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The Garden of Love
It is a day that starts out like any other. My little beagle, Waggs, wakes me, demanding food and a walk with a loud bark. So I drag my aging butt out of bed, and dress myself. The dog whines as I wash my face.
“Do be patient Waggs.” I mutter to the dog. He cocks his head to the side, making me smile.
When I get down the hall to the front door, Waggs goes wild with excitement, making it hard to clip on his leash. If only a simple walk could make my day.
Normally Waggs and I would walk to the park, but today I decide to walk to the end of my street to the dead end. But I do not stop at the dead end. I walk around the guard rail, and onto an old dirt road, no longer used by cars. It is more of trail now. I’d travelled this road many times growing up. Oh the memories!
About a mile up this trail, I stop. I look at all the tall grass, weeds and shrubs, surrounding the ruins of an old house. My best child hood friend had lived there, many, many years ago. I swallow the lump that forms in my throat, and take a deep breath before continuing.
Half a mile later I come to a short path on the right, leading to the door of a scorched chapel. On either side of the path are tombstones, many of them nameless. Wild flowers and weeds surround the premises. I remember this place in its better days. Rather than a graveyard, it had been a garden with daisies, tulips and rose bushes. The wild flowers were well kept and pruned. The grass was always mowed. Now the grass and weeds comes to my knees.
To the left of the path, there are two priests praying over the graves. One of them looks up and comes to meet me.
“Hello.” He says. “We didn’t expect to bump into anyone. Most people don’t know that this place is here.”
“I grew up in this area.” I tell the priest.
“Then you know of the tragedy that took place here. The brutality and injustice.”
“Maybe even better than you.” I answer.
“Do you know someone buried here?”
“Yes.” Is all I say.
“I’m sorry for you loss.” The priest sounds sympathetic. I do not respond. I can’t get a word out without shedding a tear.
“Well if you would excuse me.” He continues. “I have many graves to pray over.”
I nod, and the priest goes on about his business. I continue to the door of the chapel. I can’t go inside. The doors and windows are boarded up, and there is a no trespassing sign. Not to mention it is probably structurally unsound. But I do not need to see in side. I remember what it looked like, as if it were yesterday. There was an aisle, with 5 pews on either side. There was a large pulpit at the front and a wooden piano. All would be burned now however.
I remember being the only white girl to ever attend this church. My best friend Josiah had invited me, so I faked sick and skipped out on my own white Protestant church. I’d gotten weird looks the first few times, but who could blame them? If one of them stepped foot in a white protestant church, they could be shot.
Anyhow, I’d grown to love the black gospel church. It was fun. It was the real deal. Not like my own church. Hatred against the blacks? God could not be for that. I just didn’t buy it. A God who loved all races made much more sense to me.
Of course though, eventually my parents caught on that I wasn’t really sick every Sunday, and I was grounded. I didn’t see my best friend for a month. When the punishment was over, I went straight to his house. We made plans to meet at the chapel every Wednesday, to watch the choir practice and play in the garden. I told my parents I was going to my best friend’s house. Little did they know that my best friend was an Afro-American.
Josiah taught me dance moves that my parents would call unholy. I also learned to sing similar to the gospel choir. One day one of the ladies in the choir joked with me and said I should have been born black. Without thinking I’d said, “Sometimes I wish I was black.”
“Why would you say such a silly thing?” she’d asked me.
I shrugged. “I don’t fit in with the other white people. I don’t think the way they do. I don’t like what they like. I don’t know…I’m just a weird person who fits in nowhere.”
“You’re just special.” The choir lady told me. “We need more people like you. But you ought to be happy with the colour God gave you. Alright sweet heart?”
‘Okay…I guess.” I said before leaving with Josiah.
We’d walked in silence for a while as Josiah walked me home. Finally Josiah broke the silence.
“You really wish you were black?” he asked me.
“Funny.” He’d said. “Sometimes I wish I were white like you... Red hair like yours would be cool too.”
I stopped. “You like my hair?”
“Of course. It’s pretty.”
I smiled, and then patted the top of his head. “Your hair is neat though. It’s super curly.”
Josiah laughed. “It feels like poodle hair! But your hair is soft and smooth and you can run your fingers through it.” Josiah ran his own hand through my hair as he said this. It had made me terribly nervous. That was the moment the crush started. I was thirteen.
I turn away from the scorched chapel, and walk to the nearby tree. Mine and Josiah’s name are carved on it. We’d done that during our fourth year of high school. We’d gone to different elementary schools, but high school was integrated. My first year of high school, Josiah and I had spent all our time together at school. My friend Vicky had refused to be seen with me and “that Nigro”. So I’d ditched her saying “God loves black people.”
