Chapter One. The Cove
It was barely dawn as they began walking toward the village. The only hint that the night had ended was a sliver of tangerine sky between the gunmetal grey clouds. The clouds had moved in overnight. They hovered above the dark outline of the nearby Santa Monica mountains.
A few minutes later, Bernie nodded to an acquaintance who was out to pick up his morning cup of joe and perhaps a bite to eat at the Breakfast Place, the local favorite breakfast cafe. It was too early for conversation.
Just as they were passing the Breakfast Place, a stranger approached them, and gesturing to the café said, “I left my wallet at home. Would you buy me a breakfast burrito, please?”
Bernie looked at the man dressed in khaki pants, a flannel shirt, athletic shoes, and a dark puffy jacket with a hood, thought for a moment, and nodded. Whether or not the man’s story was true, he must need a meal; he had asked for food, not money.
After ordering and paying for the burrito for the man, who said his name was Gabe, Bernie left the café and unhooked Molly’s leash from the bicycle stand.
Friends had mentioned that they were often approached by homeless people in downtown Los Angeles, but it was unusual in St. Michael’s Cove—a long bus ride from Los Angeles.
Walking away from the café, Bernie noted that there were several other unusual aspects to the encounter. First, the man was dressed like everyone else, not like a homeless person. Second, he had asked for food, not money. Third, he was polite. Very polite, actually. And last, and most puzzling, was the fact that Bernie had never taken a credit card on their morning walks before, but had taken one this morning. Why this morning?
Distracted momentarily by a flurry of birds exiting their tree home, Bernie looked up and listened to the music of God’s winged creatures for a moment, then shrugged. It wasn’t important. A hungry man had gotten a hot meal. That’s all that mattered.
As the pair continued their walk down Main Street through the village of St. Michael’s Cove, Bernie noted the temperature and time on the bank’s digital time and temperature display —53 degrees at 6:57 am.
Best get on with it. It would be a full day.
They followed their usual three-mile morning loop through the village. By the time they reached the bluffs overlooking the crescent-shaped cove, the sky was reddish orange behind the grey clouds. How did the saying go? “Red sky in the morning sailors take warning, red sky at night sailors delight.” Yes, that was it, thought Bernie. They might see rain again today—a welcome event in Southern California.
Bernie lingered for a moment on the bluffs to admire the panorama of color juxtaposed against the grey clouds and the steel grey ocean. Anxious to get going, Molly looked up expectantly. Bernie responded with a gentle scratch behind her ears. “Let’s go home, girl.” Molly took off, and Bernie reluctantly broke into a slow jog back through the village.
The tiny white blossoms of the beautiful evergreen pear trees in the village square had fallen to the ground—Southern California snow, the locals called it. The jacaranda trees lining Main Street were still bare, but Bernie remembered reading in The Times recently that the jacaranda trees in the Los Angeles basin were expected to start blooming early this year in March because they had had a warmer winter. Hopefully, the trees would soon be covered with the purple blossoms, that would become the “purple rain” on the street so common in the spring. Bernie loved LA gardening—so many colorful flowers and flowering bushes and trees flourished year-round. They even had some deciduous trees that turned yellow, orange, and sometimes red in the fall.
They headed up the hill on the last leg of the loop toward the Rose Hill parsonage. Breathing in the fresh morning air, they jogged past the neighbors’ homes. The camellia bushes with their shiny dark leaves were covered with masses of light pink flowers.
Pausing for the last time on Rose Hill Road for Molly to finish her business, Bernie broke off a few lavender blossoms, took in the lavender scent, and looked around.
The green stalks of the calla lilies were just starting to poke through the soil. Most of the rose bushes and hydrangeas in the front yards had finished flowering in December or early January and had been cut back. Bernie noted the new green buds on the bushes and predicted that there would be an abundance of flowers in a month or two. It would be time to feed the roses at the cottage next week during the first week of March.
