As part of my short story anthology, Searching for Her, I wrote “Purple Roses” for those missing loved ones during the Holidays. It’s also for the lonely ones searching for love.
Joe Roberts and Sylvia Folkert are two of my favorite characters in The Chemical Attraction Series. I wanted to give them a poignant scene through the remembrance of a lifetime of love and the hint of a new passion with all its possibilities.
In her black winter boots and wool coat, Sylvia Folkert slipped on the top step of her big farmhouse-style bed and breakfast. The softball of used tissues flew out of her purse and dispersed across the wraparound porch. Her gloved hands broke her fall forward. She twisted her knee, but she thought she could walk off the ache. In her early sixties, she couldn’t afford a broken hip in this day and age.
“Thank you,” she whispered with a grateful glance toward the overcast sky.
Setting her purse inside the door, she grabbed the jug of winter salt and sprinkled it across the porch and steps, a basic melt of the snow and ice since the B & B would be empty until next week. Her hired man had done the intense shoveling of her small parking lot and sidewalks yesterday. The forecast projected only light snow tonight.
After hunting down all the tissues, she dropped the wet wad into the trash just inside the door, slipped off her outerwear, and then smoothed down the static cling of her favorite navy blue dress. This morning’s church service wasn’t as joyous as usual. The young children’s choir usually made her smile. Today, she cried. Christmas wasn’t the same without her sweet husband, Herbert, who rose to heaven three months ago.
She and Herbert had talked about funeral provisions. However, he died so quickly she never had a chance to say goodbye. Her grief had been unbearable. She and her niece, Madeline, leaned heavily on each other. While Madeline lost herself in her work, Sylvia started talking to Herbert as if he could hear her.
“Are you with me today, my Love?” she asked. “I desperately need a sign that you are.”
She paused and listened. The blue and white Christmas lights were silently coiled around the cedar and spruce boughs throughout the parlor and living room. The wood and ceramic nativities soundlessly surrounded Baby Jesus on the two corner tables. The abundance of red and white poinsettias remained quiet, too.
“Madeline and I should have gotten a tree. I’m sorry, Darling,” she said, looking at the empty space in front of the bay window. Herbert had brought home a live tree every Christmas since they bought the B & B over thirty-five years ago, replanting them throughout town in the spring.
A few blocks from Allenton’s downtown shops, the historical farmhouse had two other bedrooms and a small bathroom on the main floor next to her large country-style kitchen. Four bedrooms, her living quarters, and another communal bathroom were on the spacious second floor.
In the kitchen, she opened the cupboard under the sink for the dust rag. She needed to keep busy, and this would help work out the stiffness in her knee. She preferred to stay home today even though she and Madeline were invited to Eva and Matt Connor’s for dinner. She’d encourage her niece to go.
“You know, Herbert, my favorite chore has always been dusting,” she said to the cold emptiness.
After adjusting the thermostat, she started in the parlor by the front door. With a sad smile, she reminisced about each of her knickknacks, which held wonderful memories. She carefully dusted her homemade gold and burgundy stained glass lamp with golden tassels, the stand made from the thick banister of Herbert’s childhood home back in Alaska, Michigan, a golf course now. Herbert had made the Tiffany-style lamp the first year they were married.
“After forty-four years, it still works,” Sylvia said not at all surprised by her husband’s craftsmanship.
She moved on to her large cherry curio cabinet with a few antique vases. Herbert loved buying her flowers for milestone events in their life, some good, some bad. Every moment reminded her that they had weathered them together.
Eyes glistening, she held a tall, pale pink, crystal vase. Long ago, it was full of tulips and daffodils. The morning after the doctor told them they couldn’t have children, she found the spring flowers on the kitchen table. God’s plan was greater than theirs Herbert had said. Grateful for all they did have, they had kept their faith alive, together.
“You were a wonderful uncle,” she said, sniffling her nose. The various trinkets in her China cabinet shared more of her and Herbert’s life story.
Sylvia slowly shuffled into the living room and swiped the top of her baby grand piano, a gift from him on their tenth wedding anniversary. He had said we needed more music in our lives. In the large room, they often pushed the furniture against the wall making a small dance floor on the hardwood. For their guests, Sylvia would play and Herbert offered to teach the waltz.
Madeline had become an accomplished piano player and social dancer. They adored their niece as if their own daughter.
Sylvia chuckled. “Do you remember what you said to me the night it was delivered?” she asked the empty room. “You said that I could teach Madeline to play during the summers she stayed with us, so we could dance. You were always a schemer.”
