In their way, the petunias and impatiens that Tom Callen has planted in the window boxes of his Fishtown home are a heavenly dare.
They are for Carol, his bride of nearly 40 years, who passed last June, and left the rooms in his rowhouse feeling vacant, and the paradise of a garden he built in their backyard feeling empty. Carol, famously exacting, wouldn’t let Tom plant out front. She worried the flowers would die.
This spring, Tom, 70, decided he would finally start his window garden. Never out of spite for Carol, his “honey.” But because imagining her fed-up laugh as he prunes the leaves makes him feel close to her. And in those imaginings, he can almost make himself believe Carol is about to walk out to him.
“Come on out,” he’ll say. “Come on out, and give me hell for this.”
Theirs was a Fishtown love story. They met at Galdo’s, an old bar on Front Street, on a Saturday in 1977. Tom was 27, a Vietnam vet six years out of the Navy, with long hair and a beard, and a new job as a building engineer for the School District.
He was fed up with the neighborhood girls his own age: “All they wanted to do was ‘What’s your sign, man,’ and ‘You got any pot?’ And I wasn’t interested in either of those items. I’d rather have a few beers.”
So would Carol, 38, a single mom who’d spent time in a Catholic orphanage growing up. She was a shopgirl at the Woolworth’s on 13th and Chestnut, and by the time she went to Galdo’s, she was on a mission. “I’m going to find a man,” she told her 17-year-old daughter, Teresa.
Then Tom walked into the bar, fresh from a softball game, and lit Carol’s cigarette. That was it.
They talked Motown. They talked movies. They shot darts and played shuffleboard. Holy cow, thought Tom. The woman of my dreams.
She had dark hair and brown eyes, and she loved Tom’s constant jokes, even as she made a show of putting up with them. Her cat, who hated men, liked him.
One Saturday night, after a few beers at Molloy’s, they stood in Tom’s father’s kitchen, eating hot Polish sausage on soft rolls.
“I proposed to her over the sandwich. I said: ‘Hey, what do you think? Want to get married?’ ”
Over at Holy Name Church, Father Kennedy was a fire-and-brimstone man, but a deal was struck to perform the marriage of Carol, married twice outside the church, and Tom, a non-Catholic. Special dispensations: $50 for each marriage, $25 for the Protestant.
“Thomas, there is no problem that can stop your marriage that money cannot correct,” he remembers the good father saying.
They honeymooned in Wildwood. They settled into a life in Fishtown. Crabbing down the Shore, movies on the couch, birthdays somewhere fancy. Carol’s steps each morning on the stairs, when she would come into the kitchen, and commandeer Tom’s coffee and his Inquirer.
“Is the world still here?” she’d ask, glancing over the headlines.
Tom built their paradise in the backyard: an island-themed setup with a tiki bar, a swelling container garden, and a trough for rows of vincas. They would sit out there together, with the grill and the cooler and the baseball game, and Tom would brag about his latest plantings. Carol, from the chair he reserved for her under the umbrella, would laugh.
“You can’t do anything a little bit,” she would say to Tom, not without fondness. “You have to go all the way.”
She carefully nursed exactly four geraniums, year in and year out -- long-ago gifts from her grandkids.
Carol began coughing two years ago. Then came the shortness of breath. And soon their outings stopped: Tom could only push her along the Boardwalk in Atlantic City. They dipped their toes in the surf.
“The best thing on her was her heart,” Tom said. “Her heart was strong as heck. But everything else wore out and broke down.”
She died four days before their 40th anniversary.
And in the silence of the house that followed, Tom decided on the window garden. Simple to start, with the purple petunias and patriotic ribbons and some impatiens in the shade on the stoop. A neighbor encouraged him to enter the Fishtown Flower Power Contest, which will be decided this weekend. You can vote online. So far, Tom has three votes.
When Teresa, now a grandmother herself, visits her “Pop,” and admires the garden, she jokes: “If you don’t watch out, Mom’s going to drop something on your head.” (“He was so sweet to her,” she said.)
And Tom will stick out his tongue at the heavens, and laugh.