This is a fictional story I wrote a number of years ago and recently felt led to rewrite it and share it again. I hope you enjoy it!
Flowers in February
I met Walter after his wife died in February. It was a week after the funeral, and I arrived right on time with a bucket of supplies to clean the house he swore he’d never cleaned in the forty-eight years they’d lived there.
“Margaret always took care of it,” he explained when he greeted me at the door.
I nodded. I knew Walter needed more than a clean house.
“Can I fix you a cup of coffee or tea before I get started, Mr. Peterson?”
“Please, call me Walter. And coffee would be fine,” he said, moving to the recliner in the living room. “Margaret loves tea, but I’ve always been a coffee drinker.”
In the kitchen, I found everything I needed to make coffee, but I couldn’t find any cream or sugar. And the refrigerator was nearly empty with only a carton of expired milk and a few eggs. Just as I thought.
“I was going to fix some toast to go with your coffee, but I didn’t see any bread.”
“No. Margaret does all of the shopping.” He slipped off his glasses and rubbed the bridge of his nose.
“I can take care of the shopping for you. If you’d like?” I set his coffee down beside him, hoping he liked it black. I sat down on the couch with my own cup. “I hope you don’t mind if I join you before I start cleaning.”
“Margaret likes to clean… I mean, she liked to clean in the morning.”
“After her tea?”
“Yes. Tea was always first. She would have a cup and watch the birds empty the birdfeeder.” He took a sip from his cup, returning it to the table. “I was always filling those feeders. I didn’t mind. It was no trouble.”
“If you don’t mind me asking, how did you two meet?”
Walter’s eyes softened. “Her father owned the hardware store, and I was a carpenter. She said it was God’s plan all along.” He rubbed his hands together, the rough calluses sounding like sandpaper on wood. “The first time I saw her she had her hair pinned up, but it was slipping and falling in her face, and she was covered from head to toe in dust from working in the basement. She was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen.”
He stared out the window before continuing. “When I was in Africa during World War II, she would write me letters. She had beautiful handwriting.” He paused. “When I saw my name in her handwriting and felt that crinkly blue stationery in my hands, I felt like the luckiest man in the world.”
“I’m sure she missed you.”
He nodded. “When I got home, I realized she had been working on paintings for me, of everything she wanted to share with me while I was gone.”
“Do you have a favorite painting?”
His brows furrowed. “Actually, there was one. The lake. She painted it in February, a few months before I came home.”
His gaze went to the ceiling as if he could see it there. “The lake at her parents’ house was frozen over, but she painted it as if it were a spring day. The water was bluer than blue and there were wildflowers, all different colors, and all around the lake and covering the field.”
“But she painted it in February?”
“Yes. It had been a very cold winter. But Margaret told me, ‘There is hope in color.’ When I got home, she said she never lost hope that I’d come back to her.”
I knew he was getting tired, so I took both of our empty cups to the sink and rinsed them and started cleaning in the den. I dusted the bookshelves and the framed photographs that hung on the walls. Each had a layer of thick dust coating the glass, perhaps when Margaret had been too sick to clean. There were pictures of a younger Walter with unruly, dark hair poking out from underneath his wool cap. And Margaret was elegant in her wedding gown, her smile lighting up the dark walls. There was no doubt her death was going to be a real struggle for Walter.
The following morning, I arrived right on time with a couple bags of groceries; some essentials and of course, sugar. I knocked on the door and waited.
“You again?” Walter asked. “I didn’t know if the agency would send someone every day. I’m not sure how this works. My son, William, arranged it. He lives in Florida.”
I stepped inside. “Well, you’re stuck with me again.”
As he went to the recliner, I noticed he was wearing the same brown cardigan and blue shirt. I hurried off to the kitchen to put away the groceries and cook breakfast, so I could sit with Walter. We ate scrambled eggs and toast while enjoying fresh coffee with sugar.
“I see you’ve got new neighbors,” I said.
“There’s a moving van parked next door.”
