Always and Forever
When her dear friend Mozzie said what happened, she thought he'd finally lost that wonderfully eccentric mind of his. How could Neal have been turned into a four year old child? But when she met the little boy, all blue eyes and mischief; she knew instantly it was true. The how and why of it she wouldn't dwell on, but the who was definitely her Neal.
The grand old house was quite lonely now. Samantha's father had taken a job in London, so she saw her only on holiday. Cindy had a new beau. She was in that delirious stage of love where you think you might die if separated for just one moment.
Mozzie was in and out. He often spent his nights in Neal's apartment and his days with the little boy when he could manage it. It only seemed like yesterday she'd taken the young stranger into her home and then her heart. She missed their long walks in the park and impromptu late night duets when she found Neal at the piano. Sleeping was difficult for them. On Sunday mornings they made enormous breakfasts together. Neal was an accomplished baker, but then again he was accomplished at most things. He put his heart and soul into everything, so it came as no surprise that now he had poured his four year old heart and soul to grieving.
Elizabeth pulled up to the stately old mansion just as she had promised June. Neal and Satchmo were playing in the back seat with one of Satch's toys. But she could tell he was watching her, as much as he pretended he wasn't. It broke her heart that he was so anxious and worried.
"Okay honey, we're here. I have something to talk over with nana June. It'll just be a minute. Do you want to come inside?"
"No. I don't wanna talk to nana June."
At just that moment June came through the big iron gate and walked over to the car, carrying a small basket.
"Good morning Elizabeth, Good morning Neal," her dark brown eyes were warm and kind.
Neal looked down at his feet. He didn't care. He was not going to talk and they couldn't make him.
"I made your favorite cookies, peanut butter banana chocolate chip. Elizabeth, these are for Peter," she smiled and handed the basket to her.
"I don't want them." Neal had his arms folded across his chest. In spite of his intention not to care, his stomach had other ideas, it let out an enormous growl. He hardly ate any of his breakfast and nana June's cookies smelled delicious. Satchmo, however, had made no such agreement not to care and bounded out of the car a mass of yellow fur. He ran right into nana June's gate.
"Satchmo! Come back," he cried and ran after the dog.
"See what I mean, he loves coming to visit you. But now…." Elizabeth's voice trailed off as she watched Neal run off after Satchmo.
"He'll be fine," June wrapped her arms around Elizabeth. "Trust me. I'll call you when he's ready to come home."
"Thank you, June," she said with immense relief.
Neal found Satchmo at the foot of a giant tree happily chasing a bunch of sparrows. He had never been in this place before. Everything was green, the air was thick and sweet. Roses were everywhere, pink roses, white roses and red roses. More roses than he could count, more roses than even Peter could count. He was in June's garden.
"It's beautiful isn't it," June said to him. "Come, I want to show you something." They walked through an archway off to the corner where the most biggest, most beautifulest yellow roses he had ever seen were in bloom. He forgot that he was cross.
"These were Byron's favorites," June motioned to the roses.
June's garden was big by city standards. There were winding paths, deep green hedges of boxwood and beds of delphinium, larkspur and lily of the valley. An ancient apple tree stood in the northernmost corner, its graceful branches laden with tiny buds just about to flower. Springtime was the most glorious time of all in the garden. Byron started planting the year they moved in. She hadn't cared much for gardening. Byron was a country boy at heart and she was a city girl. Then the babies came, and well her hands were busy. Now those weathered hands loved nothing more than to dig and weed.
She reached down into the rich black soil and crumbled it between her fingers.
"Here, smell this," she offered her hand to the small child. At first he wrinkled his nose, but curious he came closer and sniffed.
"It smells like pancakes when Lizabeth lets them cook too long."
"It's the molasses," she smiled. It's part of a secret recipe that makes the roses grow big and strong. Did you know that roses have names? This is Augusta Luise and down there is Pink O' Hara. Do you want to see more of them?" The little boy nodded. After a time they came back to the shade of the large apple tree.
"Walking always gives me an appetite," June sat down on the stone bench at the base of the giant old tree and unfolded a napkin she had stored in her pocket.
"Would you like a cookie?"
"Mm hmm," Neal came and sat down beside her.
Soon there was nothing left but crumbs, walking had given the little boy an appetite too. They sat in companionable silence and listened to the buzz of the bees and the bird songs in the tree overhead. The sky was very blue.
Then something wonderful happened.
A small bird flew down from one of the branches and landed on the small boy's hand.
"Nana June, Nana June, Look!"
