There were botanists who claimed that Rosa damascena was among the most important species of rose. Other experts did not concur.
On the pro side, R. damascena, or the damask rose, was firstly an ornamental plant. You could say it was objectively beautiful, with short, intertwined petals — a complex frontispiece, intemperate, that rested atop dense stems with their stiff bristles, their curved prickles. Its petals were generally a moderate pink, less pronounced than fuchsia, but they could also be white. And the petals were edible, most often used to flavor desserts such as marzipan or turrón.
Secondly, R. damascena had a perfuming effect, provided the scent hadn’t been bred out of the line. The late Wilfred Sommerfeldt used to say that their perfume “was nothing to sniff at,” then laugh imposingly at his own wit.
But R. damascena had a number of pharmacologic properties as well. A hypnotic! An antibacterial, antioxidant, antitussive, antidiabetic, and anti-HIV. It had a relaxant effect on tracheal chains (perhaps reminding artists everywhere that scientific processes, such as an “inflammatory cascade” or “ischemic myopathy,” were often described with luxurious words. No matter how pernicious the activity, the descriptive words were beautiful).
It should be noted that the damask rose was a hybrid, derived from Rosa gallica (the gallic rose) and Rosa moschata (or musk rose). The Sommerfeldts’ next-door-neighbor Felicity Pearce liked to think that R. gallica was the mother and R. moschata the father, with the musk rose smelling like her late father Frederick. She wondered whether the grand rose bush that straddled the Pearce and Sommerfeldt properties had been bred right there on the spot from the two progenitors. But that’s not what her mother Loyce had to say.
The story from Loyce Pearce went that the day great-grandmother Pearce traveled to pick out English damask to paper the walls and to be sewn into curtains, this grand lady determined she would plant a very British damask rose out front ‘to match.’ But that wasn’t the Sommerfeldts’ story. According to Sommerfeldt lore, great-grandmother Sommerfeldt carried an infant damask rose plant, together with her pale baby son, in her mother’s potato basket on a ship from Norway to the United States. It was planted the day they moved in, or so they said.
This was the essence of the feud between the English Pearces at 33 Ferncliff Road and the Norwegian Sommerfeldts at 35 Ferncliff Road. Who owned the rose bush was a skirmish that had flared for two generations. On the Pearce side were four: the mother, Loyce, together with her sons Giffard and Hames, and her daughter Felicity, who were in their twenties. Opposing the Pearces in the Sommerfeldt camp were three: the mother Lyssa, along with her daughters Tillie and Blythe, also in their twenties.
As for the literal roots of the rose bush, they were clearly on both properties, yet the Sommerfeldts contended that the bush belonged to them. The Pearces insisted that the bush had its inception in their own yard, but they conceded that it had spread and was now shared between the two properties.
Felicity Pearce sat on her living room’s antique damask chair and her eyes ran up and down the damask curtains. Despite the strength derived from a hybrid of silk, wool, and linen woven on a Jacquard loom, the curtains were a good fifty years old, and faded. As a child, Felicity adored that both sides of the curtains had the same pattern. Loyce had explained that damask is woven with one warp yarn and one weft yarn, usually with the pattern in warp-faced satin weave and the ground in weft-faced sateen weave.
Later in childhood, Felicity had come to love her bedspread’s brocade, another patterned fabric that she understood to be woven on a Jacquard loom as well. Both damask and brocades were shiny, derived from either the damask’s satin weave or the brocade’s metallic threads. But brocades were not reversible because the pattern was embossed and raised. Ultimately Felicity preferred the reversibility of the opaque damask. It could be flipped without penalty, providing a cultivated solace against her skin.
But it was Blythe Sommerfeldt next door in need of some type of solace. Circumstances found her pregnant, and Lyssa and Tillie Sommerfeldt were livid. They demanded the name of the father, but Blythe was not going to give that up. Blythe was showing, and it was obvious that the neighbors’ glances were resting on her midsection. To calm herself, Blythe used to go for drives in her old, lopsided Volvo, and it worked. She would return home feeling more peaceful.
On the afternoon Loyce Pearce went outside to cut some flowers only to find an unfathomable scene — well, let’s just say that the Pearces would never forget July 10. Every rose on the Pearces’ side of the rose bush had been clipped. On the Sommerfeldts’ front-patio table were place settings for three. Damask placemats and napkins circled a vase resplendent with Pearce roses. And so the Sommerfeldts had desiccated the Pearces’ blossoms, after which they created a petty scene on their patio with damask accessories to mock their next-door-neighbors. Unreal.
Loyce Pearce dashed inside and called her children to the picture window. “Don’t go outside and give them that satisfaction,” she cried. But Giffard and Hames stomped out, got in their “classic” (old) Land Rover, and peeled off. Neither was spending much time at home these days, and this incident was to propel their distance farther.
The three Sommerfeldts came outside carrying food and sat at their table, eating from a gorgeous summer smorgasbord and laughing with their heads dramatically thrown back, eyes closed. As she ate, Blythe felt something give way. She ran to her bedroom, lay down on her bed, and lost her baby. Unimaginable loss. That night Blythe asked her mother to bring the vase of roses to her room. She held the roses to her nose, trancelike. In clinging to the sharp stems, the sting of these weapons against her skin delivered a release: pain attenuating pain.
A month later, found under Blythe’s windshield wiper was a handwritten envelope. Loyce Pearce had written a note on behalf of her family: “Dear Blythe, We are so sorry to hear of your loss. Please know that we are thinking of you. Sincerely, Loyce, Giffard, Hames, and Felicity Pearce.” In fact, Loyce hadn’t heard of her loss, but had witnessed the change in Blythe’s shape. And for Loyce, it resurrected the devastating change in her own shape at about the same age.
On October 12, the morning before Blythe Sommerfeldt left for good, Felicity Pearce went outside, only to witness her own patio table set for four, a symmetrical reversal of last summer’s table. A damask runner and napkins appeared to be carefully placed on the Pearce table. A vase held damask roses, this time cut from the Sommerfeldt side of the bush. In the center of the table was a handwritten envelope. Inside, the note read: “Dear Pearces, Please accept these gifts as a token of our regret. Sincerely, Blythe Sommerfeldt.” Felicity was bewildered by the power of these simple words.
By March, there was word in the neighborhood that Blythe Sommerfeldt was living thirty-five miles away and was pregnant again. Apparently, she had not named the father.
On July 10 (the anniversary of the summer patio fiasco), the Volvo pulled into the Sommerfeldt driveway, followed immediately by the Land Rover into the Pearce driveway. Blythe emerged from her car while Hames got out of his. Each rang the other’s doorbell, holding a single rose —hers yellow, his red.
As the families came out their doors and onto the front lawns, Blythe pulled a carrier out of the backseat and Hames placed his arm around Blythe’s back. Blythe said, “We’d like you to accept us and our little girl, Rose.” The two families responded by bringing out their damask table linens, which they spread across the two tables along with an increasingly lavish meal. They also took turns gently running their fingers along the baby’s translucent skin, amazed.
It seemed written words, along with loss and deliverance, had brought them to these tables. Or had it been the insurgence of roses? As they lifted the tables and placed them together, the meal’s aroma intermingled with the scent of R. damascena — fragrant, indeterminate, kind.
Irene Cox studied English literature at Queen’s University in Ontario. A former book editor and anthologist, she now works as a copywriter in advertising in New York City. She lives with her daughter in New York’s Hudson Valley.