Just when Helen thinks she can take charge of her life, a devil-hunting itinerant preacher upsets the delicate balance she has managed in a family locked in secrets and headed for trouble. When Helen breaks down, her husband, Richard, angry and ashamed, commits her to a mental institution without telling their children where their mother has gone. Lillian's Garden is a novel about failure and finding redemption through learning how to ask for what you want and accepting what love has given you.
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By Carrie Jane Knowles
John Hunt Publishing Ltd.Copyright © 2012 Carrie Jane Knowles
All rights reserved.
Linda's mother walked by the library and tapped on the window.
"Your crazy mother wants you," one of the students yelled.
Linda pretended she didn't hear the student and didn't see her mother. Her mother tapped again.
All of the students sitting around her laughed.
Linda picked up her books and moved. Her mother walked away.
"I tapped on the window, didn't you see me?" her mother asked that evening when they were cleaning up after supper.
"Sorry," Linda said. "I didn't recognize you."
Linda's comment nagged at Helen all night long. She couldn't sleep. At 2 a.m. she got up, careful not to wake her husband, Richard, and walked from one room in the house to another, looking for some clue as to why her daughter didn't recognize her. She felt lost. Perhaps there was a door ajar she had never noticed before, or a window she had carelessly left opened where her true spirit might have accidentally tumbled out.
Not finding anything, Helen carefully tiptoed down the hallway to Linda's room and opened the door to see if her daughter was safe in bed and sleeping. Helen also checked to see if Tommy had come home. She was not surprised to discover he hadn't. She went downstairs.
Except for the soft shuffle of her bare feet against the cold wooden floors, the house was quiet. Dead quiet. She had an urge to run outside and smoke a cigarette, as though holding something dangerous like a cigarette in her hand, lighting it, and drawing the sharp smoke into her lungs would magically overpower Linda's niggling comment. Why didn't her daughter recognize her? What had happened to her children? What had happened to her life?
She had found a pack of cigarettes in Tommy's jacket pocket weeks ago, but never said anything to either Tommy or to Richard about finding them. Perhaps if Tommy were home, the two of them could go outside to share a cigarette and look at the stars together and talk. It had been a long time since she and Tommy had really talked to each other.
Lacking a cigarette, she went into the kitchen and lit matches, one after another, striking them against the box. Once lit, she threw the matches into the sink to watch them burn for a brief moment before going out. Each time she struck a new match, she marveled at how quickly the hot flare of sulfur filled the room then just as quickly faded as though the fire and the match had never found each other at all.
Helen fiddled with the spent matches in the sink, straightening them into a neat row like a garden fence. After she'd lit eleven matches she slid the cover off the "Strike Anywhere" box and counted how many were left. There were easily a hundred or more. Enough matches to stand there all night long, watching them burn. Fire and brimstone, sulfur and smoke: this is the smell of everything feeling so wrong and crazy your own daughter doesn't even recognize you when you tap on a window. This is hell.
She pulled a twelfth match from the box and struck it. Just as the fire ignited, she heard Tommy's car creep up the gravel driveway. She tossed the lit match into the sink and turned on the water. Scooping up the spent wet matches she threw them into the trash, pushing them to the bottom of the can. Scurrying up the stairs as quietly and quickly as she could, she disappeared into her room and closed the door. She took a slow deep breath trying to calm the pounding of her heart.
She heard Tommy open the refrigerator looking for something to eat. A minute later she heard him walk up the stairs to the bathroom, go to his room and shut the door. When he was in the bathroom she heard the toilet flush but didn't hear him wash his hands or brush his teeth.
She sat on the edge of their bed for a long time listening, waiting to be sure Tommy had fallen asleep before she allowed herself to slip her cold feet under the covers and close her eyes. Luckily, Tommy's clumsy drunken steps up the stairs hadn't awoken either Linda or Richard.
Helen lay in bed a long time before she finally fell back to sleep. The next morning she waited until Richard got out of bed and dressed before she stirred. After she heard Richard go downstairs for breakfast and Linda finish showering in the bathroom, she slipped out of bed and walked down the hall.