The local rosarian-in-residence, Rosemary Robinson, recommended alternating monthly between organic and non-organic fertilizers. March was a non-organic month. Rosemary was the granddaughter of the founder of Rose Hill Farm, from whence the name of the street was taken.
It was an unwritten rule on Rose Hill Road that each residence display its Rose Hill team colors by planting roses that could be seen from the street. Many of the bushes in the neighborhood were planted decades ago, and were purchased from the original Rose Hill Farm. Some homes displayed traditional hybrid tea and floribunda varieties, while others sported climbing roses growing around archways or up the side of garages. Several showed their rose team support with rose ground covers with tiny pink blossoms planted in the parking strip between the street and the sidewalk. There were pink rose arbors over gates, side yards of roses, rose pots on patios, glorious Joseph’s Coat climbing on arches, rose bush barriers between houses, roses climbing the sides of houses, and rose bushes planted in triangular beds on the corner lots.
The rose obsession in St. Michael’s Cove started with Mary Robinson, Rosemary’s grandmother. Paul and Mary Robinson owned the entire hill around the turn of the last century. Mary started growing roses on the ten-acre plateau at the top of the hill in the 1920’s and it evolved into a family business, Rose Hill Farm.
She had consulted one of the preeminent rose experts at the time, George C. Thomas, Jr., who assisted her in planning the garden and the nursery. A golf course architect and botanist, Thomas was the author of Roses for All American Climates and The Practical Book of Outdoor Rose-Growing for the Home Garden.
Called the “Farm” by locals, Rose Hill Farm was well-known across Los Angeles County in the last century. It supplied truckloads of roses to Rose Parade entrants for their floats. Mary’s Aunt Rosalind had been chosen to be a princess in the Pasadena Tournament of Roses in 1943, but had to relinquish the title when she was diagnosed with mononucleosis and was unable to perform her duties.
Roses had been a passion in Mary’s family for over a hundred years. Her people emigrated from England, where they grew huge rose bushes around their cottages and in their gardens. Many of the girls in the family bore rose-related names. Mary’s middle name was Rose. She had been named after a very popular English rose— Mary Rose.
Over the years, most of the hill had been sold off in parcels to developers, but the house and the ten-acre plateau was still in the family. Rosemary lived in the house, and was the trustee of the Robinson Family Trust. The Farm was the major asset of the trust. It was no longer a money-making enterprise, but there were still over 600 rose bushes planted in neat rows on the plateau. Now hobbled by arthritis, Rosemary was unable to do any work in the garden. She had to rely on her Japanese-American gardener who adored her rose bushes as much as she did, and lovingly tended them.
Rosemary opened the garden to the community once a year and supplied roses to various groups for local community events. And even though she was now in her 70’s she still held the moniker of her youth: St. Michael’s Cove Rose Princess. The title was bestowed on a local young woman every July, who sat on the back of a convertible every year at the Fourth of July parade, wearing a crown of red, white and blue tinted roses created by town’s flower shop, Las Flores.
With renewed energy, Bernie and Molly bounded up the three blue painted cement steps to the porch of the bungalow, passing the pink magnolia trees in full bloom on either side of the steps. The Craftsman style cottage on Rose Hill Road where Bernie lived was one of several such remaining bungalows built in the original development in St. Michael’s Cove. Many of the cottages in the neighborhood had long since been torn down to be replaced by larger homes. Bernie’s was one and a half stories and had the typical sloping roof featuring a dormer window over the main part of the house. The front door was the original oak door with a beveled glass window panel in the top third of the door. Like many California Craftsman bungalows, Bernie’s has a stucco exterior. The generously sized porch was bounded by four sets of white double columns.
The picturesque cottages and Rose Hill Farm were only two of many fine features of St. Michael’s Cove, a small village about 19 miles from Los Angeles, on the coast between Santa Monica and Malibu. The Cove was situated at the base of the Santa Monica mountains, with its well-groomed hiking trails and parks. It was ideal for Bernie, who loved to hike the mountain trails and get lost in the idyllic green hills, at least they were green now, in late winter, after the last few rains.