Glancing across the room, she smiled at the nineteen collectable wall plates on the special shelves Herbert had made to hold them in place. Madeline’s mother, Allison, had sent one to her after each of her worldly adventures as an environmentalist. The collectables were nature paintings of wild animals near prairies, forests, lakes, and oceans. Allie gave her a doe and fawn at the edge of a meadow as her way of telling them she was pregnant with Madeline.
“Herbert, will you hug my baby sister?” Sylvia asked, sitting on the piano bench. She looked around hoping for a sign. Her faith wavered. Hearing the kitchen’s back door open, she wiped her eyes and checked the wall clock behind her. Eleven-thirty.
“You’re later than usual,” Sylvia said to her sweaty niece in her winter running gear.
“I know,” Madeline said, unscrewing her water bottle in the kitchen doorway. “I told myself rain or shine, but it was really hard getting out of my warm bed this morning.”
Sylvia tossed the rag back under the sink and started a pot of coffee. After Herbert died, Madeline had started running as some sort of punishment for not finding a cure for the flu. It’s not like it was her fault or her area of expertise, but she took it personally nonetheless. Lashing out, she had blamed BennTech and the CDC for not having the right strain to prevent their tragedy.
After her morning treks around the outskirts of town, Madeline would stop by each time before she headed to work. Sylvia stocked the fridge with water for her, but she couldn’t get her to stay very long.
“Are you going to Eva Connor’s for dinner?” Sylvia asked, knowing Eva’s brother, Joe Roberts, would be there.
“No, I have some paperwork to catch up on. I thought I’d come back later,” Madeline replied, leaning back on the kitchen counter. “I guess dancing’s out, but we could take turns playing the piano.”
“I’m not ready for that yet,” Sylvia said. “I’d prefer you mingle with people your own age, like Eva and her family.”
“I’d be a miserable guest.” Madeline wiped sweat and tears from her face. “My heart has shattered into a million pieces. I don’t have the energy to pick them up and happily socialize,” she said, turning away to dismiss the topic.
“That’s not a healthy attitude,” Sylvia replied, not letting her change the subject. “Your uncle wouldn’t want you to hide in your research.”
Madeline tossed her empty water bottle in the recycling bin. “So many people died and left behind family. I want to do my part. My ultimate goal is to save everyone with a neurological disease.” She kissed her aunt’s cheek. “I’ll stay over tonight, and we’ll play a board game or cards or something.”
Madeline left and Sylvia sighed. “So close to meeting Eva’s brother and yet so far away.”
She and Eva had conspired for a few years to put Joe and Madeline in the same room at the same time to no avail. Sylvia had thought for sure it was a match. Herbert had thought so, too. Actually, he was the one to suggest it. For an hour, Sylvia hobbled around the farmhouse looking for some kind of sign from Herbert. Not a one.
As she put creamer in her mug, someone knocked on the front door. Curious, she walked toward it. “Now, who could that be? Mary and Joseph looking for an inn? That was last night,” she said, amused with herself.
Opening the door, she grinned at her guest. Part of that couple stood on her porch, figuratively and literally. Joe Roberts held a canvas grocery bag and a bouquet of purple roses.
“Joseph, come in. Welcome,” she said, stepping back. He would always be Joseph to her now.
Inside, he stomped his boots on the door mat. “Merry Christmas.” He handed her the bag. “The care packages are from Eva, and these are from me,” he said. His hand held the square box that stabilized and protected the short, fat vase. The florist had created a tightly packed dome of a dozen, vibrant, purple roses.
“Oh my! They’re absolutely majestic.” Their lovely fragrance floated toward her. “Can you stay for coffee?”
“Sure. A break from the chaos at Eva’s would be nice,” he said, slipping off his boots.
“Wonderful.” Carrying the canvas bag, she motioned him toward the kitchen.
Joseph set the flowers on the table and slipped his coat over the back of a chair before sitting down. “I thought these were pretty, too. For some reason, they called out to me and made me think of you.”
“This is considerate of you and your sister,” she said, unloading the bag.
Sylvia put the food containers of ham, scalloped potatoes, yams, and slices of pumpkin pie in the fridge. Eva must have known Madeline wouldn’t stop by there, so she sent Joseph here. They had horrible timing.
“I wanted to check in with you since I didn’t have a chance to attend Herbert’s funeral,” he said as she poured them each a cup of coffee. He leaned over to smell the flowers then took the mug she offered. “How have you been doing?”
Sitting diagonally to him, she sipped her coffee. “Some days are better than others.”