Once safely inside the bathroom, she closed and locked the door. She opened the top drawer of the vanity and rummaged through the hair rollers, bobby pins and lipstick tubes until she found the pearl-handled straight razor that had once been her father-in-law's and now belonged to Tommy.
Pulling the long sharp razor from its leather case, she opened it and held the blade in her right hand between her thumb and first finger the way her father-in-law had taught her to do when he could no longer shave himself and she had to shave him. The weight of the pearl handle of the blade balanced comfortably against her little finger and felt good. She put the razor down, ran water into the sink, and wet her hair. For the first time in a long time she felt sure of herself and what she now wanted to do.
Helen picked up a long lock of her shoulder-length auburn hair and twirled it in her fingers until it was pulled like a tight piece of rope anchored to her head. She picked up the razor. Laying the sharp blade against it, about one inch from her scalp, she pushed firmly until the blade cut through the twisted hair in one clean movement.
Once the first clean cut was made she proceeded with her handiwork, twisting, pulling and cutting as she moved from the front of her hair to the back. She worked quickly across the top of her head and down around her face by her right ear moving blindly over and around the nape of her neck to her left ear.
Her chest tightened. To keep herself from panicking, she started to hum that stupid song about God having the whole world in His hands. Tears streamed down her face. She couldn't remember the last time Richard held her.
She was tired of waiting for God to make her life better.
She wiped her face with the back of her hand and leaned close to the mirror. She turned her head from side to side to look at her profile and her new short hair. She brushed her opened hand along the short curls around her face. When she found a long piece of hair by her left ear she twisted it in her fingers and cut it. Once she was satisfied she had found every stray bit of hair, she wiped the damp blade on a hand towel, flipped the razor closed, slipped it into its case and put it back into the drawer.
Pulling a length of toilet paper from the roll, she wet it in order to wipe up the pieces of hair that had fallen into the sink. She pushed the tissue and all the hair she'd cut into the bottom of the trashcan in an attempt to hide what she had done.
"You look good," she said to her reflection. "It's not your fault Tommy came home drunk again. You are a good mother ... you have always been a good mother ... you are not like your mother.
You never left them."
Taking a fresh towel from the stack under the bathroom sink she rubbed her hair until it was dry. She shook her head and ran her fingers through her short curls.
For the moment, her fresh short hair erased her feelings of anxiety about Tommy and Linda. For the moment, none of that mattered. She felt good about herself, and she thought she looked good.
She reached into the drawer for a tube of lipstick and quickly drew a streak of color on her lips. Calypso Crush: a pinkish coral bordering on bold. Smoothing the color by pressing her lips together, she took another piece of toilet paper, blotted, threw the tissue into the trash and applied a second coat, careful to bring the color all the way to the edges of her mouth. Pressing her lips together to blend the lipstick, she picked up the blood red garnet earrings she had taken off last night before she went to bed and slipped them back into her ears. She forced a smile.
Richard had brought the earrings to her from Italy when he came home from The War. She loved them and wore them everyday as though they were the only part of her soul she was willing to share with the world.
Her wedding ring, a thin gold band set with five tiny diamonds, was in a box in the top drawer of her dresser. It was too big. It had always been too big and would slip off her finger whenever she washed dishes or worked in the garden. It made Richard angry that she didn't wear her wedding ring.
Helen heard Richard's heavy footsteps coming up the stairs. She looked at her watch. It was getting late. She could hear Linda getting dressed in her room. Helen hadn't heard a peep from Tommy.
"Linda," she called out, taking one more look in the mirror at her handiwork before she opened the door. "Would you wake Tommy? We need to get going."
Richard hit the top stair just as Helen opened the bathroom door.
"You cut your hair," Richard said.
"Didn't have time to go into town last week to get it done."
"Guess it wouldn't do any good to say I liked it long."
"Let's not be late for church," Helen said, turning to go into the bedroom to finish getting dressed.
