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The Rose


Claim:   Wartime penpals arrange to meet at Grand Central Station: he will know her by the rose in her lapel, and she will know him by how he reacts to it.

FICTION

Example:   [Collected via e-mail, 1996]

John Blanchard stood up from the bench, straightened his Army uniform, and studied the crowd of people making their way through Grand Central Station. He looked for the girl whose heart he knew, but whose face he didn't, the girl with the rose.

His interest in her had begun thirteen months before in a Florida library. Taking a book off the shelf he found himself intrigued, not with the words of the book, but with the notes penciled in the margin. The soft handwriting reflected a thoughtful soul and insightful mind. In the front of the book, he discovered the previous owner's name, Miss Hollis Maynell. With time and effort he located her address. She lived in New York City. He wrote her a letter introducing himself and inviting her to correspond. The next day he was shipped overseas for service in World War II. During the next year and one month the two grew to know each other through the mail. Each letter was a seed falling on a fertile heart. A romance was budding.

Blanchard requested a photograph, but she refused. She felt that if he really cared, it wouldn't matter what she looked like. When the day finally came for him to return from Europe, they scheduled their first meeting — 7:00 PM at the Grand Central Station in New York. "You'll recognize me," she wrote, "by the red rose I'll be wearing on my lapel."

So at 7:00 he was in the station looking for a girl whose heart he loved, but whose face he'd never seen. A young woman was coming toward him, her figure long and slim. Her blonde hair lay back in curls from her delicate ears; her eyes were blue as flowers. Her lips and chin had a gentle firmness, and in her pale green suit she was like springtime come alive. He started toward her, entirely forgetting to notice that she was not wearing a rose. As he moved, a small, provocative smile curved her lips. "Going my way, sailor?" she murmured. Almost uncontrollably he made one step closer to her, and then he saw Hollis Maynell. She was standing almost directly behind the girl. A woman well past 40, she had graying hair tucked under a worn hat. She was more than plump, her thick-ankled feet thrust into low-heeled shoes.

The girl in the green suit was walking quickly away. He felt as though he were being split in two, so keen was he desire to follow the girl, yet so deep was his longing for the woman whose spirit had truly companioned and upheld his own. And there she stood. Her pale, plump face was gentle and sensible, her gray eyes had a warm and kindly twinkle. He did not hesitate. His fingers gripped the small worn blue leather copy of the book that was to identify him to her. This would not be love, but it would be something precious, something perhaps even better than love, a friendship for which he had been and must ever be grateful. He squared his shoulders and saluted and held out the book to the woman, even though while he spoke he felt choked by the bitterness of his disappointment. "I'm Lieutenant John Blanchard, and you must be Miss Maynell. I am so glad you could meet me; may I take you to dinner?"

The woman's face broadened into a tolerant smile. "I don't know what this is about, son," she answered, "but the young lady in the green suit who just went by, she begged me to wear this rose on my coat. And she said if you were to ask me out to dinner, I should go and tell you that she is waiting for you in the big restaurant across the street. She said it was some kind of test!"

It's not difficult to understand and admire Miss Maynell's wisdom.

The true nature of a heart is seen in its response to the unattractive. "Tell me whom you love," Houssaye wrote, "and I will tell you who you are."
 

Origins:   This story of a first meeting between two pen pals was widely circulated on the Internet as a "true story" (typically entitled "The Rose") beginning in 1996. It is, however, a work of fiction which was penned by S.I. Kishor, originally published in a 1943 issue of Collier's magazine under the title "Appointment with Love." (The same story also appeared without attribution and with the characters' names slightly altered in the Rose 1992 Max Lucado book And the Angels Were Silent, and with appropriate credit in the 1996 collections A 3rd Serving of Chicken Soup for the Soul and Stories for the Heart.)

The tale's huge cyberspatial appeal wasn't difficult to comprehend: online friendships are formed sight unseen, and this process gives rise to quite understandable anxieties about the other person. Questions of physical appeal aside, we're left wondering whether the people we're corresponding with are every bit as wonderful in real life, or whether they're putting on a clever act and taking us in. This uncertainty leaves us with the uneasy feeling that although we think we know the other person, we're never sure. A legend about this anxiety's being faced and the situation's working out in fairy tale fashion therefore falls upon many very receptive ears.