Josiah had ditched his friends for me as well. A few months into tenth grade however, my mother bumped into Vicky and her mom, and I was busted. So my mother forbid me from ever seeing him again. I couldn’t see him anymore, but I’d written letters to him. That was our only source of communication for the next two years.
One night, during the spring of our grade twelve year, Josiah appeared at my window, in the middle of the night, asking me to come to the garden with him. I’d been so ecstatic. We had not been there together in so long. So I climbed out my window to join him in his escapade. We spent hours in the garden just talking. It was as if we’d never been apart.
Then suddenly there was an odd silence that made me nervous. Josiah just gazed into my eyes for the longest time. I had to ask, “Josiah? Do you love me?”
Josiah just looked away and up at the sky. “Of course. How could I not love my best friend?”
“No I mean do you love me?”
Then there was another awkward pause. Josiah couldn’t look at me.
“I know I shouldn’t. But I do.”
I put my hand to his face and said, “Then look me in the eye and just say so.”
So he did, and I got my first kiss that night. That was the night we carved our names into the tree.
I walk back down the path, and towards a tombstone. I get down on my knees and read the inscription. Maria McDowell, 1907-1955, beloved mother and a friend to all. She was the first to be buried here. Her death was tragic, but it brought me and Josiah back together after a nasty break up.
It was mid-year of grade thirteen. Josiah and I would meet in the garden once a month. But one particular night, I’d been shaken up by the events of earlier that evening. My father had been complaining about high school being integrated. I couldn’t help but give my opinion.
“So he hit me.” I told Josiah, after telling him all that happened. Tears came to my eyes. “I don’t even want to know what he’d do if he found out I was going with you.”
Josiah brushed my tears away with his thumb. “I’m sorry.” Then He kissed me. And in that moment I wanted so much more.
“Make love to me.” I’d said.
Josiah pulled away and looked at me. “Abby no. I’d feel like I was stealing something from you. You should wait ‘til you’re married.”
“Then marry me Josiah.” I said without thinking.
“You know your dad would never allow that.”
“Then what do we do? Just court for the rest of our lives?”
“No. You’ll meet someone else. A perfect white guy that your parents will adore.”
“But I don’t want anyone else!” I said exasperated. “I’ll never fall in love again! How could you be okay with just letting me go?” I stood up and shook my head. “You know what? Just forget it. We’re over. Apparently I’m just wasting my time with you.” And with that I’d left, and didn’t speak to him for the rest of my graduating year.
Throughout college, I still hadn’t spoken to him. I graduated and became a teacher. I met a man named Mark. He was head over heels for me, but I did not love him. Not like I loved Josiah. I did not want to think about him, but I did all the time. Mark had no idea I was in love with someone else.
Then one summer when I was twenty-seven, I bumped into Josiah at the local coffee shop.
“Abby. You look... how are you?” Josiah asked nervously.
“ I am well.” I told him, hiding my emotions completely. Inside I was craving him. Oh, how I’d missed him!
“I met someone.” I said suddenly, curious of what his reaction would be. “He proposed.”
“Oh? Did you say yes?” Josiah tried hard not to sound disappointed, but I could see right through him.
“ I told him I’d think about it.”
“Oh.” Josiah almost sounded relieved.
“So how are you?” I asked
“Alright... I suppose.”
“And your mother?”
There was an awkward silence.
“She’s dead.” Josiah managed to say.
Suddenly I felt sick to my stomach. “What? How? When?”
“Almost two weeks ago, but I don’t want to talk about it here.” then he leaned in close. “We’ll talk in the garden.” He whispered in my ear, then left.
The rest of the day I was arguing with myself. Should I or shouldn’t I? Could I really return to the garden? In the end though, I decided I should be there for Josiah in this time of mourning. We needed each other. After all, Maria had been a mother to me as well. I couldn’t believe she was gone.
Of course, that evening Mark called me at home asking if I would accompany him to dinner. I couldn’t tell him about Josiah, so I lied and told him I was feeling ill. At midnight I drove out past my old street and down the dirt road that led to the chapel, and met Josiah there.
“I thought you wouldn’t come.” he’d said.
“I loved Maria too.” I said to him. “I want to know what happened.”
So he told me the story. The KKK broke into his house and shot his mother, and left a note for him. It said they knew what he did, and he should be afraid. However, Josiah hadn’t the slightest idea what that meant. I was shocked and couldn’t help but cry. Josiah’s eyes shined with the tears that threatened to flow.
“I should have been there.” He said after a while. “To protect her.” Now Josiah started to really cry, which scared me. I’d never seen him cry. “I’m all alone now.”
