The ground was different back in the day. Sprinklers and grass and traffic and imported landscapers had yet to leave their mark so the ground was as it had always been; dry, compact and stubbornly resistant to life. As hard as it was for life to spring from the ground, it was even harder to make it as a non-believer. The Mormons had only recently come to Salt Lake and most of those in power still remembered worshiping in the canyon caves, safe in the knowledge that caves were much more bulletproof than barns. It wasn't surprising then that the community they built was insular and resistant to outsiders. In spite of this, the settler was able to create something of great value from this wasteland, from the dry dusty ground. Below the windswept sun-baked ground he found that mining didn't ask for your stake house card, and mine disasters seemed to strike without much preference for the number of chapters in your personal bible. Over the years the settler was able to amass a mining empire until he was finally able to build his grand legacy.
The house, more of a mansion really, was a testament to the life he left behind in the east. Three stories tall with a built in wrought iron elevator and grand third story ballroom the house and the gardens surrounding it were a thing of beauty to behold. Well into the last chapter of his life, the settler would refer to this house as one of his life’s greatest works. As it will be for most us, the settlers life ended not with a grand finale but with a quiet whimper. Most of the wealth he’d amassed went to doctors and then lawyers. Children turned out to be better at spending and less committed to making, and when the settler died, there was little left of his grand empire. Except the house.
106 years later to the day, the couple arrived from California. Salt lake was different now. The economy took jobs away that the steadily growing population needed to keep the 10% flowing and children fed. As a result the once insular community now welcomed outsiders and their investment dollars. The economy had also depressed house prices, and the couple, fresh from selling their modest house in California were faced with an unusual situation. With a need to reinvest the funds from their house sale in order to avoid taxes, they were told by Realtor after Realtor that there were simply no homes anywhere in Salt Lake that were expensive enough… until they happened upon the old abandoned mansion. In embarrassed tones the Realtor explained the checkered history of the house. Failed retirement home, nursing home, hostel and finally flop house, the grandeur envisioned by the settler was obscured by years of neglect. Weeds, peeling paint, trash and rodents had taken up permanent residence. In spite of this the couple saw the beauty of the old house and with only minimal rational thought plunged headlong into buying and then renovating the old house.
Each day while he was at work, she worked relentlessly on the house. Windows, paint, roof and always, weeds. Barren brown grass and weeds.
Every few days she would see the sisters - for they were obviously sisters from the way they stood easily side by side. When they walked their stride, shortened by old age, would nevertheless synchronize perfectly, never have been separated by the inconveniences of husband or children. If she ever gazed too long in their direction, they would silently walk away.
As the weeks turned to months the house began to come to life. For the first time in decades the settler would have been proud of his house. The sisters who had been silently watching finally decide the time is right and they slowly cross the road to exchange their first words in greeting.
As they introduce themselves the reason for their silent vigil becomes apparent. They are the settler's granddaughters and had watched the house age and crumble even as their childhood memories remained intact. They had been quietly rejoicing to see outsiders once again bring life from the dusty brown soil. In return for the gift of seeing the settler's house come back to life, the sisters had a gift for the couple. At the high point of the settlers life he had set out on a grand journey - taking his brand new automobile and driving across the untamed miles back east. Along the way he had stopped and taken photos to document his voyage - ending with the victory photo of the car and settler - dusty and road weary but supremely proud and content in front of the grand house.
This collection of old photos bound into a travel book was the gift the sisters had been silently waiting to give - hoping that maybe this time the house’s new owners would do justice to their grandfathers memory. That evening the couple carefully turn the pages - looking back through time and distance to see glimpses of a life long ago gone by. As she pores over the last photo - clues of their house’s past emerge. Shutters here, a porch swing there - and, magnificent even in faded black and white, was the rose.
The rose had been perfectly placed growing up alongside one corner of the sweeping porch. It was as though the house had been built around the rose – the rose coming first, with the house a well-crafted afterthought.
The next morning she set about planting a rose in the same spot – digging down below the thin skin of suburban green into the original dry dusty lifeless soil the settler has first encountered years before – preparing the soil for the new rose. As her shovel peeled back the years, she encountered a stubborn, lifeless old root. Shriveled and knarled with age, she had stumbled upon the original rose root – long ago forgotten and covered with years of neglect. The root went too deep to be easily removed, so she left it there and added in the new soil and peat, planning on planting the new rose the next morning.
The next day welcomed in an unusual sky in the dry SLC dust bowl – cloudy with heavy rain. Although it didn’t rain often, when it did the rain came down with abandon. The rain let up later that day, but the ground was too wet now for planting so she went on to other projects around the house – peeling wall paper and refinishing the grand stairs that led up to the third floor ballroom. It would be several days before she was to get around to planting the new rose in the old soil. The new rose, wrapped in store bought plastic and carefully engineered for maximum color and scent lay next to the prepared spot like a Christmas present, carefully wrapped waiting to be opened. As she dug down to ready the hole for planting, her trowel stumbled upon something out of place in the lifeless hole. Something green and alive.
In the days since she had first stumbled upon the old root, the air, water and attention had awoken something that should have long ago died. The smallest tendril of life had managed to spring from the old root and was now struggling towards the surface that must surely be above. Shocked she carefully made room for this small shoot and added a little more water, a light dusting of soil. Then she waited and watched. It was early spring in SLC and there was plenty of time before the winter’s cold rain and snow would set in for the season. As spring turned to summer and fall the tendril became a shoot and then later that summer, a single rose bloomed.
Several years later I stayed as a guest in the once again magnificent house and was told this story – standing next to the rose. Blooming and full of life.
He was an accountant by trade and not given to flights of fancy. His office was below grade in a dark and comfortable room in the old house. He had kept the book on a corner of his desk and often looked though it in idle times. More than once he had gotten up and left, only to come back a few minutes later and find that the book was no longer turned to the page he had last been looking at. He would tell the story of the rose and the book to visitors in a matter of fact tone – as though even he, with his accountants mind, had stumbled across something that simply could not be explained.
© Copyright 2012 Bill Patton