said that she vowed never to eat corn again if “Gott” spared her. I don’t know where they wound up or how she and Otto and her father-in-law reunited with them and came to America. I didn’t want to press her for answers; her face was sullen and her far-away look was so sad.

We finished our refreshments and walked out toward my car. She put some freshly cut parsley in with the corn I was carrying back out with me. “I’m curious, Elizabeth,” I said. “What are those wooden cartons with vines at the end of your garden?”

She laughed. “Oh, the leaning Tower of Pisa crates? Those support the zucchetto vines, but I am too small to stack the crates very well. They started to fall down, but the plants held them up. I pick the zucchetto when they hang down and are small and tender. I will never allow the aggressive vines to take over my garden like the Russian Army took over our town in what used to be my homeland. Now I am an American, I have freedom and so does my garden.”

Many conversations and remembrances dotted our friendship over the passing years. I was so sorry when I eventually got the phone call notifying me of her death. The young woman who had become the administrator of her estate asked me what I would like from Elizabeth’s home. I thanked her and said that I was blessed to be without the need of anything. A few minutes later, I called her back and asked if I could have Elizabeth’s garden trowel, and she said, “Oh, of course, she’d like you to have it. I’ll leave it in the windowbox next to the kitchen door.” I went to pick it up a few days later, and along with the trowel were Elizabeth’s old leather gardening gloves. The fingers of the gloves were permanently curled in the shape of her arthritic fingers.

I use Elizabeth’s trowel each time I plant, and say a prayer for her and ask that she will bless the new planting, as much as she blessed my life.


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