"Oh, it's a robin dear. Be very still. You don't want to frighten him," she said gently.
"Kay," Neal whispered. And the little bird cocked his head to the side and made a small peeping sound.
"He's talking to you," June said.
"I don't know how to talk to birds," the little boy said with a puzzled look.
"It's okay, he understands you."
"My name is Neal, what's yours?" The little bird made a few more chirps and flew back up to the tree."
"What did he say to you? June asked.
"He said his name was Peep."
"It seems you've made a friend. There's a lot of work to do in the garden. Will you come back tomorrow and help me plant?"
"I can plant?" his eyes were wide with delight.
"Of course, dear."
Neal woke up the next morning with the strangest feeling. He was hungry, really really hungry. Lizabeth was making oatmeal with apples, raisins and cinamum. He could eat bowlfuls, but he had to get to nana June's. All he could think about was Peep and planting.
"Whoa buddy, slow down," Peter told him as he gulped down a spoonful of oatmeal. "I hear you're going to work in the garden today with nana June."
"Mm, hmm," his mouth was filed with oatmeal.
"Peter, ask Neal about his new friend." Elizabeth couldn't contain the joy filling her heart, she hadn't stopped smiling since Neal asked her to make him breakfast.
"Okay buddy, spill. Who is this new friend of yours?"
"His name is Peep. He told me himself. You know you can talk to birds, Peter. We're friends now."
Peter made that silly face he makes when he kisses Lizabeth, but he didn't even kiss anybody. Neal thought it was curious, but he had things to do and places to be.
"C'mon Peter. Lizabeth says you can drive me to nana June's. It's not nice to be late," he took Peter's hand.
Neal had never seen nana June in boots and jeans. It made him laugh and June laughed too. They walked to where the yellow roses growed. June took him to a small box on the ground.
"This is for you," she smiled. Inside there was a small spade, trowel, a pail and a jar filled with stuff. "If you're going to plant you will need your very own tools." Then she began to show the little boy how to turn the soil.
"First we have to remove all the weeds, so our plants will have room to grow. They need the sun to find them and warm them and the rain."
"I know. So they won't be thirsty," he was kneeling close by June's side. They dug and pulled and dug some more. Neal was happy.
"I found a worm!" He could hardly contain his excitement as the worm wiggled in the dark earth. "Don't be scared," he looked up at June. Lizabeth screamed, when she found a worm in his pants pocket he remembered.
And if things couldn't get any better for the small boy, Peep swooped down and picked up the worm in his beak. He looked at Neal, who was very very still. Peep flitted his wings and flew up to the big yellow rose bush, perched on one of the magnificent blooms with his treasure and then went up and up into the old tree.
"I think Peep is building a nest up there," June looked up at the tree.
"For what?" Neal asked.
"His family. Soon there will be baby birds and Peep will need to feed them. Robins love worms and all the bugs that live here in the garden. The roses provide for the worms and bugs and they provide for the birds. The birds and bees carry the rose seeds and pollen to other gardens and help them grow."
Almost in awe, Neal walked over to the deep yellow rose where Peep had stopped momentarily. June came up beside him.
"What's this one called?" he asked holding Peep's rose.
"This is Mrs. Ellington, Byron named it for me. He planted all of these, but this one he grew especially for me."
She remembered the exact day Byron brought her to this place. He'd exiled her from the garden, while he worked. His big strong hands covered her eyes as he led her to this very spot. When she opened them it was a dream. There were yellow roses of every variety: floribundas, teas and heirlooms, tree roses, climbing roses and in the middle the most spectacular yellow rose she had ever seen, the one he'd created just for her. He said it was a mercy for all his sins and a promise. A promise of his love for her, which would flourish long beyond their garden walls. That night they talked in the garden until the sun went down and the moon came up. On spring nights she can still detect a trace of his smell here among the roses.
"It smells beautiful," Neal exclaimed.
"It does, doesn't it?"
"What happened to Byron?" he looked up at her.
"Byron died." Neal suddenly shivered in the warm sun. He was quiet for a moment.
"Are you going to die too?" he looked at her seriously and moved closer.
"Yes, someday," June said gently. She felt the small child's hand slide into hers.
"Am I gonna die?"
"Not for a very long time, but yes one day. Every living creature has a life and at the end of that life they die." She could see his four year old mind struggle to understand her.
"I want to give you something. Stay right here."
Neal sat very still next to the giant bushes. June soon came back with a small potted plant.
"Neal, Byron planted all these roses so that I would always have a part of him with me, even when he was gone. Do you understand, sweetheart?"
