In the summer of 1959, we lived in an aging but dignified red house on Lewis Street in Fresno, California. My mother wore an apron over her pregnant body and my father went to work each day somewhere downtown. My brothers and I played in the street with the neighborhood kids and I learned to ride a bicycle. My life seemed as dull and predictable as the multiplication tables I learned in school…until the day my friend Becky and I discovered the thrill of romance.
Eight-year-old Becky and I stood very still. Feeling a bit of chill in the spring air, I dug my hands deeper into the pockets of my sweater. Becky’s father knelt on the soft dewy grass and deftly dropped the first brick into place. Then he applied mortar with his trowel and slapped another brick beside it and then one on top of those two. Then another and another, so magically the wall grew in height and breadth at the same time. His rhythmic pace was hypnotic. Becky and I hardly spoke as he worked. By the time the mid-morning sun soaked through my sweater and warmed my shoulders, the little wall stood four bricks high and wrapped protectively across the length of the flowerbed. Becky’s dad rose and dusted off his pants.
“There you are, girls. When the mortar is completely dry and hard you can plant your sweet peas.”
“It’s beautiful!” I exclaimed. “How did you do it so fast?”
“Oh, it’s all in knowin’ how,” he answered. “You girls go play now, and don’t touch the wall. I got more work to do.”
Becky and I sat in the shade of the garage where we could talk and still see the wall, just in case something went wrong and it fell down. We talked and giggled until we heard a car pull up in the driveway. We hurried to the corner of the garage to see who was visiting.
My mouth dropped open. My face felt hot and my hands began to shake. Rock Hudson got out of the car! I quickly turned to Becky and grabbed her arm. A huge grin covered her freckled face. She pushed her ever-slipping glasses back into place with her index finger.
“I know,” she said, “he looks just like Rock Hudson, don’t he. Even Mama said so.”
“Who is he?”
“His name is Don. He rented the upstairs room. Moved in yesterday.”
“Gosh, you’re so lucky. Is he nice?”
“Sure, wanna meet him?”
She grabbed my hand and pulled me toward the car before I could decide.
“Hi, Don,” she called. “This is Mary Elizabeth. She lives across the street down there in that red house with the roses out front.” Don turned politely to look. Then he turned back to me and smiled.
“Hi, Mary Elizabeth.” He stared to walk to the door, but Becky seemed determined to embarrass me further.
“Mary has a baby brother.”
“That a fact? Just one?”
“Two,” I answered. “But Mama’s gonna have a new baby soon and it’s gonna be a girl. She promised. Bobby Dan ain’t bad ‘cause he’s only one. But David’s a do-do bird. He’s four and a half and he’s always pinchin’ me and…” I stopped in mid-sentence as I realized I was chattering. I looked up to see if Don was frowning like Mama always did when I talked too much. I had to practically lean backwards to see his face since he was even taller than my granddad. His eyes were deep brown and his dark brown hair was combed back in a soft wave. He grinned at me with the most perfect teeth I had ever seen. I started to smile back, but then I lost my nerve and looked down at the grass.
“Well, I’ll see you girls later. I have to go clean up for supper.” He walked up the stairs and I watched the door close behind him before I turned to Becky.
“He’s gonna eat with you too?”
“Yep, three nights a week.”
“Wow! Are you ever lucky.”
Mama broke her promise to me a month later and Aunt Betty came one afternoon to see my new baby brother. That’s when the idea first came to us. Becky and I talked about how pretty Aunt Betty looked. Her dark brown hair was styled in shiny curls with a bow pinned on one side that matched her pale pink sweater. She had a good job and she always wore beautiful clothes. She had four cashmere sweaters, but the pink one was my favorite.
“Your aunt looks just like Elizabeth Taylor. She ought to be a movie star.”
Sparks flashed as our eyes suddenly met. A movie star!
“Rock Hudson!” we said in harmony.
“Do you think she’d like him?” I asked.
“Of course she would. He’s the handsomest guy I ever seen, and he’s real nice and friendly. Mama says he has a good job at the post office. He drives a new car. What else could she want?”
Aunt Betty wasn’t as easily impressed. We gushed for several minutes about Don’s attributes, but she just laughed.
“He sounds wonderful, sweetheart, but I can’t just walk across the street and ask him if he needs a girlfriend.”
We tried again, but we couldn’t convince her.
