One Visit With Lillian Asplund

     A June Afternoon with Miss Lillian

The rose that lives its little hour
Is prized beyond the sculptured flower.               

Where, you tend a rose, my lad,
A thistle cannot grow.” A Secret Garden, Frances Hodgeson Burnett

She has always been the lady with secrets, Titanic’s own Garbo. What one knew of Miss Lillian Asplund was what she wished the world to know and not more. Those who knew and loved her, and whom she loved could tell more of her ninety-four years which followed the fateful night of ice and tragedy. Perhaps now, some of them shall.

I never hoped to meet her, but on some rare days in every life all the fates come together to make the impossible possible, and when these unexpected joys cross one’s path, it all seems meant to be somehow. Such was a day in June , when I found myself standing with a vase of flowers on the porch of the little Shrewsbury house where Miss Lillian had spent the last decades of her life. It was a glorious early summer day. I had been prowling about Worcester, looking into Mr. Porter’s life, and other Titanic homes in that city, and thumbing through old city directories and newspapers at the public library. Mike Poirier had braved the ride north in the passenger’s seat, and at the end of the day we found ourselves in front of the little cottage under the tall pines on Fairlawn Circle. For a moment we looked at the set of front windows which were obviously the sitting room, and pictured Miss Lillian lying quietly beneath them on her little white cot. Not a curtain stirred.

Was she lonely? What did she find to do all day? So many questions. So we decided a few flowers, anonymously left could do no harm; lying by the window all day seemed such a bleak prospect. Thus armed with a bright bouquet and a cheery greeting card, I knocked tentatively on the neighbor’s door. A jovial face soon appeared, and after a moment we were sitting on his front stoop. Yes, Miss Lillian loved her garden, but he had not seen her out in the yard for such a long time. Yes, it was quite the right thing to knock and leave the vase on the enclosed entry porch. So, thus assured, I did just that and had turned to tiptoe down the stairs. Mike was now gingerly nursing a toothache in the car and had opted to recline in pain for the moment’s detour in the day. Suddenly the door opened and a welcoming face appeared. It was surely the nurse, Esther, of whom the neighbor had spoken. With a lilting accent which I could not place, she said ” Oh how lovely, why don’t you take them in to her yourself. She would like the company”.

I must have stared a very long time, not quite believing my own ears, for a kindly arm was shepherding me into the kitchen. I smiled at the little kitchen for it was like being in a time warp of the late 1940’s. There were the chrome dining table and chairs with vinyl upholstery like something I remembered from my grandmother’s house. In fact, everything in the pristine little cottage was frozen in time. Passing through the kitchen to what must have been the former dining room, I saw a large console television set which was tuned in to a daytime drama opposite a comfy chair. No photographs were on the wall, and all was scrupulously tidy.

Walking through the wide arch between the dining room and parlor, my eyes were dazzled by the bright light pouring through the front windows. And there, like an empress on an imperial divan – was Miss Lillian herself! I later imagined what I must have looked like to her, standing awkwardly, gaping like an open-mouthed tuna fish, clutching a large cobalt blue vase of summer flowers, tongue-tied and amazed all at once.

“Oh, do come in- this is for me?”

I looked into the very blue, wide round eyes beaming out from the rosiest of cheeks. Silvery coils of hair were neatly pinned up on her head like a crown. Hers was the sweetest expression I had ever seen, and immediately I thought this was a face that should be on a candy box! A light blanket and a crisp white sheet was drawn up like a counterpane, but I could see the petite form beneath, and marveled at the smooth, firm complexion. It reminded me of the nuns who swore by soap and water and Ponds cold cream. I looked around for a chair, and finding just one straight-backed seat, sat down stiffly, after placing the floral token on a little low table by her side. I noted a book and reading glasses were reposing as if just laid down.

“Do I know you?” she said, opening the card. I stood up and asked if I should read it to her. “Oh I can read this quite well,” she quipped, and did so without the reading glasses. “Now, why am I special?”

There was the slightest hint of an accent in the musical voice that fell in such beautiful modulation and impeccable diction on the ear.

Somehow I found my voice and replied, ” Everyone is special in some way, and the flowers needed to see you today.”

This brought a smile, as I explained that a good friend of mine had visited her many years before and brought her some photographs of her family. This she recalled and nodded with animation. And thus the strangeness wore away as she asked about my home and children, church and the weather. She had heard of Norwich, CT. but not of North Stonington. After repeating my name to her several times, she finally gave a little sigh and said, “I will never remember that-such a strange name. I will just call you, Rose. You know, my dear, the rose is the queen of flowers! Just look out that window near the mailbox. Is the red climber still there? I once had a beau- an admirer you know. He planted twenty-five rosebushes all around the house and in the back garden. He knew I would prefer that to cut roses because the bushes would always be giving me flowers. Oh, you are surprised to hear this!”

And who would not be? I had formed the idea she had given up much to tend her mother and brother Felix , but I was glad to hear there was a great deal more to the story. Her small, quick hands waved gracefully as she spoke of her garden, “When I was a very little girl of five or six, I used to pick bunches of those little yellow flowers- you know, the weeds,” and here she paused to think of the name, frowning in concentration. Then she waved an imaginary stem in the air and blew on it. Then I knew- “Dandelions?,” I ventured.

“Oh, yes, that’s it- and how Mother loved them and put them in a little vase on the table- just weeds, but she was as proud as if they were roses. Do you know pansies? Every little face is different. And then the buttercups we used to hold under our chins.”

And so passed a happy hour talking about our gardens. Esther came in to see if anything was needed. “A cloth for my face,” was Miss Lillian’s reply. “Oh! Now this is too cold!,” she scolded, as Esther trotted off good-naturedly for a warmer one. “Now, you must take back your lovely vase,” she remarked holding it up for a view. “Esther, we should have our photograph with these so when these wilt we can remember.”

I had a disposable camera in my purse, but thought perhaps the next visit would be better. Never wait in life-opportunity may never come again. I thought of Mike in the hot car, and arose to take my leave. I paused at the side of the little cot and the two white hands which took mine were strong in their grip, “Now, you come back to visit soon. I have seen my cousins at Christmas and last week the plumber, but it is nice to have visitors, Rose from Shrewsbury.” I turned to leave, telling her she must keep the vase for the roses I would bring from my garden next time: Golden Celebration, Betty Prior, Julia Child. I thought she should have a rose named for her. She had made up her mind, it would seem that I was from Shrewsbury, and so it would be.

“Look in my back garden when you go out, and see if any roses are in bloom,”she called out from the front window. Esther had appeared to show me out, and in the kitchen I paused to see if it would be possible to see her again some day. I asked how she was doing, her daily routine and if there was anything special she might need. “Oh, she likes pepperoni pizza, sometimes she manages to come to the table for meals you know. Yes, you must come again, she likes flowers so much, and visitors too.”

There were no blooming roses in the backyard, only a garden bench, now unused, a little potting shed with a window box where once she must have set out her geraniums, and an old lilac, much gnarled and twisted. It was sad to drive away, looking up at the dark windows, remembering her radiant smile and twinkling eyes so full of memories.

Over the months, family and health problems would plague my days. I called Esther several times and planned to come up for Miss Lillian’s 99th birthday in October. The night before my trip I went into the hospital. Days flew by and I thought to wait until the roses bloomed so I could fulfill my promise. It was not to be, for on May 10th the roses I took to Miss Lillian were laid upon her grave and in the trembling hands of her longtime caregiver and companion, Esther. Miss Lillian had gone Home to her garden at last.

 © Shelley Dziedzic 2006

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