Today's Profile: Emma Goldberg
Emma Goldberg is one of Writopia Lab's most prolific writers. Emma submitted five exceptional pieces to the Scholastic writing event this year including a memoir, three short stories, and a "short, short" story. In turn, she won multiple regional keys from Scholastic and earned a national gold key for the poetic and profound piece below. In a few days I will post one of my other favorites of hers as well. Please celebrate Emma's precocious talent by reading her award-winning prose:
My Rose Garden
By Emma Goldberg
Every summer since I can remember I would board the plane all by myself, feeling very mature despite my conspicuous “Unaccompanied Minor” tag. I would order a plane meal, more out of habit than need, and then pig out on M&Ms, Oreos, Doritos, and any other junk food I could sneak into my bags.
Grandma’s house was the kind of cottage I think Snow White might have lived in. It was at the edge of a small town, population less than 5,000. The petite wood frame was given a fresh coat of white paint every year, whether or not one was needed. The steps were sagging and had just the right amount of space beneath them to form the perfect hide-and-go-seek spot.
But Grandma’s garden, her pride and joy, beat all. It was perpetual and beautiful, a little world of lilacs, tulips, lilies, and every other flower imaginable. My favorites were the roses. They were red, romantic red, the kind boys give to girls before prom. I would pick them and make them into bracelets and dance around the garden, fancying myself in a beautiful Cinderella gown waltzing into a ballroom. I loved the smell of earth and roses. Sometimes I would water the garden and pull weeds but I wouldn’t wash my hands, I would just lie on a blanket of soft grass, inhaling the scent of romance and daydreams.
Summers at Grandma’s were the highlight of my year. Grandma forbid worries over homework, healthy foods, or anything of the sort. My days were filled with blueprints for tree houses in Grandma’s tall oak tree and rounds of hide-and-go-seek, which would finally end when Grandma admitted defeat and I would crawl out of the cellar, the trees, or a closet.
Every morning Grandma would wake me at 8:00 on the dot. We would milk Old Betsy, her cow, whose residence was the ramshackle shed behind the house. Her milk was sour and she threw a fit when anyone but Grandma tried to milk her but Grandma kept her, just the same. After my chores we would enter the swinging doors to the cozy kitchen. On the table there would be plates full of steaming hot cakes and home fries.
Grandma’s world was a magical world, filled with magical people. I still remember the summer I met Katelyn. I was kneeling in the garden, smelling the lilacs when a voice piped up behind me.
“My name’s Katelyn. What’s your name?” It was a slight dark skinned girl, not much older than I. Her face was smudged with grime and her eyes were bright and glimmering.
“Eleanor Francis Cooper. You c’n call me Ellie, though. ‘s what most people do. ‘Cept Grandma.”
“Smelling the flowers. Here.” I stuck a lilac under her nose. Somehow, even the strangers at Grandma’s were not to be feared. It was the aura of her world.
“Mmm. Smells good. Like birthday cake. I always liked flowers. I mean, they’re real pretty. I always wondered why only some humans were pretty but all flowers are pretty.”
“Roses are the prettiest though. If God had a scent I think he would smell like roses.”
“You believe in God?” I was appalled by her question. My Sunday school teacher said you would go to Hell if you didn’t believe in God and if you didn’t say your prayers.
“Of course. It’s a sin not to believe in God.”
“Yeah but seems to me that if God were still around things would be a lot different. Like all them wars and stuff wouldn’t happen.” Her eyes were studying the ground as her fingers weaved through the silky soil.
“Eleanor! Eleanor Francis!” Grandma’s bare feet padded down the pathway to the oasis of flowers. “Oh, hello Katelyn. It is so nice to see you over here.”
“Hullo, Miss Cooper.” Katelyn’s eyes studied the ground intently and her nervous fingers fidgeted with a rose thorn.
“Girls come in and have some lemonade. Must be 100 degrees out here.” Grandma fanned her flushed face with a pale flapping arm. We followed her down the path and into the small kitchen. Katelyn pulled from the pocket of her denim shorts a crumbling cookie. She handed half to me and I nibbled at it slowly.
“You know…” Katelyn’s thoughtful eyes were hard at work. “I think we’re gonna be friends. Dontchu?”
Well, Katelyn’s prophecy was right. Katelyn and I would have races down the dirt road and jump into the creek with all our clothes on. We would collect earthworms and keep them in old Jam jars until one jar broke and the earthworms escaped. Grandma was not too pleased. Worm collecting stopped shortly after that.
But Grandma never said a word when we came back covered in dust, insects, soil, and the fragrance of smiles. She would simply pull out the big hose and water us down like we were flowers in her garden.
