ERNIE AND ERNESTINA: The Writer, His Wife, and their Afterlife
Book One, Part Two, Chapter 17: The Secret Garden
I need a way to connect with Ernie.
I don’t turn to his writing. I’m not ready for that yet. Instead, I find a library copy of his favorite story from childhood, Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, the unabridged version.
Even before beginning it, though, I’m struck by its cover illustration: a young girl wearing a bright red winter coat, red woolen cap, and high-topped shoes holds . . . a heavy brass key . . . to the lock . . . of an ivy-covered wooden door . . . opening to . . . a secret garden.
On a summer night long ago, Ernie gave me a brass key, I kissed him, and he led me to a secret garden.
I begin to read. A motherless little boy thinks he’s dying. He refuses to have any outsider look at him; he doesn’t want their pity. Locked in anger and despair, he never leaves his room. But something inside him keeps him alive, keeps him fighting.
I think: No wonder Ernie liked this story. He’s the little boy!
A little girl cousin, recently orphaned in India, comes to live at the little boy’s house. She’s thin and pale and sullen. Long ignored by her pretty mother and officer father, she’s known nothing tender, so her heart has grown hard.
Jesus, she’s Ernestina! This is the story of the little boy Ernie and the little girl Ernestina!
In her boredom, the little girl discovers a locked garden walled by brick and finds its key, long buried under bushes outside the wall. She unlocks the garden door to see hundreds of rose bushes, tangled and overgrown and dead-looking. The little girl persuades her sick cousin to visit this garden that was his mother’s.
Day by day, little by little, they cut back the weeds and untangle the bushes. The boy grows stronger. Working together, the boy and girl talk to each other. They begin to trust each other. They tell each other their secrets. Mary helps Colin believe in himself. He no longer thinks of himself as sick and dying. He has a goal now.
Bits of Ernie pop up so often in this story that it takes my breath: words he used, experiences he had. Even an elephant collection shows up here, and Ernie had a collection of wood and ceramic and frosted-glass elephants.
Early in our marriage, Ernie bought me a copy of The Secret Garden. I read it, but I didn’t see the link between Colin and Ernie. Or Mary and me. I didn’t see then what the story could have taught me. I didn’t see then what’s so obvious to me now.