I tend to do my crying in the car, that much is true. There are times when crying isn’t the answer. The year of my divorce was one of them.
I sought peaceful places where I could hide in plain sight. Having strangers around kept me from crying aimlessly. Forced me to take control. I avoided the malls, too many shared memories. I went to Corona Del Mar instead. It had the quaintness and personality of small towns, with unique shops and outside cafes.
And it had Roger’s Gardens, my refuge. At first I would walk around feeling sorry for myself, then the latest floral arrival or the newest garden ornament or wind chime will catch my eyes. I could spend hours of perceived solitude in such earthy garden of Eden. And leave the place feeling renewed.
While writing Bosom Bodies I needed to find a very unique nursery for Mina to get her first Christmas tree. The Christmas tree would later become a major element of the story so I picked Roger’s Gardens knowing it was the one place Mina would fit right in. Just as I did. Here is how Mina found her tree.
The place shone glossier than a magazine cover. Maybe the night rain played a role in all that brightness or maybe the Christmas ornaments did. Everywhere Mina looked, she found trees, decorated or not. Plants, potted, silk or dried. A place like Roger’s Gardens was a pleasure to visit any time of the year, but the Holidays were to this earthy paradise what anniversaries were to marriages.
It wasn’t Mina’s first visit to the upscale nursery. Her mother liked to stroll under the ready-to-plant, multi-gallon trees and listen to the gurgling of the do-it-yourself, garden fountains.
Such a long time ago.
Christmas in October was one of this dreamland’s popular promotions, and indeed every year the place would be fully decorated and stocked at the beginning of October. It was now a week before Christmas, and seventy-five percent of the leftover holiday merchandise was on sale. That was the good part. The bad part? Very little remained to choose from.
Diego walked around the live Christmas trees section, touching the branches, feeling the pine needles between his fingers.
“What are you doing that for?” Mina asked.
“Trying to figure out the degree of dryness. How tall a tree do you have in mind?”
“I dunno…this is the first tree I’ve ever purchased. My very first Christmas tree. I’m so excited.”
She grabbed his arm with both hands and tapped her feet in an impromptu dance. She could hardly contain herself and felt like a kid. Her joy reflected in Diego’s smiling eyes.
“Shush,” he said, “we are attracting attention.” But she could tell he was catching her festive mood. “Are you doing the presepio?” he asked.
Presepio? She hadn’t heard that word in years. Diego had to be Italian.
“No, I don’t have anything, not even the Nativity. Tell me the truth. Are you Italian?”
He stepped closer, tilted his head and stared at her. Then he lifted his hand to her face, the tip of the index and the thumb nearly touching, “This much.” He smiled.
“I knew it, I knew it,” she chanted.
“Good. Now forget about it. Let’s pick a tree before they are all gone.”
“Diego, you are such a serious man. Cheer up. It’s almost Christmas. Do you have family in Italy? What part of Italy are you from?”
“Mina, I meant it. Forget about it. And no, no family, and I don’t want to talk about Italy. Focus. Christmas tree.”
“This is so much fun. Let’s see if I can figure out where I put the Christmas decorations when we packed up the house.” Brian did the packing. She remembered and felt a pang in her stomach.
“Something wrong?” Diego didn’t miss a beat.
“No, memories. Time to forget and move on. How about that cute tree at the end? It looks silvery. You think it’s too tall?”
“Too tall for what?”
“Oh, you know, fit in the car, fit in the room, me reaching the top branches.”
“It will fit the car and the room, and you can always use a step stool, no?”
“Oh, you are so clever. When I was little, my grandparents put together a Nativity scene outside our house, in the courtyard, the nativity wasn’t a very complicated one, just the basic, Joseph, Mary, baby Jesus and the animals, but to a child like me it was fabulous and then on Christmas morning, I woke up to find a light sprinkle of real snow over everything. I thought it was magic!”
“I bet you were one bouncy little girl.” Diego picked up the tree and headed toward the cashier.
He made sure the stand came with the tree and also picked up a booklet with information on how to keep the needles from drying. The whole car smelled of freshly cut pine. Mina inhaled the scent and closed her eyes, her head resting against the leather seat. From that moment on, every time she smelled pine she would be thinking of Diego. Maybe he felt her emotions. He put his hand on hers and kept there.
“We always went to midnight mass. The first few years I would fall asleep and my grandparents would carry me home, but as I grew I learned to enjoy it. Often we would leave the church to find a coat of new snow, and then we would gather at friends’ houses for hot cocoa and cookies. Everything made from scratch and, oh, so good. Still makes my mouth water.”
“Why didn’t you spend Christmas back home?” Diego asked.
“There is no home back in Italy. Everyone is gone. You know, dead. It’s only me.” She was choking up and had to stop talking. Diego stroked her hand. They drove back to Bayside Condominiums in soothing silence.
Photo courtesy of Roger’s Gardens, proudly celebrating their 50th anniversary.