Linda could hear her parents talking in the hallway. She knew by the tone of the conversation it was going to be a quiet ride to church this morning and she had better light a fire under Tommy so the situation wouldn't escalate.
She knocked once, then swung the door of Tommy's room wide open and flipped on the bright ceiling light. Tommy's long lanky body rolled lazily to one side of the bed. He dragged the covers over his head as he did. The room was sour with the smell of sweaty clothes and liquor. Linda pulled the door shut behind her and stepped closer.
"Tommy," she said, shaking his shoulder. "Get up."
"You should 'a come with us last night," he smiled, turning his now uncovered head in her direction. He smelled of cigarette smoke. His pale blue eyes were ever so slightly bloodshot from drinking. His breath was stale and warm with sleep.
"Good idea, glad I didn't, now get up before someone finds out."
"Finds out what?"
"That you've been drinking."
"What a time we had last night."
"If I were you, I'd shower twice, just to be sure to get the smell out."
"Larry and the guys, we were baaaad," he said, laughing. "If coach ever caught us that drunk there'd be no high school baseball team."
"I bet," Linda said, snatching the covers off him. "Now get up before there's a fight about being late for church. The two of them are already at each other."
Tommy took his good old sweet time in the shower. When he at last got into the car, Richard started lecturing. He let it be known in no uncertain terms he hated being late and he wasn't going to tolerate it anymore.
Helen's response to Richard's rant about being late for church was to sit bolt upright, perfectly still and silent, with her head turned to the window, staring off into nothing.
Tommy rested his head against the side window. His legs were sprawled out across the hump on the floor into Linda's space on the other side of the car. Linda, who had the same long legs as Tommy, sat stiffly with her knees pressed together and her hands folded in her lap in order not to take too much space or to push against her brother. Rather than look out the window like her mother, she kept her head down so her long straight brown hair covered her face and eyes. No one spoke.
"The plant is on overtime again," Richard said, breaking the silence. "Been thinking I'd work an extra shift. I want to ask for time off Friday so I can see your game."
"That'd be great," Tommy said, stretching his neck a bit from side to side trying to work out a kink.
"Yeah, me and Larry for sure."
"Got in late last night?"
"Yeah," he laughed, "you could say that."
Linda rolled the back window down a notch in order to let some fresh air into the car. She didn't want either her mother or her father to smell the alcohol on Tommy's breath and skin. He had showered and put on a good amount of deodorant and aftershave like she'd told him, but Linda was quite sure anyone within ten feet of him could still tell he'd had a heavy dose of drinking the night before.
"You cut your hair," Linda said to her mother.
"Didn't have time to go into town last week," Helen replied, not bothering to turn her head when she spoke to her daughter.
"Looks good short," Tommy chimed in. He was happy to be avoiding a scene.
Richard drove on in silence.
Rebecca Johnson, who was the head of the Women's Circle, and Edna Wilson, the deacon's wife, were standing in the aisle of the church when Helen and Richard walked in. As Helen passed, the two women stopped whatever it was they were talking about and nodded their heads in greeting.
"Morning," Rebecca Johnson chimed.
Helen nodded in return.
"Blessed day to you," Edna Wilson added.
Helen kept walking. Rebecca raised an eyebrow as if to say, "Well isn't that just like her." Edna snorted a little and the two of them took note of Helen's fresh boyish short hair and the rather garish lipstick pink smeared across Helen's lips. Satisfied they had once again been witness to Helen's general haughtiness and crazy notions, they turned to each other and smiled. Nothing more needed to be said.
Without flinching, Helen walked up to the front of the church and sat down in the second pew on the right, sliding over to the center in order to make room for her husband. Tommy and Linda took seats toward the back with the other teenagers.
