The Enchanted Cottage
by Ron Van Sweringen
The day Mary Rollins moved into the cottage, it became enchanted. For years it had remained uncared for and painfully unloved. Buildings are like people: they require affection, otherwise they become lonely and sad.
It was May when Mary first saw the cottage. An apple tree in the front yard was coming into full bloom with hundreds of pale pink blossoms. Their aroma danced around her on the warm air, banishing her thoughts of winter. The yard was overgrown with weeds, and wild ivy climbed up the picket fence. Clumps of neglected tiger lilies bloomed against all odds along the brick walk leading to the front porch.
It had consumed two of Mary’s paychecks from the small bakery where she worked, to cover the first month’s rent and a security deposit. The owner of the cottage had insisted upon the deposit because Lord Winslow was coming with Mary.
She had taken the stray dog in one rainy night five years earlier when he appeared on her doorstep. It was the kindest thing she had ever done for herself. Lord Winslow brought her both the companionship and affection denied her by an uninterested world.
He also proved to be exceedingly clever at learning tricks, like walking only on his two front legs and also his two back legs. Rolling over and playing dead with all four legs up in the air, climbing a ladder and rollerskating.
It took a month of hard work with sweeping, scrubbing and painting before the cottage finally smiled again. Warm sunlight shone through the clean windows and danced across the polished floors. Even the worn furniture looked amazingly fresh and happy to be part of the renascence.
Mary took great joy in reviving the small flower garden behind the cottage. She and Lord Winslow worked together during the summer to transform the patches of weeds that had overgrown the roses, irises, lillie’s and peonies.
It was on one such warm morning that they met the mockingbird. It flew out of the apple tree and landed on the top of Mary’s large straw hat. Lord Winslow barked once in greeting, and Mary continued weeding so as not to frighten him away.
She soon realized the reason for his visit: the grubs, beetles and worms that were uncovered as she worked the rich soil. A few dried currents that Mary fed him from the palm of her hand each morning sealed the pact and soon he was quite at home sitting on her shoulder.
It was in the fall that these Three Musketeers met the squirrel. It appeared one brisk morning sitting on the back-porch railing, chattering away in a scolding tone.
“Come, come.” Mary smiled. “Don’t be such a grouch.” A few pecans from her baking supplies soon brought him around. In fact he was so delighted that he did three back flips in a row.
“Your talents are wasted.” Mary laughed. “You should be in the circus.” And so the three friends became four that fall in the garden of the enchanted cottage.
Mary thought to herself after dinner one evening, a few weeks before Christmas, that she had never been so happy. Her greatest joy in life, from the time she was a child, had always been baking. It seemed to be the natural road for her to travel and so far had fulfilled her life, although she sometimes wondered why it had been chosen for her.
Lord Winslow claimed his favorite spot beside her rocking chair as they listened to the radio. “Lord,” she thought, “why have you been so good to me?”
It was a few minutes later that an announcer interrupted the radio program. “It is my sad duty to inform you that today Japan has attacked Pearl Harbor. We fear a great loss of American lives.”
The words stunned Mary and, after a few moments, tears filled her eyes. Noise could be heard from outside the cottage. It sounded at first like a dull buzzing, but slowly grew louder until she could make out voices.
When Mary opened the cottage door, the neighborhood was ablaze with light from every window of every house. People stood in knots or moved quickly from one to another spreading the terrible news. Mary stood beside Lord Winslow in the doorway, realizing that in this moment time had stopped. What she was witnessing would remain with her as long as she lived.
The days and weeks that followed were filled with confusion and rumor in Mary’s small town. Young men formed lines in front of a hastily constructed recruiting office behind Joe’s barber shop. Mary passed them on her walk to work wondering how many of the handsome young faces that looked back at her with pride might never come home again. She felt helpless. What could one woman nearly sixty years old, do to fight an enemy half a world away?
Christmas came and went almost as if in a haze. It was an unhappy time with so many young men leaving on crowded troop trains. Almost every window in town bore an American flag decal that meant one or more family members had gone to war. Mary’s windows carried no such distinguishing emblems, which made her determination to be useful in the fight even stronger.
Mary worked at her small bakery through the winter volunteering as much of her time as possible to help in the war effort. She even baked one hundred cupcakes a week, decorated to represent Old Glory with red, white and blue icing. They sold out quickly for the unheard-of price of twenty-five cents each, when Mary announced that all proceeds would go to support the war.
It was on a Saturday morning in May that Mrs. Parker appeared at the counter of Mary’s bakery. Mildred Parker was the wife of Rufus Parker, head of the Farmers and Merchants Bank and the Parker Lumber Yards. Their housekeeper, Alma, normally picked up any baked goods for the Parker family, so seeing Mrs. Parker in person was unusual.
“Can I help you, ma’am?” Mary offered.
“I hope so,” Mildred Parker replied, taking an envelope out of her pocketbook. “I have a letter here from my son, Jimmy. It’s the first letter I’ve received since he left for war.”
“Is he all right?” Mary said, suddenly seeing the emotion in Mildred Parker’s face.
“Yes,” she replied with a sigh, “thank God for that,” then she continued. “In his letter, Jimmy mentions how much he misses home and then something very special. How much he misses your cookies, especially the chewy cherry ones and the chocolate and butterscotch crunch ones. He says it makes him feel good to think about them.”
Mary was overcome as Mrs. Parker reached across the counter and took her hand. “I have a favor to ask,” Mildred Parker said. “Will you teach my lady friends and me how to bake the cookies so that we can send as many boxes as possible to the boys overseas? My husband will gladly pay all costs.”
That spring in 1943, the first of hundreds of packages left Mary’s small bakery, headed across the world. Inside of each was a simply lettered card that read, “With love from the Enchanted Cottage.”
Copyright © 2014 by Ron Van Sweringen