By Veronica Randolph Batterson
“Let it be known that a vine is not a woman’s enemy.”
“Is it kudzu?” I asked, leaning forward in anticipation of the thought.
“I’ll never say,” Claudia Rose whispered, a twinkle in her eye as she left me wondering in suspense.
Observing Claudia Rose was in itself a combination of delight and a shock to the senses. The sweet scent of honeysuckles permeated the air when Claudia Rose entered a room. It reminded a person of the carefree days of youth spent outdoors in the south, running barefoot and chasing lightning bugs. But Claudia Rose’s appearance was busy. It was a visual challenge to feast your eyes upon the eccentric lady. The first thing one noticed about her was the hat. She always wore one and it was grand and never matched anything she was wearing at the time. Those hats came in many colors, shapes and sizes, with some possessing feathers, while in others there were nesting birds and fake fruit. And she had many of them. In all the years I had known her, I don’t believe I had seen her wear the same one twice. Someone once said she had so many hatboxes that an entire room in her little house was devoted to the storage of her beloved headwear.
Her clothing was frilly and feminine and conveyed the era in which Claudia Rose was much younger. She liked to say that she was eighty years young in the lilting southern drawl that was synonymous to only her. I loved hearing her talk and she could captivate an audience with the inflections she used. Anyone could make the statement, “It is raining”, and receive not one inkling of attention. But if Claudia Rose said it, everyone turned to listen, enthralled with the sound of her voice, and anticipating something more. Perhaps a story would follow or she might give her own musings of the weather. Claudia Rose made it interesting to listen and she left a person wanting more.
Something else that Claudia Rose left people wanting more of was her knowledge of horticulture. She possessed the greenest thumb of anyone I knew, and people traveled miles just to get a glimpse of her garden, an ounce of her advice or a sample of the secret potions she freely distributed from ingredients she grew herself. Claudia Rose was famous for making love potions and concoctions that possessed medicinal qualities she swore took care of anyone’s aches and pains. Her customers swore by them too. She always had satisfied customers and even some of the local doctors referred her to their most baffling patients. She happily attended the weddings of those couples she had supplied her infamous love potions. Yes, Claudia Rose was an enigma and those around her loved her for it.
Part of the mystery that concerned Claudia Rose involved the ingredients she used for creating her endless supply of tonics and elixirs. People always asked which herbs she used and which were the best for making skin look younger or what was the best for helping relieve the pain of arthritis. She always replied with the specific tonic to address the problem, but would never reveal which ingredients were used. Her answers to those questions involved a sly smile and a slight nod of the head. Then she would evasively change the subject, rambling about some thought or another. Generally people were so happy to receive her help and to hear her talk that they quickly forgot any questions they had posed to her in the first place.
But I found myself trying to figure out Claudia Rose often. She was my next door neighbor and I enjoyed many springs, summers and autumns in her backyard, helping with planting and maintaining that fabulous garden. I watched carefully and did as she instructed with every little seed or bulb. I cultivated and fertilized and weeded anything that was not supposed to be there. That is everything, except for one nefarious vine that seems to plague most normal people, but not Claudia Rose. Kudzu to her was like a delicate rose to most people. The kudzu in Claudia Rose’s backyard was reserved only for the trellis and believe it or not, that was the only place it grew. In anyone else’s garden, it would overtake the entire yard, the garage and the back of the house. But Claudia Rose had the touch. It was as if she trained that vine to do exactly as she pleased. People were amazed when they saw the kudzu growing and asked her if she worried about the vine spreading like wildfire. She would just smile and shake her head and mumble something about nature’s beauty.
I suspected she had some reason for the vine. Most of the plants, flowers and herbs in Claudia Rose’s garden served a purpose for her. Whether it was for beauty, fragrance or ingredient, it was planted for a reason. Then there was the kudzu. I had made up my mind to discover her secret for the inferior weed and resorted to spying on her when I thought she wasn’t looking. It never did any good as I always found her preening and talking to the kudzu, but she never did anything else to it.
One afternoon, I asked Claudia Rose about the unwanted and bothersome vine. She didn’t wish to discuss it at first, being her usual evasive self. But when I pointedly asked her if it was kudzu that made Mr. Edward Rogers fall in love with Miss Elizabeth Potter, she became animated with her gestures and whispered that she would never tell.
“But, Claudia Rose,” I said, “it has to be used for something! Why else would you allow it in your garden?”