This is a touching tale, one that tries to convey an admirable moral about personality and character outshining physical beauty, but many readers find it a bitterly ironic piece that actually delivers the opposite message. Note the man's reaction upon his deciding to approach the woman he presumed to be Hollis: "This would not be love, but it would be something precious, something perhaps even better than love, a friendship for which he had been and must ever be grateful." On the strength of their correspondence, this man had fantasized a budding romance; upon catching sight of his pen pal, he promptly discarded any such notion. His decision was made purely on the basis of the woman's physical appearance: he wrote her off as a romantic partner without so much as first speaking to her.

Society places a premium on attractiveness, and as much as we decry the unfairness of this valuation, we often (unwittingly or otherwise) reinforce it. Many readers take in
this story as a touching romantic tale, one whose denoument feels right in that the soldier who greeted the older woman instead of running away was rewarded with the pretty girl he'd ached for. But if we truly believed the love of a good woman was its own best reward and that looks didn't matter, we should be rooting for the hero to walk past the comely blonde almost without seeing her in his haste to reach the woman he'd lost his heart to. Were love the important thing, we'd have been quite happy to have the 40-ish, frumpy woman turn out to be the real Hollis and for the story to end with the two lovers walking away arm in arm. Instead, the soldier has to fight a moral battle within himself, and readers are touched by his ending up with not just love but beauty, too.

What's wrong with the unintended message of this short story is perhaps best expressed through a rewrite of it penned by James A. Whitney. In that version, we see into the heart of the woman who waits. (If you thought the original was touching, you'll find tears in your eyes by the time you finish this one.)

In the autumn of 1998, an updated version of this tale appeared in the little-known "true life stories" magazine For Me. In that modern retelling, Gwen and Brian meet in an Internet chat room for writers, and the denouement takes place at the airport in Sydney, Australia. Thought the story has been moved forward fifty years, there's the same refusal to swap photos, same yellow rose, same old lady to direct the hero to where his beautiful lady love awaits him.

The fable of a young man who is paired by circumstance with an unattractive woman, who shows her kindness nonetheless, and who is rewarded for his gallantry by ending up with a beautiful young woman is far from a new one. One of the Arthurian legends (mid-15th century) has King Arthur tricked by an evil knight into having to solve an impossible riddle: what do women most want? An old hag finally offers the one true answer (what she wants is her own way), but her price is one of Arthur's knights as a husband. Sir Gawain and the hag are duly churched, and this flower of knighthood treats the old woman well despite her huge floppy ears, wrinkled skin, and bleary eyes.

On their wedding night the crone transforms into a beautiful maiden only to pose this question: would Sir Gawain prefer she be beautiful by day or by night? Unwilling to dictate the fate of another, he tells her such an important decision has to be her choice, thereby demonstrating that he has learned the value of treating women as people, not property. The lovely maiden announces that this was the last test and that he'd passed. Now, she would be beautiful all the time, forever and ever. Gawain's gallantry and understanding are rewarded in classic fashion.

Early expressions of the "loathly hag" theme (as this motif is known) are found in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales (in the "Wife of Bath's Tale") and John Gower's 1386 Tale of Florent.

Barbara "forever knight" Mikkelson

Last updated:   14 February 2014

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Sources:

    Canfield, Jack.   A 3rd Serving of Chicken Soup for the Soul.
    Deerfield Beach, FL: Health Communications, 1996.   ISBN 1-55874-379-0   (pp. 61-64).

    Dunning, Stephen and Alan B. Hayes.   Teaching Literature to Adolescents.
    Glenview, IL: Scott Foresman & Co., 1968.   (pp. 30-32).

    Herzberg, Max. J.   This Is America.
    New York: Pocket Books, 1950.   (pp. 30-32).

    Kishor, S.I.   "Appointment with Love."
    Reader's Digest.   May 1951.

    Lucado, Max.   And the Angels Were Silent.
    Sisters, OR: Multnomah Books, 1992.   ISBN 0-88070-727-5   (pp. 139-141).

    Williams, Rhiannon.   "Romancing the Rose."
    For Me.   7 October 1998   (p. 62).