“Azaleas, pansies, sunflowers, and roses wound their way up the walls to the ceiling”: a short story by Marina Lathouraki

My grandmother grew paper roses. Although she had a large, unfenced lawn around her house that grew ice in winter not a single rose ever grew there.  Instead, she cut out pictures of flowers from gardening magazines and the New Zealand Women’s Weekly. Then she would paste them all over her bedroom walls. Azaleas, pansies, sunflowers, and roses wound their way up the walls to the ceiling all year round in my Nana’s ‘garden.’

The roses grew the fastest – they were her favorite. I asked her why she never grew the Daphne for whom she was named. She told me that Daphne did not thrive well in her garden in Papatoetoe.

Every school holiday’s, dad would take us up to Auckland to visit Nana. The drive was long and tedious so we would play cards, count cars, sing and make up stories about the lives of the sheep we passed. My little sister would drive us nuts trying to count them, but she couldn’t count past ten, so she kept repeating them: “One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, one-ten, one-two, one-three…”

During the school year I would sometimes write Nana letters. The replies would come back postmarked the day she’d received them, written in her beautiful, flowing handwriting. I wondered which hand she wrote with. The first finger on her left hand was missing after an accident at a factory she’d worked at when she was young. I was curious to know if it still hurt, like when someone loses their leg and can still feel it, but I didn’t dare ask. Instead, I offered to make her cups of tea and go to the dairy to get her smokes when she ran out. She loved that I would help her and would say, rocking back and forth in her chair, smoke between the fingers of her good hand, steaming cup of tea in the other, “You’re a good girl, Bree.”

Some of the pictures in Nana’s room had become yellowed with age and dust but still Nana would not paste over them, even when she got too old to climb up a ladder to paste her pictures herself. Instead, her sons would stand in her little room and she would direct them a bit like a conductor without the music. “A little to the left,” “too high”, and so on, she would command.

We would sit side by side and go through the magazines she had sneaked from the doctor’s reception room when the receptionist was busy. She couldn’t afford to buy her own. But she always put them back after she’d cut what she wanted from them. She called it, “borrowing.” It reminded me of my favourite TV programme, The Borrowers. Tiny people borrowing from ‘human beans’ to survive. That was my Nana, borrowing to survive.

One Christmas holidays after dinner, we went for a walk near Nana’s house and my brother, Toby, snatched my doll from me by her long, blonde hair and threatened to throw her into the Puhinui stream nearby. I tried to rescue her by grabbing her legs and holding on with all my might. When her left leg popped out, I sobbed and sobbed. Nana wiped my tears and cradled me close and told my brother off for laughing at me. Then she gave me a hanky embroidered with her initials to blow my nose with.  Still, I was inconsolable until she said, “Not to worry, Bree, we’ll take her to the Doll Hospital tomorrow.” I didn’t sleep that night. I was too excited.

The next day we caught the bus into town to K Road in central Auckland. I had never heard of a hospital just for dolls or dolly doctors before but when we met them, a lovely older couple, they seemed very kind. They promised they could perform surgery on Nancy and give her a makeover and offered to replace her tatty hair with a new wig. I said, “No, thank you, she tastes good the way she is.” I liked to suck on her hair.

We left her there after they reassured me, “Come back in a few days and we’ll have her like brand new.”  I remember that I was feeling a bit wobbly, so Nana wiped my tears again when we left after I’d given Nancy a long hug and promised to come back for her. That night, because I was missing Nancy dearly, Nana gave me a teddy bear to sleep with, but it wasn’t the same. After kissing me both cheeks, as was our custom she stroked my forehead until I fell to sleep.

When the day came to pick Nancy up it was raining so Nana said, “Maybe, we should go tomorrow if the weather clears up?” But my brother, who was trying to make up for breaking my doll, sided with me, and helped me persuade her to take us, even in the rain.  “Come on Nana,” he said, “we can take our brollies and our nice warm coats and get a hot chocolate on K Road like last time.”

“Okay,” she said, with a smile, pleased to see Toby was being a better brother.

When we collected Nancy, she was like brand new. She’d been cleaned and her faded facial features restored. Her hair was combed and tied back in a neat ponytail, and she even had a new outfit on – a floral cotton skirt and white embroidered blouse in a Bohemian style. They were like some of the clothes I’d seen in Nana’s wardrobe. When I’d seen them, I’d asked, “Did you wear those clothes before you married poppa?” and she’d laughed and replied, “No, they’re from the 60s, we all wore clothes like that back then. And headbands. We were hippies. We grew our hair long and we were free.”  I wondered if that was before she’d lost her finger and started rocking and trying to boil frozen mince.