“For the love of it, my dear,” she answered.
She perplexed me, and I noticed that twinkle in her eye. That sparkle always appeared when she found something amusing and I realized she would never give up any of her secrets to anyone, not even to me. I also thought kudzu was probably poisonous and if she had actually used it in any of her ingredients, she more than likely would have been accused of murder a long time ago. Still, it bewildered me and I couldn’t fathom why she wished to grow it.
It wasn’t long after that conversation with Claudia Rose that she began to have regular visitors I didn’t recognize. Two women I gathered to be in their late fifties appeared every morning on her doorstep. They were punctual, showing up at exactly the same time every day. They stayed no more than a couple of hours and then they would leave in a brown, older model sedan. I noticed Claudia Rose always greeted them enthusiastically with hugs and smiles, but never followed them outside to their car when it was time for them to leave. It would also be an hour or so after the two women left before Claudia Rose emerged from the house to work in her garden. On more than one occasion, I noticed sadness that I’d never seen before. I suspected it was due to those daily visits but I didn’t have the courage to ask her about them.
About a month passed when I observed a change occurring at Claudia Rose’s home. The same two visitors appeared one morning accompanied by approximately six other people. Those individuals looked like workers of some sort, all wearing coveralls or gray uniforms, and driving pick up trucks. But instead of waiting for Claudia Rose to answer the door, the two women produced a key and let themselves in the house. The workers followed moments later closing the front door behind them. They didn’t remain very long and all left at the same time.
I waited a couple of hours but this time Claudia Rose didn’t come outside. Images raced through my mind as I envisioned her ill or hurt in her house, unable to get out of the bed to do what she enjoyed most in the world. It was very unlike her to neglect her garden for even one day, so I decided to check on her just to make sure she was all right.
I went to her back door and rang the bell. The porch was neat and tidy just like her garden and I suspected her house was just the same. I had only been in Claudia Rose’s kitchen once but never in any other part of her house. And my visit to her kitchen was a brief one and only occurred by chance. It was during a sudden downpour and I had helped her carry some of her cuttings inside. Claudia Rose effused all of the confidence in the world when she was in her garden, but it was obvious she felt awkward by my presence in her home. I didn’t stay long, and I remember thinking how relieved she seemed when at last the rain ceased and I said I should leave.
No one answered the door so I rang the bell again. I peered through the lace curtains that adorned the small window but could see only shadows. It was dark inside and it appeared no one was home. Looking around at the lush garden behind me, I decided to begin working. I rolled up my sleeves and started weeding, just as I had seen Claudia Rose do day in and day out for as long as I could remember. Once weeding was finished, I watered everything in sight. Nothing was overlooked and when I thought it finished to my neighbor’s satisfaction, I went home, hoping I would see her the following day.
But that was not to be. I awoke to the sounds of hammers and saws and I learned that Claudia Rose had died. I made my way to the tiny house next door and saw the doors wide open and boxes being tossed in Claudia Rose’s backyard. Some of the boxes had been carelessly placed on or near several of the beautiful plants she had so tirelessly nursed to beauty. I gently moved the heavy boxes to grassy areas of the yard and rescued some of the damaged stems as best I could, tears brimming my eyes as I did so.
Suddenly a woman appeared on the back porch, carrying another box and I realized she was one of the two women who made daily visits to Claudia Rose. She was startled at seeing me on my hands and knees talking to the injured plants and abruptly asked, “Who are you?”
I explained who I was to the stranger and as I did so, I realized the woman must be related to Claudia Rose somehow. She possessed the same facial features, a little harder edged, but the same and she stared at me suspiciously as I stared back at her. Finally, she set the box she was holding down on the porch and invited me inside.
Surprised, I followed her, feeling as if I were intruding upon Claudia Rose and being somewhere that I shouldn’t be. The house was just as I expected, very neat and cozy, yet it was in disarray due to the two women packing up some of Claudia Rose’s belongings. I discovered they were Claudia Rose’s nieces and were her only living relatives. It didn’t surprise me that Claudia Rose had no children, but what did amaze me was the fact that she had been married once.
All of this was relayed to me while the two women worked diligently, as if they had a job to do and were anxious to get it done. They showed no emotion as they worked and I wondered just how they could remain so detached. The one named Marie seemed to read my thoughts.