Reverend Jacobs signaled for Deacon Wilson to ring the church bell so all the latecomers and gossipers hanging around outside could hurry in to find their places. He seemed anxious to get the morning started. As soon as people settled down, he thumped his right knee with his Bible then began his walk up the center aisle of the church to the red-carpeted altar and the pulpit. Another man, a stranger, walked behind him. Once Reverend Jacobs was firmly situated behind the wooden lectern, the man who had walked down the aisle with him took a seat behind him. Jacobs put down his Bible, lifted his chin, closed his eyes tightly as though the tighter he squeezed them, the closer he could fly to God, and prayed silently to himself. He ended his prayer with a loud and sudden, Amen.
"We are not like our Methodist neighbors," he said, leaning out over the lectern, "who believe salvation is an easy one-way ticket to heaven that's good for a lifetime. Or, like our Episcopal brethren who would like to believe heaven is some kind of birthright given to them with their two car garages."
The same ladies, who had just passed judgment on Helen, now turned to each other and nodded their heads in approval. Their husbands laughed.
"We're not even like those deep-dunking Baptists up the street who believe any good stream of water can wash away the sins of a Saturday night." Pausing for a moment in order to let the laughter grow, Reverend Jacobs smiled while he waited for them to catch on and quiet down. Gripping the two sides of the pulpit, he leaned forward and took a long steady look at his audience as if he had the power to see down through their very souls.
"We're special Baptists. Freewill Baptists, free to ask forgiveness and free to sin with the hope we'll live long enough to ask forgiveness again." Heads nodded and bobbed, women fanned themselves with their Bibles, and everyone seemed satisfied they indeed were righteous to believe so.
"So when my cousin, Joe Nathan from Kentucky, called me up last week to tell me he'd lost his job, I had to laugh." With this, Reverend Jacobs turned to the gangly, black-suited Joe Nathan sitting behind him and gave him a broad wink. "You didn't lose your job, I told him. God took it from you because He wants you here. Here, where you can serve Him better. I believe God does everything for a reason, and the reason he snatched Joe Nathan's job away from him was because we need him. I have heard him preach. He is a powerful man of God. I believe he will be able to show us the wrong of our ways.
"God has given us a gift in Joe Nathan. I believe he has been sent here to stir up a revival of our spirits and a recommitment to God and to each other. Joe Nathan has come so we can once again seek salvation for our sins and our stubborn free wills as well as our Baptist, backsliding ways."
Nodding his head in agreement, a long lock of Joe Nathan's slick black hair broke free of its heavy coat of pomade and dangled in front of his eyes. Joe Nathan swiftly lifted his chin, bearing his turkey-like white neck wobbling loosely in his ill-fitting dress shirt, and tossed his hair back out of his eyes. He nodded again, this time, brushing his hair back into place with his long boney fingers.
"But," Reverend Jacobs shouted, his voice growing stern and parent-like, "Before I introduce you to this holy man who has come to help us find redemption, I need to talk to you about our children."
Bowing his head for a moment as though he needed to pray again in order to have the strength to go on, Reverend Jacobs looked up, leaned out over the pulpit, and leveled his eyes at Tommy.
Excerpted from Lillian's Garden by Carrie Jane Knowles. Copyright © 2012 by Carrie Jane Knowles. Excerpted by permission of John Hunt Publishing Ltd..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Helen’s mother-in-law, Lillian, has a beautiful garden that Helen likes to take care of, because it soothes her mind. However Helen suffers from bipolar disease and when she suffers a breakdown, her husband commits her to a mental institute. This decision leaves her children reeling from pain and confusion, because they do not understand their mother’s illness. While in the institute, Helen decides to write letters to her children, hoping for forgiveness and understanding, not just from her family, but also from herself. This is a powerful and poignant tale of how bipolar disease affects not only the patient, but also the entire family. Add in the background of faith and family secrets, and readers will have a hard time remembering that this is a work of fiction. Switching narratives between the young girl and Helen allows readers a more intimate look at the family dynamics. Knowles has created a mesmerizing work of art that captures the human spirit. This is a must-read for anyone looking to get inside of a mind suffering from the wretched disease. Notes: The PR representative provided a copy of this book for me to review. This review was originally posted on the Ariesgrl Book Reviews website.