Sometimes an epiphany appears … one of those moments which suddenly illuminate and answer the deepest of life’s questions.
It was a photo of a small lily pond taken with a cell phone and attached to an email message with another picture of some cherry tomatoes. Just a hasty update on a friend’s garden.
But as I looked at the lilies I seemed to remember a faint almost imperceptible perfume and the soft tickling sensation as I buried my nose in the little yellow corona of stamens. So long ago. Fifty years or so. Half a century!
I closed my eyes and was back again in our neighbor’s yard in Montreal. The Larsens lived in the other half of our modest duplex but a white picket fence divided the surrounding property into two L-shaped gardens. A little gate with a flip latch sealed our portion against unwanted intruders, which included anyone who might trample my father’s carefully tended flowerbeds. And I was strictly forbidden to wander into the Larsen’s garden without Mrs. Larsen herself opening her gate, even though there was no latch and the rest of the neighborhood kids regularly stomped their way in, banging the gate noisily behind them. My mother was a stickler for privacy … and good manners.
However there was one thing in the Larsen’s garden which imbued it with a magic, none of my father’s beautifully designed floral displays could match. It was a small oval lily pond. And resting on the water were the most wonderful round flat leaves. They lay there perfectly balanced on the surface of the water. Sometimes Bobby Larsen would dip his fingers into the pond and flick some water onto the leaves where it formed flawless transparent pearls.
But the miracle was the lilies. Water lilies. In the course of the entire Canadian summer, there would be perhaps three or four in the little pond. They announced their impending arrival with long light green buds, which slowly emerged from the water until they stood erect on two or three inches of stem. Then as they slowly began to swell and turn the color of jade, we knew that in a day or so they would bloom. I regularly monitored their progress by creeping down beside our side of the fence and hiding behind the lilac bushes as I carefully pried up one of the pickets … just far enough to poke my head through and squint at the pond.
As soon as I saw a flash of white among the green leaves, I knew it was time to ask Mrs. Larsen if I could come over and see the lily. But I had to wait until I caught sight of her on her porch or in her garden because ringing her doorbell wasn’t allowed. Even though Bobby rang ours and sometimes lifted our gate latch to come into our garden when Dad filled our little yellow plastic pool. Mother was a stickler for good manners.
One day after I’d spotted the white outline of a lily against the green leaf pads and was loitering in our garden waiting for a glimpse of Mrs. Larsen, I was delighted to see her emerge from the house wearing her gardening gloves and carrying a large pair of garden shears. She spotted me immediately and waved me over. She was well acquainted with my water lily obsession and was happy to settle me next to the pond after a stern warning not to lean over or try to touch the blossom
I sat down on a tuft of grass and gave myself over to the sheer perfection of that solitary white flower. Nothing in the world could match that beauty. Not my father’s incredible collection of tulips, each bulb carefully exumed after blooming, stored in sand to mature and then replanted in the fall. Nor the roses … even the huge salmon-colored one which smelled like oranges. Nor the violets or trilliums we picked in the woods every spring. Nothing could match a water lily. Nothing. It was pure magic.
And then the miracle … a moment which would fix itself in my memory and surface half a century later, bringing with it pure joy and gratitude for a generous and loving gesture.
Mrs. Larsen knelt by the pond and started clipping little tufts of grass around the edges. Then she leaned forward and dipped the tips of her shears under one of the lily pads.
She prodded the pad away from the others and dipped the shears again.
Incredibly the water lily began to move across the water as she nudged it toward the leaf pad. Then she gently pushed them both towards me.
Unbelievingly I stared up at her, reluctant to move until she nodded. I lifted the lily out of the water, cradling it in its green pad and pressing it to my nose, feeling the soft petals and breathing in the faintest of perfumes. I don’t remember if I even thanked her as I sped across the grass towards our side of the duplex to show my Mother.
But fifty years later, I thank her. And am astounded that this small gesture can possibly mean so much. That it holds its place in a lifetime of memories. I look up and close my eyes and send out a message to her spirit.
“Where ever you are in this vast Cosmos, Mrs. Larsen … I want to thank you. It was a beautiful gesture and meant so much to a little girl …”
I sat there for a long time. And then another gift appeared. A sudden realization that this is what Judgment Day might be. Not a harsh judge tabulating one’s sins and virtues and handing down his verdict. No.
Judgment Day comes when our souls soar free of our bodies and then look back at the world and those we’ve left behind. And then we KNOW exactly how we touched them. Their true feelings aren’t masked by politeness or subterfuge. We know exactly how we brought them joy … and how we brought them sorrow. When they remember a kindness we did for them, we realize it. When they recall a hurt, we know that too.
No one will judge us. That would not be learning. And we MUST learn because that’s our purpose on earth. And the only way to learn is to know what we’ve done. We will judge ourselves. Our yardstick will be exactly how we’ve lived our lives and what we’ve given and what we’ve taken. We cannot hide. And everything will count. From a compliment given to an awkward child to a moment of rudeness unleashed on a stranger. It all counts and we will all relive every moment through the eyes of others. And we will learn.
Somewhere in the Cosmos, Mrs. Larsen has just received a thank-you. I’m sure she’s surprised and probably doesn’t even remember a small incident. Until now.