I hugged him. “No Josiah, only if you choose to be.”
“What do you mean? I don’t have a choice. I have no family. It’s not like I can choose to bring my mother back!” Josiah pulled away from me and took a few steps away, then sat down.
“You can choose me.” I said. “I’ll be your family.” I walked over to him, sat beside him, and took his hand.
Josiah looked into my eyes. “Why would you want me back?”
“I never wanted to let you go.”
There was a pause.
“I love you.” I said.
“I love you too Abby, but--”
I cut him off. “Just kiss me.” I said, kissing him first before he could object. I felt him become tense, then slowly relax and give in to me.
I didn’t go home that night. I awoke in the garden with Josiah’s arm wrapped around me. I just soaked in the moment. The birds were chirping. The bees were buzzing. The smell of the garden seemed even sweeter than normal. And I felt safe, and cherished. Then Josiah stirred awake. We both sat up, and looked at each other. I hadn’t a clue what to say to him.
“The funeral is today.” Josiah said finally. “We should both get home and get ready.” So we parted.
When I got home, I found a note at the door. It was from Mark, saying he came by to see how I was. It asked why I'd lied to him. I felt incredibly guilty. I didn't even stop to think about him last night when I was with Josiah. I was disgusted with myself. I tried to mentally memorize the Ten Commandments. How many did I break the night before? At least three I figured.
I went on inside and dressed in black for the funeral. It all felt wrong. Like a dream. Was all this really happening? Maria gone? Josiah mine again? Mark's heart about to be broken? This was all too much for one day. I cried in front of the mirror.
“I should have waited." I told myself. "It was the wrong time..."
Oddly enough, the funeral actually cheered me up. It was not morbid but uplifting. Everyone chose to celebrate Maria's amazing life, and be happy that she was going home to Jesus. Even in their mourning, they smiled. They laughed. It was a lovely way to let someone go. Even Josiah seemed lighter on his feet.
Mark still had no idea about Josiah. I didn't plan to tell him until I knew for sure Josiah and I were permanent. Fortunately, Josiah made it clear we were. The Friday night after the funeral, we planned to meet again in the garden.
"What happened?" I asked him in alarm, when I saw he had a black eye.
"I spoke to your father." Josiah answered. " I see now why you're so afraid of him."
"Why would you do that? What did you say to him?"
"I told him I wanted to marry you."
I was in so much shock I didn't even notice him put a ring on my finger.
"He said we could do what we wanted, but our sin wouldn't go unpunished." Josiah said. "I took that as a yes you can marry my daughter. But beware of dog."
I smiled as I looked down at the ring. "I can't believe you risked your neck for me. He could have killed you."
" You're worth it." There was a pause. "Will you marry me?" Josiah got down on one knee. "If you say no, you might as well stab me in the heart."
"Yes." I said, laughing and crying at the same time. Josiah stood up aand lifted me off the ground as he twirled me around. I prayed I wasn't dreaming. It all seemed to good to be true.
As I move along down the short rows of graves, I feel a lump in my throat. It hurts to remember how all these people died. It was a beautiful Sunday morning. The KKK shot every church attendant, before they burned the bodies along with the chapel. Everyone except me. Because I was white. Because I was the daughter of one of these white-hooded, justified criminals. I never forgave him. I never went to his funeral. He said I brought it on to myself. I told him he was the devil incarnate. We never spoke again.
As I come to a particular tombstone, I begin to cry. I feel as though my heart has been stabbed for the fifty-fifth time. Once for every time I return. I collapse to my knees. With my finger's I trace over the name that is only there because I carved it in myself. Josiah Mc Dowell, 1928-1955. I wrote an inscription as well; The Garden of Love died with you. I don't even have a picture of him to remember him by. But I can't forget his face. I little part of him stares back at me every time I see my son. Mark never did accept him as his own.
I can’t help but feel contempt when I look up to see the priests still walking up and down the rows of tombstones. They hadn’t been the ones who killed all these people. The members of the KKK were generally protestant, but they still reminded me of all that’s wrong with religion. People forget what God is really about. He’s about loving people. All people. No matter the race or past. The doctrine in that chapel had been just that. I hated that this place was being invaded by an organized religion hung up on Dos and Don’ts. Who did they think they were? These people didn’t need salvation prayed over their graves. They’d found salvation in the Garden of Love. Josiah and the rest of them were not in purgatory. They were in heaven.
Before I leave the Garden of Love (that is now just a yard of pain), I softly say, “You were right Josiah. I did meet someone else. I married a white man and my parents love him. But I was right too. I never fell in love again. I look forward to the day I’ll see you again."