“This may seem cold to you, but we never even knew Aunt Claudia existed. Our mother was her sister, and just before Mom died, she asked us to take care of Aunt Claudia. It wasn’t until the death of our mother that we even knew she had a sister. It seems they had a falling out over who Aunt Celia ended up marrying and they never spoke again.”
Kate, the other sister, continued the story. “Mom died six months ago and confessed on her death bed about Aunt Claudia and how she regretted never making up with her sister. So Marie and I drove up from Florida, but it was too late. We discovered Aunt Claudia was dying of cancer. It took her pretty quickly, and now we’re here to get her things in order.”
I noticed how Claudia Rose was Aunt Claudia to the two women and wondered why. Perhaps they didn’t know that she should’ve been called Aunt Claudia Rose. The niece named Kate was emptying the contents of a desk drawer into another box. There appeared to be old letters and correspondence, yellowed with age. Kate saw me eyeing the box with interest and handed it to me.
“Here, take it. You can have whatever’s in it. Read it. Do whatever you’d like with it. We’re just going to throw it all out anyway,” she said.
I stared at the box, not moving a muscle. The mystery that was Claudia Rose was contained there, I just knew it, yet I felt I shouldn’t invade the woman’s privacy. She had been so careful to keep that aura of secrecy surrounding all she did, that I wasn’t certain I wished to discover that Claudia Rose was in fact a human being just like the rest of us. Reluctantly, I lifted the box not wanting the contents destroyed, and took it home with me.
It was later that night and I still had not looked inside the box. As I crawled into bed, I stared at it as something drew me to its contents. I like to think it was Claudia Rose’s spirit inviting me to take a peek at her life, but the reality of it was that curiosity was getting the better of me. I made my way to the box and brought it to the bed, setting it before me. Taking a deep breath, I removed letter after letter all addressed to “Mrs. Claudia Shuman” with the postmark dates being in the 1940s. Almost all were from various places in Europe. Shaking, I took the first letter from the envelope and began to read.
"How long has it been now? Too long I am afraid. I write to you daily and think of you always. The image of your beautiful smile fills my dreams at night and I wake longing to hear the sound of your lovely voice. Do you remember the time last summer when I decided to call you Claudia Rose? It was because you reminded me of the sweetest flower on earth. So beginning with my next letter to you, dearest, I will forever call you my Claudia Rose.”
It was signed, “Affectionately, your husband, Albert” and I knew that all of these wonderful letters I had before me were love letters written to Claudia Rose from her husband. As I read more, I learned that Albert was serving in the military during World War II. I discovered that the couple was unable to have children, much to Claudia Rose’s dismay. I learned of the hatred Claudia Rose’s sister had for Albert because he was Jewish. But more importantly, the letters themselves were a love story. It was obvious from the beautiful words how much the two of them had been in love with each other.
It was almost midnight when I reached the final letter in the box. Claudia Rose and Albert had taken life with great ferocity right before my eyes, so I was sad at the thought of having read almost everything. But the last letter revealed an answer to a question I had been asking Claudia Rose for a very long time.
“My Dearest Claudia Rose,
How is the garden this year? I know how you love it so and it seems anything you touch grows into a splendor of beauty. I have a challenge for you. I think you should take on the ugly wild vine that is growing behind the shed in the back and see if you can tame it into something beautiful as well. If you are able to do this, then I shall know you truly do have the greenest thumb of anyone I have ever met, and I will love you forever because of it.”
I stared at the words before me. I couldn’t believe what I had just read. So that was the answer to the kudzu in Claudia Rose’s garden. She had not been using it for anything but a tribute to her dear Albert’s memory. I drifted off to sleep with the sweetest thoughts of a couple so in love with each other and I hoped that one day I too would experience such undying affection for another person.
The following morning I found myself standing in front of the kudzu vines in Claudia Rose’s garden. I was drawn there from what I’d read the night before.
“What is to happen to you now?” I asked the gleaming vine. And in that moment I saw its grand and glorious beauty. It was the same beauty I am certain Claudia Rose had seen. It might not have served a particular purpose but it had been something much more important. It was an exquisite beauty that was nurtured for the love of another human being.
Veronica Randolph Batterson is the author of the middle grade fiction books, Billy's First Dance and Funny Pages. She is a member of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators. Her short stories and essays have been published in various publications, including Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal and previously in Dew on the Kudzu. Originally from Tennessee, she now lives in the Chicago area. More information is available on her website, www.veronicabatterson.com.
©2011 Veronica Randolph Batterson