The Gardener's Grand Summer

As a widow, Kate Bruce Ricketts lived alone in a two-story Mediterranean-style villa two streets behind the Wrigley mansion in Pasadena, Calif. Enormous wealth and grand living, for all its advantages and drawbacks, never seemed so stable or normal to me as the summer I became her teenage head gardener.

Her villa sat on a knoll. To the left there was a formal garden with a gurgling fountain and roses as the heart of the many flowers and geometric hedges. In the back of the villa, a large sweeping veranda overlooked a sloping lawn as big as a football field. Then there were several terraces to the right with orange and lemon trees and various clusters of plants, palm trees, flower beds and ivy, for a total of some four to five acres.

At the bottom of the sloping lawn, Mrs. Ricketts's chauffeur, Otto, lived in a shingled bungalow next to a garage containing her immaculate 1947 Cadillac limousine.

I became the temporary head gardener because Leon, the head gardener who had hired me to help him for the summer, suddenly disappeared. Mrs. Ricketts's cook, Dusty - who always wore a white-starched dress - told me that Leon was still struggling with a personal problem and had become very unreliable. He was on a ``toot,'' she said, the morning I arrived in my 1939 Ford, thinking it would be another easy day of sunshine and watering wands.

I PARKED near the gardener's shed, a windowless wooden shack loaded with tools, lawn mowers, and equipment. Leon's car was missing. From across the formal gardens, Dusty was calling my name and waving a towel at me from the kitchen steps at the side of the villa.

``This is your day,'' she said, pushing me into the kitchen where Emily, the laconic maid, stood smiling as if I were about to be drawn into something tricky but wonderful. She winked and handed me a note from Mrs. Ricketts. The handwriting was scraggly. At the top, printed, was my name; the message was in cursive.

She asked me to become the head gardener, because Leon was totally unreliable. She wanted the grounds to stay green and to flourish. Would I do the best I could for the summer while she tried to find another head gardener?

``She wants to talk with you,'' Dusty said. ``In back. Go stand by the door on the veranda, and she'll be on the balcony.''

Bizarre rumors about Mrs. Ricketts had been passed on to me by Leon and landscapers who delivered plants. They said she took baths in ice cubes. They said she dressed in black and kept all the shades pulled. They said she knit rags together and then tore them apart. They said she was 6 feet tall and weighed 98 pounds. They said her husband's wealth had come from a hundred gold mines.

I walked to the veranda in the dappled sunshine of a wondrous California day. Head gardener. I looked out over the veranda. I can do this. A snap.

Above the veranda was a wide balcony with a striped canvas awning. I waited several minutes, then a sharp, scratchy, dry voice said my name.

Above me, Mrs. Ricketts looked down, her long fingers clutching the railing. She wore a wide-brimmed straw hat, pulled down by a lacy orange scarf and tied under her chin. Large dark glasses covered most of her face. She leaned over, staring at me.

``Today the terraces need attention,'' she said, her voice cracking as she tried to make it reach me. ``A good watering, and some careful weeding near the rhododendrons and azaleas.''

LATER I realized she accepted me as equal to the job, so why did she need to ask if I wanted it? She directed me to pay attention to specific plants or sections. I listened, hand above my eyes to deflect the sun. Then she paused.

I said I could do all that and would be careful. A long silence. She was staring at me down below, a tall, thin 17-year-old in dirty Levis and a white T-shirt with holes. ``Thank you,'' she said, and was gone.

It was that way just about every morning for the rest of the summer: First a note handed to me by Dusty or Emily, then a short balcony appearance with more instructions - always polite, always impersonal - but at the end, a pause and then a soft thank you.

``Be careful,'' Dusty warned me. ``She'll fire you on the spot if you make mistakes.''

Each day was easy work; timing and coordination were the key as I moved hoses and sprinklers around and kept the lawn mower humming. I clipped hedges, cleaned the ponds, weeded, and ate long sack lunches under the trees, pleased with my handicraft. It was a great summer job, actually a little boring because I had to work alone. And Otto allowed me to sit in the limousine one afternoon.

Two days later, Mrs. Ricketts had a special project for me - turning over three flower beds and planting ivy. Later I asked Dusty if I could bring a friend to help for a few days. The handwritten answer was yes.

Buzzy, a garrulous, fun-loving, car-loving teenage rogue, joined me on the project; we worked and plotted, exaggerating all the nuances and mysteries presented by a large villa with a reclusive owner. And down the slope, with Otto on vacation, the Cadillac was a lure we couldn't resist.

Because Otto's house and the garage were hidden from the villa, Buzzy and I made the unthinkable into foolish reality. One day at noon we drove away from Mrs. Ricketts's in her Cadillac, Buzzy behind the wheel in the chauffeur's hat and me in the back seat under a shawl, wearing a straw hat and dark glasses.

A MILE away we drove into the local drive-in restaurant, the gleaming black car suddenly gaining the immediate attention of everyone there. We played our roles well, oblivious to the perils we were blithely risking.

From the astonished waitress on roller skates I ordered a hamburger and french fries. Buzzy played rock-and-roll on the radio at multidecibel level. We relished in our coup, Buzzy zipping up and down the window that separated driver from passenger. He recited chauffeur-like pronouncements. I waved to everyone with slow dignity.

When a police car drove through the drive-in, staring at us, we panicked. Minutes later we were on our way back to the garage, yelling at each other and blaming each other if something were to happen.

But nothing did. We parked the car and streaked back to the green warmth of the gardener's shack, alternating between disbelief that we had actually driven away in the car and laughing in relief that our teenage impulse had not backfired.

As the summer went on, Mrs. Ricketts kept me busy. Each day it seemed she added a little more responsibility and work, always talking to me from the balcony. She said the grounds had never looked better.

One day I asked Dusty if she would ask Mrs. Ricketts to give me a raise. I told Dusty I was saving for college. The next day she arranged for me to go upstairs and ask for myself.

Dusty pushed me through a door off the kitchen. ``Up those stairs, and wait in the sitting room,'' she said.

Suddenly I was inside the house I had thought was full of dark, bizarre mysteries. Instead, there were flowers in vases, and on the walls big bright paintings of Western nature scenes. As I walked up the carpeted steps, I noticed their elaborate gold frames.

MOST of the shades were drawn. I sat down in the sitting room next to a lamp. Seconds later, a tall, thin woman in a soft, beige-and-cream-colored dress, with white hair piled on top of her head, walked briskly into the room. She had ghostly parchment skin and dark blazing eyes.

Mrs. Ricketts held out her hand. It was like holding a small, thin animal. ``David,'' she said, looking at me as if I should have known she wanted to learn about me, ``tell me about your family.'' She sat down in a chair, her bony knees like two little knobs under the dress.

What interested her, as I spoke of my family, was my brother serving in the Korean War. She expressed great dismay over the war and said she was sorry that my brother was there. Her loose diamond rings jangled on her fingers as she gestured.

I asked for a raise, explaining my reasons, and she granted it. ``Have you ridden in the Cadillac yet?'' she asked me as we stood. I blinked, stammered, and mumbled that Otto had shown it to me. I could not look her in the eye. ``You must ask him for a ride,'' she said, her voice hiding any knowledge that Buzzy and I had borrowed her car.

I stammered again. ``Yes, I will,'' I said. ``I will.''

She held out her hand again. I shook it gingerly. ``Thank you for helping me,'' she said so softly it sounded like a request.

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