As I got older Nana relied on me to remember the names of the flowers in her garden, she’d taught me. She would get me to recite them over and over. “Lily, magnolia, orchid, tulip, carnation, hyacinth, chrysanthemum, poppy, sunflower, anemone, daffodil, freesia, gladiolus.” And of course, the roses. Their names were as beautiful as the flowers themselves. I would watch as tears of happiness would well in the corners of Nana’s eyes and trickle down her wrinkled, olive cheeks. She loved nothing more than hearing about her garden.

I heard the news that Nana had died when I was at work. She had been in hospital due to her heart failing. I was offered time off work to go to the funeral. I declined but the next morning I woke with resolve. I was going to attend Nana’s funeral no matter what. So, I took my first road trip from Wellington to Auckland at the age of seventeen with my brother, four years younger. We set off in the morning, early and arrived in Auckland in the evening and only got lost once, somehow ending up in Mt Eden instead of Papatoetoe. We rang my father for directions and arrived exhausted but proud.

I was sleeping in the spare room where Nana’s ‘garden’ grew. It was tiny, barely enough room for the single bed and only one window at the South facing end, so it didn’t get much light. But it didn’t matter. Nana’s ‘garden’ filled every available inch of wall space. Many of the flowers were as faded as Nana’s mind had become with dementia and they were tatty around the edges because she’d not bothered as much with her ‘garden’ and pasted down their edges. 

The night before the funeral I tossed and turned until 3am. I knew Nana would have never wanted her ‘garden’ to be pasted over to brighten up the room and restore it to its full glory. 

I got up and went into Nana’s room. It looked strange with her bed stripped to the bare mattress, as if no one had ever slept there. Her false teeth, which usually sat in a blue crystal glass of water, which turned the gums violet was nowhere to be seen. Someone had already been through her wardrobe and emptied it. This shocked me. Who would be so easily able to wipe out the signs of her existence before she had even been buried? The curtains were not drawn, and the room felt icy without Nana’s brightly coloured hand crocheted woollen blankets that had sat at the foot of her bed and over her dressing table chair. Forcing myself to glance away from the scene I quickly searched Nana’s room for magazines and catalogues. Luckily, there was a stack of them hidden away in her nightstand, covered in dust and dated from three years previously – when she’d stopped ‘gardening’ because her mind was fading.  Most importantly they were complete. Nana had not taken her scissors to them yet.

I sat up all night at the dining room table cutting out roses from the magazines. My favourites were ones appropriately named, ‘Chance of Peace,’ ‘A Moment in Time,’ ‘Loving Memory’ and ‘The Lady Gardener.’ There was even one called ‘My Grandma.’ It had luscious lilac pink vintage style petals and was known for its divine fragrance according to the catalogue. I pasted this one proudly in the centre.

There were several I knew the old Nana would have chuckled at with names like, ‘Thunderstruck,’ Enigma,’ ‘Good as Gold,’ and ‘Matawhero Magic.’ She would have said, “Bree, sweetie they sound more like the names of the racehorses your poppa lost all our money on.”

She rarely talked about him, but we all knew she had never got over his divorcing her for another woman and leaving her with five children to bring up on her own with no family benefit in those days. She always felt guilty that she hadn’t been able to hold the family together and they had all been separated and gone to foster homes. I think this was when she began to rock and tried to make up for losing her kids by being the best Nana she could be.

By the time I was finished, the roses completely covered the A3 poster board I was using. I cut carefully around the edges and then quickly placed it in my room. I could hear sounds of someone getting up. I went to the kitchen to get more coffee. There was no point going to bed now. When my aunty walked in and saw me awake at 7am she raised her eyebrows at me and said, “What are you doing up so early?” I wasn’t known for being an early riser. I mumbled something about not being able to sleep.

At the funeral I placed the big bouquet of paper roses I had made beside her in her coffin. She looked beautiful dressed in her hippie clothes with her long white hair loose. People looked twice at me, but I didn’t care. The roses were for Nana and I knew she would have loved them.

Marina Lathouraki is a visual artist and writer of poetry and short stories living by the sea in Wellington with her husband.

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