“Yeah, the holidays can be rough,” he said. “After our best friend Taylor’s parents died, that first Christmas was brutal. All the traditions we grew up with seemed to have died, too.” With a matter-of-fact attitude, he empathized with her grief. She found it comforting.
“I miss him every day. I still expect him to walk through the front door,” she replied.
Leaning back, Joseph retrieved the box of tissues on the counter by her stack of cookbooks and set it between them. “Is all that pain worth it?” he asked.
“What do you mean?”
“Tennyson’s quote: Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.” He shifted in his chair. “Is it better?” he asked.
Pushing the tissue box aside, she reached for his hand not sure if he’d pull away. He gently lay his other over hers, warming them. His eyes seemed to search her face for the answers.
“I have a lifetime of loving memories with Herbert that I’d never give up. Your time will come,” she replied.
He sat back in his chair, letting go of her hand, shielding his vulnerability. Her niece did that often. Sylvia had tried to get her to share her feelings, too, but Madeline had only touched the surface, pushing her pain deep down inside her core.
Contemplating her answer, Joseph stared into his empty mug. “I want my life to be better, but I’m tired of searching.”
“Trust in God’s plan,” she said. She supposed she should do that, too. It was easier giving good advice than believing in it. Today, it proved extremely difficult.
He looked up and smiled. “Eva has said that to me on many occasions. Are you two hanging out together?”
She chuckled. “Maybe,” she replied.
“Well, I better get back,” he said, sliding his chair away from the table. “Thank you for the, uh, coffee.”
Glad he trusted her enough to open up albeit briefly, she joined him at the front door. After shoving his feet back into his boots, he gave her a brief hug and a peck on the cheek.
“Thank you for the roses, Joseph. Take care.”
“You, too,” he replied, before leaving.
Sylvia inhaled the scent of the roses and snatched the tiny envelope sticking out of the top. Joseph had drawn two linking hearts on the otherwise blank card. She smiled at his thoughtfulness. Taking the bouquet out of the protective box, she saw another printed card from the floral shop stuck to the side:
Purple Roses symbolize transcendental enchantment.
The giver of the purple roses seeks to express a deep magnetism and charm
enticing the recipient to fall in love at the very first meeting.
Sylvia wondered if Joseph saw this and knew about the meaning. Touching a velvety petal, she sighed. She suspected loneliness had invaded Joseph’s life as it had Madeline’s.
“Why can’t we get them together? Herbert, are you seeing this disconnection? I don’t know what else I’m supposed to do.” A dash of anger added to her mixture of sadness and heartache.
Carrying a backpack, Madeline stomped the snow off her boots as she entered through the kitchen’s back door. Spotting the purple roses, she tossed her winter coat toward the hook, missing it. She absently kicked off her boots.
“What did I miss?” Madeline asked. “Who brought you flowers?”
“A friend. Aren’t they beautiful?” Sylvia replied.
Madeline deeply inhaled their scent. “Oh my gosh, these are intoxicating.” She grabbed the card with Joe’s interlinking hearts, flipping it over. “Do I know your admirer? I’m a little jealous,” she said with a grin.
“No, you don’t know him,” she replied. She wanted to add yet, but she held her tongue.
“I think I’d like to,” Madeline whispered almost to herself as she caressed the petals.
Surprised by her comment, Sylvia watched her niece sit down and pull the roses closer. She hadn’t seen Madeline smile in a long time. Was she enchanted with Joe’s purple roses? Her niece’s mood lightened as she put her face near them to breathe in the fragrance.
Tilting her head, Madeline looked closer at the vase. “Didn’t Uncle Herbert give you a vase like this one, years ago?”
“What?” Sylvia said, seeing the cobalt blue rose bowl for the first time.
“I think this is identical to the one on the dresser in your bedroom,” Madeline said with a smile.
Gaping in disbelief, Sylvia flashed back to the night she fell in love. At the local American Legion’s Annual Spring Fling, the young man in the black suit and crooked tie had smiled at her. She had blushed bright pink when he took her hand for the first time. She and Herbert had danced the night away as if they were the only ones at the party. The next day, he had sent her the exact same vase filled with pink roses.
Reaching for a tissue, Sylvia sobbed. Her body trembled. This was the message she desperately needed. Herbert was nearby, and he would have a hand in Joe and Madeline’s eventual romance.
Thank you, my Angel. Her shaken faith now fortified.
What happens next? Will Joe and Madeline meet? Sylvia and Eva plot to make it so. And, yes, sparks most certainly fly.
Continue Joe and Madeline’s romance in Chemical Attraction.