Grandma was a Fairy Godmother. She could make even the most tedious chore interesting. While washing the dishes I was Cinderella and I had to finish all of my chores before midnight so the pumpkin could come and whisk me away to the ball. While cooking dinner I was preparing a banquet to celebrate the coming of the Queen; of course everything was made to perfection so we would not be executed by Her Majesty.
My favorite game was hide-and-go-seek. Grandma’s house provided endless nooks and crannies, perfect for a seven-year-old to crawl into. One time Grandma, Katelyn, and I, the Three Musketeers, were playing and I crawled into the bushes next to the gate. I sat, curled up in a ball, waiting for someone to find me. The clouds were a brilliant array of grays and indigos, spreading themselves across the sky, like the painting in Grandma’s kitchen. My position was rather uncomfortable and I squirmed around, trying to avoid the thorns and bristles. Suddenly and without warning raindrops began to pummel down, pelting me and choking me like the cackle of the Wicked Witch in The Wizard of Oz.
Far off in the distance I heard Grandma’s deep, straight-from-the-belly laugh that never failed to bring a smile to my face and produce a certain tingle behind my belly-button. Had they forgotten me? I stood up but was immediately pulled back down; my shirt had fallen into the clutches of a branch. I was trapped. I thrashed around wildly, my screams of terror filling the churning air.
“Grandma! Katelyn! Help!” Tears poured down my cheeks, mixing with the raindrops to form tiny rivers.
I felt strong hands pulling at me from two directions and then I was being carried towards the house.
“Eleanor, sweetie, it’s us. Oh poor darling. My goodness that was a good hiding spot.” Grandma’s hand pushed away strands of hair from my face and I melted into her arms.
“Ellie, are you gonna die?” Katelyn’s solemn voice was a whisper, filled with unspoken terror. I mulled over this and was about to speak and conclude that no, I was feeling much better thank you, but Grandma spoke first.
“No, sweetheart, Ellie’s going to be fine.” The laughter in her voice bewildered both Katelyn and I. “You know what I think you two need?”
“Some hot chocolate and sugar cookies.”
We agreed wholeheartedly. We clambered to the kitchen and sat around the table, letting the warmth engulf our bodies. Grandma kindled a fire and from the depths of the linen closet produced three downy quilts to wrap us up in, like Christmas presents, sitting three in a row on the deep brightly colored sofa. I nestled into Grandma sniffing her special aroma: cinnamon, soil, and laughter.
My summers were Grandma, Katelyn, and the roses until the summer of 5th grade when my friend Alison called.
“A bunch of us are going to this camp in the Berkshires. Amanda’s sister went there and said it was really cool. You should come.” Her tone was blasé, but somehow demanded immediate response
I was silent. Camp? In the Berkshires? With all my friends? The house with a white wood frame floated into my memory. I could see my friends all year. But an awful image popped into my head. All the inside jokes, all the memories… what if they wouldn’t want to hang out with me next year? I could always go to Grandma’s next summer. No one went to their Grandma’s house over the summer. Yesterday I had told my friend Dara of my summer plans and she had laughed.
“You stay at your Grandma’s house during the summer? That’s cute. I did that when I was, like, five, but my older brother said that its babyish. Besides no one else goes to their grandma’s. I mean, I guess except you. Its okay though.” I didn’t want to be part of the “except”. Grandma said the worst thing you can do to yourself is lose your soul in the everyone else. But what does Grandma know? She lives in a cottage, owns a cow, and still plays hide-and-go-seek even though she’s old. Old. The ugliest word I know.
“Sounds like fun.” My voice was a squeak, small and hollow.
“’Kay, cool. I’ll call you later with the registration stuff and everything. See ya.”
What would Grandma say? I remember the shrill ring of the telephone and Mother’s sugary voice, not real sweet, more like sweet’n’low.
“Oh, Rosaline, Ellie wont be able to come this summer.” Pause. “Yes she’s got so much homework… I’m sorry. Yes I’m sure… Yes I know you were looking forward to it… Okay, I’ll give her your regards.” When Mother hung up the phone that time it sounded heavier than usual. I forced back a stray tear. Dara’s older brother told her no one above the age of ten is allowed to cry. When I told mom she laughed but what does she know? She was born in, like, the Stone Age.
Grandma didn’t call the summer of 8th grade. I remember ‘cause I had come home from graduation, I was lying sprawled on my floor, so covered with clothing you couldn’t see the wood, and I was thinking about how Grandma’s house was better for daydreaming. And then I realized Grandma always called in May. And July was nearing, the phone hadn’t rang, and maybe Grandma wouldn’t call this summer. My fingers clenched, my heart worming around in my chest, my soul writhing around. Like a jigsaw puzzle with a missing piece. You say the one piece doesn’t matter but it does. It makes all the difference. There was an emotion in me that I couldn’t identify, bubbling in the pit of my stomach so I labeled it “anger”. And I ripped up the letter Grandma had sent me, elegant cursive on smooth pink paper, the scent of Grandma’s house lingering on its corners, tacked to a bulletin board for safe-keeping. But the tiny shreds of pink gave me no satisfaction. Cause even when the letter was thrown in the recycling bin, the phone didn’t ring, Grandma didn’t care.
