Julia had been rich for so long, and being rich was making her sick. In the home she shared with Donald, her husband, there was too much of everything; too many rooms stuffed with furniture, too many closets housing expensive clothing, the pantry over-loaded with fancy canned foods, so much that Julia thought she heard the pantry shelves groaning at night. The freezer in the basement was bloated with steaks. The house was full of money, and Julia couldn’t breathe.
Because of the boys, she tried. In order to exhaust herself, banish negative thoughts, and encourage sleep to come at night, she decided to fire the cleaning staff and take over their duties. Donald called the agency and re-hired them. She signed up for tennis lessons at the athletic club, for art history courses at the University of Pittsburgh, she joined the women’s civic club. But tennis hurt her knees and she found that she knew more about art history than the professor; and the women’s civic club was full of women more poisoned by wealth than she.
One day in late spring, the woman who came to clean the windows and floors had no transportation to get home; some mix-up had taken place with her boyfriend’s other girlfriend’s kids. Julia offered the woman, Sheila was her name, a ride home and Sheila gratefully accepted. Julia steered the Mercedes through the winding suburban streets of Churchill, then into the rushing traffic on the Parkway, all heading other way. Sheila lived in Greenfield, so Julia exited the Parkway, onto the ramp of the Squirrel Hill exit. The sky was soft, warm, with spring fully established. The women had little to say to one another; Julia was used to keeping quiet. Sheila lived on Mirror Street in one of the little double houses there; Julia stopped her car to let Sheila out.
“Mrs. Marguilies,” Shiela began hesitantly.
“Please call me Julia.”
“OK—Julia,” Shiela began awkwardly. “Do you have a minute? I’m real proud of my garden, out back. Wanna come and see it?”
Julia’s heart swelled with joy. The world was so cold and dull; an invitation to see somebody’s garden touched her. The two women walked around the house into the back yard.
The warm, apricot-colored light bathed the small backyard, which was full of children’s toys; a row of gardening tools stood in line against a shed at the back. Sheila pointed with shy pride to rows of bright pink impatiens growing thickly in the shade of an oak tree. A breeze blew and a jangly chorus of wind chimes rang out; someone had fastened them so they hung from the back porch roof.
“Of course it’s not like what and Mr. Marguilies have,” began Sheila. Julia put out a hand to stop her. At her age, nearly 60, she believed in being honest.
“Sheila,” said Julia, “You have quite the most beautiful garden I’ve ever seen. What Mr. Marguilies and I have is a sterile collection of plants and flowers picked out by somebody we don’t even know. Please, please don’t even think to compare ours with yours. I love your whole backyard.”
Sheila said nothing.
Julia felt something nameless within her soul trying to break free and be heard. The tender light, beginning to fade, brought into focus the texture of the shovel, spade, and pitchfork leaning against the rough brown wood of the shed; the toys left out, the small red fire truck and water pistol and soccer ball were remnants of children’s joys; the clustered impatiens blossoms reminded Julia of everything humble yet desirable.
“Oh, Mrs.—I mean Julia—you don’t have to say that. My God, when I think of that gorgeous house you have…”
“I want to thank you, Sheila,” interrupted Julia. “By showing me your back yard you have given me the courage to—Julia stopped herself from saying “…the courage to leave my husband.” However, instead she said “You have given me the courage to plant impatiens.”