The little boy nodded his head, "Like a memory? We made a memory book for Mrs. Garner." It still made him sad to think about Mrs. Garner.
"Yes, June said. Like a memory, but a living memory. This is for you," she placed the small plant in Neal's hands. "Now you can plant a rose for Mrs. Garner that will live here in the garden now that she's gone."
They dug a hole in the rich black earth and Neal carefully placed his plant inside. He gently firmed his rose into its new home and was almost done when June brought out the small jar from his box.
"Now we have one thing left to do. Put in the secret recipe. Molasses, apple cider vinegar and love." She took off the lid, "Now just pour it in." Neal emptied the jar on to his rose. He had soil on his hands and soil on his face.
"I don't see love, Nana June," he said looking at her approving face.
"It's right in here," she placed her hand over his heart. "Byron put love into all his roses and that's what made them grow so strong and beautiful. Now you must put all your love into your rose."
Neal concentrated with all his might on the little plant and when he was done he whispered, "I love you little rose."
The spring passed to summer and Neal was happy again. He and June ate pickles and grilled cheese sandwiches in the garden. They sang songs, nana June could sing really good. Peep built his nest in the great apple tree and now baby bird chirps filled the warm summer air. Peep came often to visit and Neal would make sure to have fresh worms for him to feed his family. Often he lay in the grass and watched things grow. Green things were coming up everywhere, he was pleased with his work.
Mrs. Garner's rose was growing so fast he could hardly keep up. Every day there was something new to see. A new leaf, a tiny bud. Then one day a beautiful orange rose opened. It made him smile over his entire face. He took very good care for the sunshine and rain to get to it. Sometimes when he lay on his back he looked up into the apple tree and thought if he would climb it he could touch the sky.
Then one day something happened in the garden, Mrs. Ellington and all the roses' petals began to fade and brown, and fall softly to the ground.
"What's happening to them?" he asked June his lower lip trembling.
"Their time has come, dear. Every living thing has a life and a purpose, remember. Everything has a life and everything dies, but one thing lives forever and never dies."
"What lives forever, nana June?"
"Love lives forever. It's in the secret recipe. Byron put his love into his roses and they made the soil rich and it fed the worms and birds, the butterflies and all the living things in the garden."
"And it made us happy," the little boy said.
As the summer began to turn to fall Mrs. Garner's rose began to drop its leaves. But Neal wasn't sad because it had a purpose and the love he put it into it would live forever, would feed their garden, the old apple tree and Peep and his family. Come spring Mrs. Garner's rose would return to the garden and all the gardens beyond the walls where his friends had dropped their seeds.
The last few days of summer had been glorious. Peep's sweet song filled the warm air. He and nana June decided to have a picnic under the big apple tree. It was a perfect day. Lizabeth made fried buttermilk chicken, Peter's favorite. Uncle Moz brought fancy wines, he sneaked him a sip, it tasted awful but he didn't let on. Peter flew his Burkes Red Devil kite high above the apple tree and Satchmo thought he could catch the tail, silly dog. June and him used the apples from the garden's tree to make apple pie. Everyone said it was delicious, he and nana June laughed because they knew what made it so good. They used the secret recipe, molasses, apple cider vinegar and love.
Always and Forever
By Alan Durant
Otter, Mole, Fox and Hare lived together in a house in the woods. Otter cooked delicious meals. Mole made and mended. Hare kept a beautiful garden
And Fox? He worked harder than anyone, making sure everything ran smoothly. He was always on hand with a helpful suggestion and an encouraging word.
They were a happy family, and they love each other dearly. But one day, Fox fell ill. As the leaves stated to drop from the leaves, Fox grew thin, pale and sad…
After the unspeakable tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary school in Newtown, I was looking to express my grief like so many millions of others. I turned to writing. Nothing came, so I put it away. When thinking what I might write next for this series of stories about little Neal, the tragedy in Oklahoma happened. Another elementary school was involved. I was again reminded of the bravery and sacrifice of so many teachers who put themselves at risk or sacrificed their lives for their young charges. It made me think of all the wonderful teachers I have had both in school and in life, and the impact they made on my life. All the Mrs. Garners and Junes who saved me in every sense of the word. So this is written for all the little ones and all the teachers we have lost this year.
Thanks so much for all the kind comments and reviews, as always they are much appreciated. Always and Forever is a wonderful story for young children struggling to come to terms with a loss. I'd love to hear what your favorite childhood stories are. If I can muster up another story in this series, any ideas on what little Neal should read next?