“That’s the Conner’s old place,” he said. “They moved out last spring.”
I set my cup down, noticing a painting of a worn barn nestled in autumn leaves hanging on the wall. “What a beautiful painting. Is that one of Margaret’s?”
He shook his head. “I bought that for her after the fire.”
“Our old farmhouse burned to the ground. We lost everything. More than I realized at the time.”
“What do you mean?”
“It felt like the devil was reaching for us with his fiery hands, and I just wanted to grab Margaret and William and get out of there. It was awful, just awful. William was only nine, but he was trying to console his mother who kept crying. We stood in the cornfield and watched it all burn up. And the wind took hold before any help came, and we lost the barn too. We lost it all.” He shook his head. “If only I could have grabbed one of her paintings. Just one. I think it would have saved a piece of her.”
He rubbed his forehead as if he were trying to soothe the painful memory. “I lost a part of my wife that day. All the memories while we were apart, all her passion, all her spirit, had been reduced to ash just like our house. I begged her to try to paint again, told her it was still inside her. But she just couldn’t. I think she felt like she’d lost a child or maybe a part of her soul. She used to tell me the devil was after her, and the day he took her paintings was the day he won.”
I shook my head. “But that’s not true.”
“Well that’s just it,” he said. “I think she believed it, so she let him take that from her. I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t think of the right thing to say.” He pressed his hands together. “I’ve never been good at that sort of thing.”
“So she never tried to paint again?”
He didn’t answer but stood. “You know, I’m not feeling very good. I think I’m going to go upstairs and lie down.”
“Okay,” I said, standing.
I watched him shuffle up the stairs before I began working in silence. Hours later while I scrubbed the kitchen floor on my hands and knees, I prayed and talked with God. Depression was sinking into Walter’s bones, and I needed to act quickly.
As I approached Walter’s house the next morning, I noticed a boy watching me from the house where the moving van had been. He was peeking out the window and when he realized I’d spotted him, he ducked down and disappeared.
I stepped onto Walter’s porch, but before I could even knock, he opened the door.
“Good morning,” he said, straightening a black tie.
“You look nice this morning.”
“I’m going to see Margaret. Is it okay that I leave?” he asked.
“Of course. I’ll get to work right away.”
After he left, I went upstairs to clean. There was one room I hadn’t been in yet. When I opened the door, the scent of baby powder greeted me as sunlight streamed through the lacy white curtains. A sewing machine sat abandoned with pieces of fabric stacked beside it and spools of thread lined up like loyal soldiers. But on the other side of the room, well, that was why I was here. I’d found it.
Resting in an easel was Margaret’s final painting. I knew it was true that she hadn’t painted since the fire, but here it was, the one she needed to paint for her own peace. The one she needed to paint for Walter’s peace as well. Perhaps the cancer made her realize how precious life is, and when God has given you a talent, you mustn’t waste it. Or perhaps she realized Satan couldn’t touch her. Maybe her faith had grown in the foreshadowing of her death, and she wanted to make a final portrait of the hope she found in God; a portrait that would be pleasing to her heavenly Father and crucial for her husband.
I had to sit down. The colors were mesmerizing. It was a beautiful and inspiring vision, and I couldn’t wait for Walter to see it.
He was gone most of the morning, and I was deeply concerned as I dusted and swept his bedroom and the guest room. I knew all about depression and what it can do to a person. I’d seen it many times, especially this time of year. It seemed Satan was busiest January through March. Perhaps it was because every December the world remembers and celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ and the hope He offers, and Satan wants to try and steal that hope while the earth is cold and dark.
The front door opened, and the frigid air followed Walter inside as I was folding the stack of newspapers by his recliner. It was obvious he’d been crying and was in a great deal of pain.
“Are you okay?” I asked.
“I miss my wife.” He held on to the back of the couch. “I miss her so much. I have this void in my soul.”
I spoke as tenderly as I could. “Let God fill that void.”
“How?” he whispered.
“Come with me.” I led him upstairs to Margaret’s sewing room.
