Penny’s Roses

21 May

I first met Penny Dakin when I was five years old. She lived down my street in an  old, Victorian house. The outside was painted purple (her favorite color) and kissed all over with little curly Q’s. It looked like a big doll house.

To many people, she probably seemed like just some crazy old cat lady. She did have many cats, which is what drew me to her house in the first place. As an animal lover whose family was allergic to hair, I always wished I could have a dog or cat of my own. After meeting Penny, I forgot about this wish by spending time at her house,  playing with her many cats. Her refrigerator was soon covered over with crayola cat pictures I drew for her. Penny enjoyed my company, and I thought she was wonderful. As an elderly woman, she didn’t have very many people visiting her.

Penny was a mysterious person. On the one hand, she seemed a grandmotherly type figure. She shuffled around the house in a long shift dress and slippers, and when I knocked on the door, just my two pigtails sticking above the screen, she would look down at me and break into a grin, opening the door, soon after filling my two cupped hands with caramel candies covered in shiny gold wrappers. I’d stuff them into my pockets like a little chipmunk and then scamper happily into the back room where I’d play with her silky cats.

Yet, on the other hand, there seemed to be a part of Penny I never knew, and her house filled with cats was like another world. Lining the walls and gathering dust on the shelves were pictures and delicate artifacts. Her late husband was an art professor, and I think his tastes trickled into Penny’s decorating. Everything in the house looked breakable and exotic, and I took good care never to touch anything. I wondered who Penny had been before she became a cat lady? I invented all kinds of past lives for her. There was one thing I definitely knew about Penny. Her favorite thing to do was give. Whether it was something as little as caramel candies, or books, or knic knacks, it didn’t matter. She loved the give. Unsurprisingly, Christmas was her favorite holiday.

The last time I ever visited Penny, I went with my dad. Before we walked up the steps leading to the big front porch, a curious smell drifted down through the screen door. It was light and airy yet deliciously pungent at the same time. I drunk deeply of the scent, which only grew stronger as we drew closer to the house. I soon found myself inside, and as I looked around the room, I saw where the smell had come from. Flowers by the dozen, thousands, all sizes and colors filled the room. It was an explosion of color. As we shuffled our way through the bewildering flowers, we came to the kitchen. Even more flowers filled the room. It seemed that the further we went, the flowers grew in abundance. Finally we reached the back room where Penny lay, and I saw that the previous displays were tiny compared to the flowers surrounding her in this room. The only thing the flowers all had in common is that they were all one kind- roses.

What I had not know about Penny is this: Throughout her life, she sent single red roses to people all over the world- friends, acquaintences, sometimes, near strangers. To merit a rose from Penny, you didn’t have to do very much, and sometimes, you didn’t have to do anything at all. She sent them under the pretext of an accomplishment. It didn’t matter how small or seemingly insignificant, Penny would send a rose. It could be for winning an election or graduating from college. She sent me one when I graduated from kindergarten. Attatched would be a hand written note “Love you, Penny.” She’d sent thousands.

Penny didn’t send her roses expecting anything in return. Yet, at the very end of her life, the roses she sent all over the world eventually made their way back to her, trippled. The flowers strewn throughout her house were given by people who received word of her bad health and wanted to shower her with a love gift. Some people who sent roses were were people she had sent a rose to as many as 60 years earlier. Penny never knew until the end of her life just how significant her small acts of kindess were or what kind of ripple effect they had. She learned that for one man, her rose is what kept him from commiting suicide.

An image I would never forget carved itself into my heart that day: Penny laying on her deathbed surrounded by roses. I remember my dad telling me she could no longer hear. I later learned hearing is the last sense to fade before death. It didn’t matter to me. I held her cold hand, stood on my tippy toes and whispered in her ear that I loved her very much. I looked to my dad, hesitantly, and he encouraged me to go through with my present. I laid the last drawing I would ever give Penny on her bed, right next to her where she would be able to see it if she awoke. I felt hot tears crowding my eyes as I whispered goodbye. My dad and I made our way back through waves of roses. We stepped through the screen door, and Penny slipped with her roses into forever.

Based on a true story.

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