In our house on Wolfe Street in Harrisonburg, Virginia (circa 1955) our next door neighbor was Mr. Vance. He was a stocky, white-haired gentleman with a wide, pink face and broad smile. He reminded me of Santa Claus without the beard. He had lived in the same house for many years. He shared a side fence with us and a back fence with my grandparents. He had known my grandparents forever and he knew my mother as a little girl — which seemed extraordinary to me. Mr. Vance lived alone. My mother told me that his wife had died some years before and they had one son who was grown up – like my mother – which meant he lived in his own house and not with Mr. Vance. I wondered who took care of my old friend. My mother said that he took care of himself. That seemed odd to me – a man cooking and eating meals all alone. I am sure I wondered aloud about it because I also learned that he had been devoted to his wife, cared for her tenderly during a long illness and he missed her very much. The thought of that made me sorry for him and I sometimes worried about him being sad and lonely. But his plump happy face always dispelled my gloomy thoughts and what I remember most was his joy in gardening. I often watched him from my bedroom window. He tended a fairly large vegetable garden in his back yard from which he shared his bounty – juicy tomatoes, yellow onions, red potatoes, fat cabbages. It seemed he was always taking produce to my grandparents or leaving a basket of goodies on our porch. Mr. Vance also tended a large rose bush and rows of flowers – zinnias and dahlias. As much as my mother appreciated his gifts of vegetables, she was equally delighted when he would bring her a bouquet of flowers. Mr. Vance’s specialty was pansies and it was he who introduced me to them. I could see the soft petals from my bedroom window congregated in their lush beds looking like pallets of rich, thick paint. I was – and still am – amazed that these delicate beauties could grow in such cold weather.
It was my good fortune that Mr. Vance loved sharing his pansies almost as much as he did tending them. I was delighted on cold winter mornings when my mother would call out, “Mr. Vance is here!” I would run to greet him and his shining face knowing he would have something to share. I adored his presence. He felt like the sun and smelled like soap and wind. He would stretch out his flannel covered stocky arms and bend down to tenderly offer me his precious gifts. Whenever I looked into his broad, leathery hands to find those splendid, velvet faces looking back at me I would gasp a little in awe.
My mother would float the cuttings in glass bowls or dishes and place them on our sunny kitchen table or our dining table. I would climb onto a chair in order to gaze at their lovely faces — purple, yellow, blue or white — each so unique – they seemed to have a personality of their own. Some looked cheerful and happy; others wistful or sad. Some were feminine; while others were decidedly masculine. I was intrigued by them all.
I am certain in my time alone with them they spoke or sometimes sang to me. My parents thought it was my “vivid imagination” and so I mostly kept these sacred events to myself – until one winter morning when I was allowed to visit Mr. Vance as he knelt in his pansy beds. Timidly I confessed that sometimes his precious pansies spoke and even sang to me. I wondered whether he had ever heard them. He continued at his work for a moment and then he turned his sweet pink face to me, smiled, winked and told me I was a lucky girl and that I should continue to listen – very carefully. Then he rose from his work and took me by the hand to join my mother at the clothesline before going in for a cup of tea. That was all he ever said about that subject but I knew they spoke to him, too. After that whenever I saw him kneeling at their beds I understood his tender care and delight and I wondered about their conversations. It made me feel better about him living in his house without his wife or son because I knew he wasn’t really alone.