We decided to try another approach.
The next afternoon, we waited by the driveway until Don came home from work.
“Hi, girls. What’s up?”
“Mary wants you to meet someone.”
“Oh, yeah? Is she cute?”
“She’s beautiful, just like Elizabeth Taylor. She has brown eyes and wavy brown hair.”
“And great teeth,” I added.
“She even has a new car. It’s red.
“Elizabeth Taylor, huh?” He pursed his lips and then smiled. “You girls sure I’m good enough for Elizabeth Taylor?”
“Not really Elizabeth Taylor. My Aunt Betty. She just looks like her.”
“Oh, I see.” But I could tell he didn’t. Grownups always said “I see” when they really didn’t.
Becky and I didn’t give up, though. We continued to hound Aunt Betty every time we saw her.
We told her how lonely Don looked and how hard he worked at the post office.
“That’s too bad,” she said.
We told her how he always took the time to play ball with us.
“That’s real nice,” she said.
But she was too busy to meet him.
So we worked the other side of the street. We told Don about the pretty clothes Aunt Betty bought.
“Probably spends too much money,” he said.
We told him she could sing like Peggy Lee.
“I like jazz,” he said.
We told him she could cook, even though I wasn’t quite sure that she could.
“That’s good,” he said.
But he was too busy to meet her.
As spring became summer, the sweet peas stretched over the taut strings and the bright blossoms burst with color. Late one June afternoon, Becky and I stood quietly and inhaled the heavy fragrance with pride. Our little flower garden had succeeded. Only our efforts as matchmakers had failed miserably.
“I gotta go. Aunt Betty’s probably at our house by now. Mama said to be home by 5:30.”
Becky nodded reluctantly. “Okay.”
As I turned to go, I heard Don’s car pull into the driveway. I took a couple of steps and then looked once again at the sweet peas.
“Becky,” I whispered, though there was no one around to hear us, “I have an idea.” I quickly explained her part and she nodded in agreement. Then I ran home as fast as I could.
I took a deep breath before entering the house, careful not to slam the ragged screen door.
‘Hi, Aunt Betty,” I said casually as I slipped into the kitchen. “Hi, Mama.”
“Hello, sweetie. What have you and Becky been up to?”
“We were just looking at the sweet peas. They’re really pretty.”
“I’ll bet they are,” Aunt Betty said.
“We worked really hard on them. And Becky’s dad made a little brick wall in front of the flowerbed. It looks real nice. Wanna see?”
“Maybe some other time. Your mom has supper almost ready.”
“All the flowers are blooming right now. We could pick some for the table. Becky wouldn’t care.”
Mama gave me a funny look and then smiled. She turned to Aunt Betty. “I do love fresh flowers on the table. Would you mind?”
“Of course not.”
Aunt Betty and I walked across the street to Becky’s house and I chattered nervously about our garden. As we stepped past the garage I could see Becky and Don in front of the sweet peas. I pulled on Aunt Betty’s hand and hurried forward before she could change her mind.
“Hi, Mary. I was just showin’ Don how tall our sweet peas have grown.”
“That’s funny. I was just bringing Aunt Betty over to show them to her.”
Don looked at me and then at Aunt Betty. Becky looked at me and I held my breath. Don stuck out his hand.
“Hi, I’m Don. I’ve heard a lot about you.”
“Betty,” she said as she shook his hand. “I can just imagine.” They both laughed nervously.
“Mary says you work for the telephone company. Are you an operator?”
“No, I work in the business office.”
Becky looked at me and I nearly collapsed with relief. We backed our way over to the garage and sat down to watch the show. First Don talked and Aunt Betty smiled. Then Aunt Betty talked and Don smiled. Then they both laughed about something. Neither seemed to realize Becky and I had left. Nearly half an hour passed and they still talked and laughed. Becky and I finally decided to go to my house and tell Mom that Aunt Betty would be late for supper.
As we started around the corner of the garage, I took one last look at the couple standing in front of the colorful sweet peas. They both laughed and Don gently touched Aunt Betty’s shoulder. I turned to look at Becky. She grinned and winked. I laughed and grabbed her hand and we ran to tell Mom.
Becky’s dad was right. Sometimes it’s all in knowin’ how.
(Author's note: I've taken a few liberties with dates and details, but the essentials of this story are true and I was a flower girl at Don and Betty's wedding.)