“At every stage the rose’s fragrance varied offering something tempting and sublime. When the red buds were beginning to open, they smelled rich like wine. The delicate yellow roses teased me with their perfume. In the morning their outer petals hinted of mint and their centers smelled of vanilla cake. On a warm afternoon, their scent laced with ginger and honey tickled my nose, and in the cool of the evening, sweet sugar icing.” - Essie’s Roses, Michelle Muriel
I can smell a rose just by saying its name. There is something so special about a rose. Its history, romance, captivating perfume, and elegance. Throughout history it has been a symbol of love, passion, and highly prized for its fragrance and beauty. Did you know there is a difference between roses grown today and roses grown in the nineteenth century?
In my historical novel, Essie’s Roses, Miss Katie, the plantation owner, has a secret garden filled with roses. The roses in Miss Katie’s garden are called Old Garden Roses. Old Garden Roses are classified by the American Rose Society as roses that existed prior to 1867. In a future post, I’ll share examples of the Old Garden Roses I used in Essie’s Roses.
My history with the rose goes back to my childhood. I loved growing up in my neighborhood. We were a fun band of creative kids. Another character that makes an appearance in Essie’s Roses is a mysterious old man two little girls call “old man Koontz.” My old man Koontz growing up was an elderly woman I will call Mrs. Karley—the neighborhood’s ghost.
One of my best friends growing up lived right across the street from Mrs. Karley. My friend’s driveway was the hot-spot for constructing Fisher-Price Little People cities, hopscotch, and staring at Mrs. Karley’s house making up stories. Until one day, through a tiny slit in her window curtain, Mrs. Karley stared back!
Not just a peek. She stared at us for minutes at time. Mrs. Karley spying on us became her regular activity. We had no idea who Mrs. Karley was. She never waved or smiled. You skipped her house on Halloween. Yes, we were annoying kids playing in the street across from her house until the streetlight went off, but she wasn’t friendly. We didn’t know much about her, but one thing we did know, the singular, most important thing in Mrs. Karley’s world: her lush manicured lawn—and her rosebushes.
Mrs. Karley rarely came out of her house. Because we knew she spied on us, the biggest dare at the time in our neighborhood was to walk on the sidewalk in front of Mrs. Karley’s house and step on her grass—okay, the boys ran through her yard. Soon, Mrs. Karley figured out the perfect way to get us back.
Edges so deep they made trenches around her lawn that bordered the sidewalk like her own private lawn moat. Trenches that when wobbly kid bike tires got near them, they instantly swallowed them whole! I hated those trenches.
Older, our gang of kids now included the kids on the street behind Mrs. Karley’s house. We had to learn the art of jumping fences. Absolutely forbidden by Mrs. Karley. There wasn’t much space to jump her fence, because a trellis of perfectly pruned red roses grew next to it. After my last wipeout in Mrs. Karley’s lawn trench, I decided, forget the grass! Dare me to go take one of her roses. Her beautiful, crimson roses. Memories blur, either somebody did—or I dared myself.
There I stood. I came in from the side, stealthily through her neighbor’s yard. Inched closer to Mrs. Karley’s fence, and stood in front of her roses.
They were so beautiful. I inhaled, closed my eyes, and savored the fragrance. I was hooked. But I couldn’t get myself to take one. I plucked a petal. That was good enough.
I can’t remember how I got caught, but I got caught. After that, my mom wouldn’t allow me to go anywhere near Mrs. Karley’s house. The only way I was ever going to smell those roses again was to ask Mrs. Karley. It was scary, but I had to smell those flowers again. None of my friend’s parents had roses. Honeysuckle and yews, we all had those. My parent’s lawn/weed patch was the disaster of the neighborhood. Flowers? Forget it.
I decided it was time to get to know Mrs. Karley. I grabbed a friend, knocked on her front door, and brought her the newspaper.
Standing on her front porch was beyond frightening. Yes, my ulterior motive—smell her roses. Delusional thought, maybe she’ll even give me one. Mrs. Karley opened the door and greeted us in her little dressing gown—AND INVITED US INSIDE.
Mrs. Karley was skeptical, a little afraid like we were, but then she smiled. She squinted through her tiny round glasses and smiled. She was frail and small with a gravelly voice, her white hair in a bun. I gave her the newspaper and spied blue carpet and china in a wood cabinet. One day when she was grooming her roses, I went up to her and got my chance to smell them again.
Memories blur, but I know I spent time over at Mrs. Karley’s. I remember being with her on her carport with flowerpots, in her kitchen, maybe cookies were involved, and when I would catch her outside working on her roses. I don’t know if I ever received a rose from her. I must have at some point, because I remember bringing one home. My introduction to the rose, King of Flowers, and a ghost story no more.
My memory of Mrs. Karley’s face is a scowl, and that first smile she gave us. Kindness brought unexpected friendliness. Funny, it wasn’t until I began writing Essie’s Roses that I walked through my first rose garden. And when I smelled that first garden rose, it brought me right back to Mrs. Karley’s rosebushes. That smell was magical to me. It still is.
Growing up, I was like Evie Winthrop, one of the main characters in my novel Essie’s Roses. A dreamer. I let nature tell me stories. I let Mrs. Karley’s roses take me someplace. And when I smell a rose today, it reminds me of being little. That daring, scaredy-cat little tomboy.
Last year, I had the privilege of meeting a new friend, St. Louis consulting rosarian Larry Meyer. I walked among his breathtaking roses, recognized as one of the most spectacular private rose gardens in the nation. Larry's rose garden was touted by the president of the American Rose Society as being one of the most well-identified private rose gardens he had ever seen. Ironically, I discovered Larry's roses were just minutes from my childhood home.
It was wonderful hearing about Larry’s gift of growing roses and sharing his passion with others. I am so excited to share his garden with you in an upcoming post, so check back soon. It’s an amazing garden, created by an equally amazing man I feel privileged I had the chance to meet.
Do you have a memory about roses? Share it with me. I’ll pick my favorite and talk about it here. The winner will receive a signed hardcover copy of Essie’s Roses. So send me a message via my website www.michellemuriel.com on my contact page, or connect with me on Facebook, Goodreads, or Pinterest. Let me hear from you!
June is National Rose Month! The American Rose Society will be doing a book giveaway for Essie’s Roses on their Facebook page at 3:00 on June 11 and June 28. Visit the American Rose Society’s Facebook page for your chance to win a hardcover copy of Essie’s Roses!