The Bennets leave the crowded city avenue of triple-deckers just as the streetlights pop off at dawn. A trip Jack Bennet has taken bi-annually since he bought his first car at seventeen. This pilgrimage to Aunt Hazel’s is a bleary eyed, hour-long ride of asphalt with a fifteen-minute jaunt of verdurous bliss. As usual the roller coaster roadway brings on a slight wave of nausea to Carol, who rests her head along the edge of the car window. Wind whips hair across her face as a strobe light of tree trunk shadows flicker across her closed eyes. She begins to anticipate the left hand turn, waiting till the very last moment to open her eyes and take in the glory, the joy, the exuberance of Aunt Hazel’s Haven, home to all manner of flora, love, peace and acceptance.
To eleven-year old, Carol, the American foursquare colonial with wrap around porch is the epitome of country elegance, warmth, and good taste. The long expanse of front yard is a carpet of green, which leads along trim beds of blooming shrubs and evergreens to the grand entrance. Stepping through the crisp white arch covered in cotton candy pink spray roses one is enveloped in a scent so sweet and ethereal one can’t help but set themselves down on one of the settees parked either side of the arch to collect themselves for the coming attractions. Here, as is her custom, Carol waits for Aunt Hazel.
Irene and Jack’s voices drift out the dining room window.
“Hello Hazie. Got all your seedlings ready for the dig in?” Carol’s father helps his Aunt Hazel plant out her garden every Memorial Day weekend, coming back Columbus Day weekend to put the gardens to bed. Carol listens to her parents catch up and exchange tidbits of the events of the past few months, picturing the dark cherry table already set for dinner, white lace tablecloth, pale yellow china plates ringed in forget-me-not blue, and the heavy sterling silver utensils with embossed lily of the valley handles. Each place would have it very own bud vase overflowing with whatever bloom was at peak that morning. Finally, Aunt Hazel full of the family news and chatter of Carol’s two younger brothers excuses herself to come find Carol.
Tears well up in Carol’s eyes. Hazel has spent the last few months recuperating from a stroke suffered in January. Her right arm stiff, her face and voice drawn and tight, she still emits joyous light. Treading carefully over the slate pavers, Hazel makes her way over to the settee, cups her great nieces chin and coos,
“Now, we mushn’t mack too mush of tish.” Hazel, seating herself close to Carol, wraps her arms around her, reaches up and pulls the first summer spray of roses down for them to sniff. Smiling up at her aunt, Carol tries to hide her fear by rambling on about her overtures to ease a recent tiff between her friends that ended with hurt feelings all around.
“Janet and Helen both hate me now because they think I’m the one that told on them,” said Carol.
“Have you asked your mother for help?” Hazel asked.
“No. She’s been yelling at me and the boys if we even whisper too loud when we get home from school. I told Dad; he said maybe she has something wrong with her hearing.” Carol shrugged. Hazel has become Carol’s confidant and chief secret keeper in response to her mother’s increasing indifference. Hazel and Carol rise from the bench, strolling arm in arm around the gardens, Hazel remarking on what is blooming, (the bearded iris) what has not survived the winter, (the valerian alba) and notes the places that could use some sprucing up with something new (the shed bed). Lessons on Latin and life that Hazel long ago impressed upon her nephew, she now hands down to his daughter. Some things survive, some things don’t, there’s always something new to try.
Irene typically makes dinner while the rest of her family toils away spreading mulch, planting hundreds of pansies and the ever-changing roster of annuals that is put in along edges, in boxes and in large urns. She hears the thwack of the wooden screen door slamming as her boys head out to the pond to catch polliwogs. She used to feel a bit jealous of the camaraderie and affinity for the outdoor shared by the rest of her family, one she couldn’t partake in because of her allergies, but now Irene uses this excuse to further isolate herself. Besides cooking, she’s taken to giving the whole house a good cleaning during the twice a year visits. Her husband’s Aunt is not only an avid plant collector but has amassed quite a large doll collection to get her through the bloomless months of the year. Irene tends the dolls with an affection she’d long since given up in her childhood. Not one prone to sentiment, the dolls have bought out a melancholy Irene is unable to articulate to anyone. Hazel, whose intuition and insight makes her a close friend to many, took note of Irene’s growing attachment to the dolls, (a misinterpretation that has unintended consequence for Carol in the future) and by way of a codicil to her will, leaves the collection to Irene’s care upon Hazel’s death. Which, quite suddenly, comes all too soon.
Hazel’s funeral is a town affair. Milling about the parish hall by the hundreds, Carol is stunned by the turnout. She’d always assumed her relationship was unique and is agitated to find she is one of the masses who considered themselves one of Hazel’s special friends.
“Oh, my soul, I never would have made it through Harry’s death if it wasn’t for Hazel,” said the lady in red wool.
“Believe me, there’s a sight more people than not, owe their well-being to Hazel. Bless her soul,” said the man in plaid and his black clad companion nodded in agreement, the pompom of her hat bobbing up and down then added,
“Her gardening skills fed many a folk. She’s the one started the community garden and taught them folks to can and preserve all those years ago. Not till the arthritis took hold her knees did she finally give it up.”
Hearing the tales of generosity, charity, and kindness doesn’t surprise Carol, she knew Hazel was well loved, but that so many claimed her as theirs, was an outrage. Carol was special, wasn’t she? Hazel knew her, knew her better than anyone, even her own parents. Angry and sullen, Carol walks away from the hall, from the grief, and from the mourners. Feeling abandoned and betrayed she boxes her grief in, replacing the loss of her Aunt with resentment.
Over the next few months Irene spends more and more time with the dolls, arranging, dressing, dusting, preening over them as if long lost children, while her own children learn to feed, dress and fend for themselves. Carol doesn’t understand her mother’s obsession. In fact, she hasn’t really considered why her mother cares for the dolls at all. All she does knows is that if she wants her mother’s attention she has to speak doll to her. So begins Carol’s own immersion into the world of doll collecting, clothes making and repair.