Rose Petalled Destiny
First published in Short Head and Yard 2017.
A wedding in the Depression could be – well, depressing when a girl’s happiest day was pinched by poverty. So when Pauline and Eddie married it was simple, even with a crowded table country feast under an oak tree.
They were almost forced into being childhood sweethearts with neighbouring parents who worked together, especially at harvest and crisis times on their farms. Those parents were thrilled and relieved at the inevitable match that cemented their pioneering destiny in a backcountry WW1 rehab settlement. With two much older sisters, Pauline had Eddie in a big brother role when she first went to school, proudly clambering from roadside stand to cream-truck deck, also the school bus. Only 60 children at the school meant that they saw each other almost every day.
Both left school at 15 after spasmodic attendance at a distant High School, and straight into helping at home on the farm. Times were tough in the 1920s, and any contribution helped, particularly with their fathers still affected by war service. Pauline soon learned farmhouse skills: cooking, making soap, raising hens and how to make clothes from unlikely scraps. Eddie was able to do some work for other farmers too even if payment was often in kind, using the four- horse team, his father’s pride.
Parental hopes and plans were confirmed when Eddie proposed to Pauline on his 21st birthday. They had seen inevitability since watching childhood games in the hayfield when Eddie always had a protective role, and later when she kept him the best piece of her bacon and egg pie at smoko. They later debated the small consolation of isolated living that probably saved them all from the earlier Great Influenza epidemic. Pauline’s breathless “yes” was Eddie’s best present on that day.
Pauline’s sisters were matrons of honour and she made all their dresses. Eddie’s cousins from Thames his best man and groomsman. The bridal party had clubbed together to buy four roses at that became a theme for some of the best man’s speech. He rose to toast the couple with specially brewed homemade cider, his careworn farmer face as crumpled as the envelope of notes he pulled from his suit pocket.
“The girls asked me to say that the two roses they chose are pink Maiden’s Blush and creamy Village Maid. Not only appropriately named but here’s hoping they’ll bring their fragrance and colour to your lives together. Those aren’t my soppy words. Us men chose Peace for obvious reasons, and Prosperity for the future, but also because the label describes its scent as a definite aphrodisiac – and I quote – ‘that induces an abandon to impulses of sex’. You’ll know if he rose to the occasion.” That brought guffaws, grins, and grim Aunt Agatha’s mouth. The bride was blushing petal pink. No surprise that both fathers also rose to toast their children.
Eddie planted the roses in a garden by the one-bedroomed cottage they settled in and added another rose bush and another room when their first daughter arrived. They would soon build a new rose garden when they eventually took over the farm from his parents and moved into the homestead. No shortage of horse manure.
Each child meant another rose bush with talk and even reluctant argument about the baby’s name and which specimen to plant. After three daughters, Eddie was desperate for a son to carry the family name, but two miscarriages were heartbreaking for the parents. They consoled themselves with white and red miniature roses as most appropriate for their tradition. The best advice from their now balding family doctor who had even brought them into the world was to cherish three lovely girls and be grateful. Four years later, another rose bush marked the arrival of a lustily crying 8lbs Geoffrey. Eddie was thrilled and knew Pauline would just carry on caring for them all. Now ten bushes of various colours thrived on Eddie’s annual dressing of calf shed
bedding, and from Pauline’s success against mildew, aphids and blackspot. The old wives tale about babies and cabbage patches had a modern rosy version with a permanent picture of family variety and success.
Pauline still had time for filling kitchen tins, cleaning the church and Secretary of the Guild. She still sewed into the night by gas lantern light. Her vegetable garden rows marched together like Eddie’s harnessed horses and both patterned their married lives. After the next war, farming fortunes improved. Eventually, they could afford a noisy tractor, although Eddie was reluctant to no longer harness up the team each day. Pauline sometimes wondered if he loved those horses more than his children. She was in no doubt about herself by the way he looked each evening across the kitchen table when they said grace. Money for fertiliser, drainage and fencing produced more cows and more butterfat. It was a big step to take over Pauline’s family farm but economically logical, and the couple’s commitment impressed the bank. Their eldest daughter later married a keen young man from the Waikato she met while nursing him after a rugby accident, and they started share-milking the herd to leave Eddie and Pauline to gradually step back from their busy lives, and together enjoy their family.
The children continued this family rose tradition for the grandchildren, leaving plant choice to Nana and Pop as the easiest option. There was some trouble in matching varieties with modern names like Khrystleen and Grantham, but the garden thickened to over twenty bushes. Various summer perfumes wafted through an open sitting room window.
When Pauline broke her hip and was permanently crippled and Eddie started to lose his sight, the family reluctantly searched alternatives to their home of fifty years and their unique family symbol. Yet the roses held them there with their ashes spread beneath the bushes, memories snagged on thorns.