But, the summer of 9th grade she called.
“Eleanor?” Her voice sounded raspier than I remembered, like each syllable dragged a heavy weight with it, sucking strength and energy and replacing it with age.
“I haven’t seen you in a while dear. Your mother sent me pictures of your school dance. My, you look so grown up.” Grandma never forced happiness into her voice… it came naturally. But now her voice seemed empty, hollow, filled up with dead air.
“Oh, thanks Grandma. Sorry I haven’t been down to visit. I’ve been busy.”
“Could you come down this summer?”
“I don’t know if I’ll get a chance Grandma… you know, camp and everything.”
“Just for a week. The garden doesn’t look as nice when you’re not here to water it with that extra spritz of love. And Katelyn misses you. You should see her. She’s taller than me now and beautiful too.” I felt a tinge of jealousy, like a worm, crawling into my stomach, leftover from the summer-must have been four years ago- when Katelyn and I collected them in a jar.
“Okay Grandma. I’ll come.” I got my plane tickets for the last week of the summer. However, in the middle of August my plans were altered with the ring of the telephone. It was thunder storming and the winds whispered amongst themselves, shaking out raindrops onto people’s heads. The telephone’s shrill ring startled us. It had an ominous tone to it. Mother picked it up. I heard the low buzz of chatter and then an empty cry.
Grandma had died in her sleep.
I took a plane to the small town in Montana, population less than 5,000. The paint on Grandma’s house was chipped and the garden was wilting and sagging under the weight of tears.
I went down the road to Katelyn’s small ramshackle house.
“Hey.” My voice was heavy, but only a whisper.
“You never came back.” She traced letters into the worn soil with her toe. E for Eleanor. G for Grandma. S for summer. G for gone.
“I waited and waited and hoped and every summer I would come sit by the road waiting for your car but you never came. Why?”
“I wrote…” Sometimes.
“You said in your letters you would come visit.”
“I kept thinking you were gonna come back.”
“I had other stuff…”
“More important stuff?” No.
“And now my childhood’s all gone,” I whispered. Katelyn was tall and beautiful. Her dark wispy hair fell in cascades around her face. “Sorry, Katelyn.” I hugged her and our tears mixed on our cheeks, hers dark, mine light and creamy.
After that Katelyn never called, never wrote. I don’t think I did either. I never saw her again.
I walked back to Grandma’s and into the house. It still bore the perfume of cinnamon, soil, and laughter, Grandma’s special scent. On her mantle, she had neat rows of photographs. A frame made out of Popsicle sticks with the words “I love Grandma” printed in my messy pink scrawl. A frame made of cardboard with “To my adopted Grandma” printed across the bottom in Katelyn’s neat print, a blue felt-tip pen. A picture of a little pale girl in a coral jumper and a toothy grin. A picture of a dark tall teenager with a subtle smile, and wispy hair. A picture of me, five years old, my head buried in Grandma’s neck. A picture of Katelyn, thirteen years old, laughing, her head resting on Grandma’s shoulder. That was my shoulder, I whispered, but then I realized that I had probably given up my ownership of it with simple twisted words. “I’ve been busy” “other stuff”. Ugly words, slimy words, crawling over my tongue.
I walked outside and touched the oak tree. I knelt in the soil, dark like hot cocoa, warm like breath on a cheek, nested in a couch in between a grandma and a friend. I whispered though no one could hear me, except maybe God. Or maybe Katelyn was right. Maybe there was no God, cause if there was maybe people would plant flowers instead of hate, and whisper instead of yell, and maybe Grandma wouldn’t have died…
I listened to the secret sounds of Grandma’s. I heard summer coming and shrieks of laughter as two young girls sat under an oak tree and whispered unforgivable thoughts. I listened to summer coming again and an old woman kissing her granddaughter as she arrived, dragging suitcases stuffed to the brim. I listened to the sound of rain on the roof and a crackling fire. I listened to smiles and wrinkles, hotcakes and earthworms. I listened to a childhood. I listened to a childhood slipping out of the worm jar, out of the hot cocoa mug, out of Grandma’s house. Listening to sweet sounds, like memories, like chewing gum, resting on your tongue till it loses its taste.
I listened to my own cries. I listened to a tired old woman and I listened to a lively young girl. I listened to a magical world. And I listened to the perfume of romance and daydreams. I listened to the scent of Grandma’s roses.