He stopped outside the door. “I can’t go in there.”
His eyes filled. “Because I like to think she’s busy in there making a quilt for someone at church and that’s why I haven’t seen her in a while.” A tear broke free and traced a line down his weathered cheek.
“Please,” I said. “Please.”
I’d made certain not to touch a thing so the scent of baby powder and Margaret’s perfume would still be there. He closed his eyes, and I knew he could smell her. I also knew he was afraid to open his eyes, afraid to see an empty chair in front of the sewing machine. But he did open them and when his eyes found the painting, I watched as his tears fell from a place that must have ached beyond comprehension.
Walter neared Margaret’s last painting, slowly, as if he were afraid to move too quickly or it might disappear. He knelt in front of it, carefully reaching to touch it. So very tenderly, as if he were touching his wife’s hand, he allowed his fingertips to rest on the flowers. There, in front of him, Margaret had created a new image of hope for her husband, one that even surpassed her first painting of the lake. Once again, it was a painting of the lake at her parents’ house, and again, there were flowers surrounding the water’s edge and flowing across the field. But unlike the original painting, the field not only had wildflowers in every shade of yellow and red but a familiar farmhouse. And sitting on the porch was a woman in a rocking chair and at her side, an empty chair. Margaret was showing Walter that she was waiting for him; she was waiting for him in Heaven.
I moved in closer to speak to him.
“Margaret didn’t let Satan steal her hope and neither should you. You have to trust God and let Him fill that void.” I gently touched his shoulder. “And you have to understand that there is always hope, like Margaret found in her paintings. She saw it even in the coldest snows in February, even when she battled cancer. She realized her hope was in God all along.”
He nodded, not taking his eyes from the painting. He sat like that for a long time. Finally, he wiped his eyes with the back of his hand and standing said, “I need to get this to the living room.”
A few hours later, after Margaret’s painting found a permanent place on the living room wall across from his recliner, after Walter and I ate pancakes lathered in butter and syrup while admiring the painting, and after I packed up all my cleaning supplies, the phone rang.
“Hello, William,” Walter spoke into the receiver. “I’ve got something wonderful… What delay? But I don’t understand.”
Walter looked at me from the kitchen, and I knew it was time to go. I slipped into my coat, picked up my bucket, and started for the door.
“Just a minute,” Walter said as he hung up the phone. His lips pressed together as if he were angry, or perhaps he felt betrayed. “My son said the agency was sending someone over tomorrow to start cleaning, and they’re sorry for the delay in service.”
I took a deep breath before I began. “Walter, the agency didn’t send me.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I wasn’t really sent to clean your house but to minister to you.”
“Minister to me?”
“I was sent to help you find your way back. Back to hope and back to God.”
He thought for a moment. “Well, you’ve certainly done a good job of that.”
I smiled. “And that’s why it’s time for me to go. But you need to understand something, Walter. You are still alive. You need to live your life that way.”
His eyes seemed to search for something in front of him that he couldn’t quite see.
“Your purpose isn’t over. For starters, the little boy who moved in next door is going to need you. His parents just got divorced, and he could sure use a grandpa to show him how to make a really good snowball. And a birdfeeder. And when school starts in the fall, he’s going to need some help with his math homework.”
Walter’s eyes glistened. “I always wanted to be a grandpa.”
I smiled. But when I turned to leave, Walter Peterson did something that surprised and delighted me. He hugged me. And when he did, I felt his soul was beginning to heal. Thank you, Lord.
He let go of me, and I realized his eyes had changed. They were full of light and deeper in color, reflecting hope instead of anguish. And he had Margaret’s painting to remind him of that unending hope if he ever forgot.
Thank you for reading this short story. I hope you enjoyed it!
Also, a great big “Thank you!” to one amazing editor, Julie Schultz, for allowing this story to be a part of The Outreacher. God bless you, Julie, for all you do to further His Kingdom!
If you’re interested in reading more short stories, please click here.
(Photo by Pexels.)