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Searching for "The Roses Man"


              I met “The Roses Man” when I was  5 or 6 years old, attending Franklin Elementary School in East Orange, New Jersey. I was freshly burned, and recently discharged from an endless hospitalization. I may have been well enough to go home, but I was ill-prepared to face existence. My new scars were raised purple and red, blanketing two-thirds of my body. The lower half of my face was melted away, requiring a reconstructed neck, chin, and bottom lip. I was hideous, a fact of which many children taunted me as they yelled “Yuck” in my face and fled from me.

I trudged home alone from school, often crying. But one afternoon, an older man introduced himself, and invited me into his backyard, which burst in a multi-colored, immersive haven of rose bushes. This man carefully cut some fresh roses, creating a fragrant bouquet. He covered the stems with tin foil so the thorns wouldn’t hurt my hands and handed me my gift. I skipped home, overjoyed.

“The Roses Man” made me many more bouquets of flowers. Each time, he helped me feel safe and treasured, instead of rejected and ugly. Decades later, I realized that he had likely witnessed me walking past his house crying, and he did what he could to brighten my life. He may not have thought his efforts made much of a difference. But they did.

For years, I have told the story of “The Roses Man,” which also appears in my book, Flashback Girl. I tell his story as an example of the power of compassion, the small things we can do to mitigate suffering in our world. I say, "I’m still talking about The Roses Man, 50 years later, even though I don't know his name. So, remember, if you are well and able, notice people who are suffering and help them. Be ’The Roses Man.’”

This is how my presentations about resilience have concluded for the past five years. I have given this talk in Maine, Arizona, California, even New Zealand, to packed audiences. Thousands of people know “The Roses Man” story, many people weeping when they hear it. It's a powerful ending, but it has always bothered me that I could not name this man, my angel.

Recently, I connected on a Facebook group for my old elementary school. I reunited (virtually) with a number of classmates. At some point I realized, maybe someone can finally help me identify “The Roses Man.”

I gave a brief description of the house’s location which, given that I moved away when I was 9, I remembered a lot better than you think I might. That walk from school was challenging, and I can envision every turn I took, back and forth from school to my house. I had a felt sense of The Roses Man’s house. Leaving school, I crossed the street and made my first turn. His house was slightly up on the left-hand side of a road whose name I couldn’t remember. But Google Maps told me: Colonial Terrace.

Within ten minutes of my Facebook inquiry, an old friend replied, “That was Mr. Sam Elder.” Others chimed in as well, with their own recollections of his kindness.

Mr. Sam Elder.

Mr Sam Elder (last on the right side) with 3 of his siblings

Here’s what I know now about Sam Elder. He was one of 12 children, and emigrated from Ireland. He married a woman named Anna. He worked as a groundskeeper at a local country club until his retirement. He and Anna never had children, and she died relatively young. Widowed and alone, Mr. Elder moved into the house on Colonial Drive with two of his siblings. Using his professional gardening talents, he grew the walls of glorious roses that filled their backyard. And, I guess, he watched the children who walked by his house after school, and noticed the little girl with half a face, whom everyone called ugly.

Mr. Elder is deceased. But Facebook connected me with his grand-nieces. I found out which living relative was closest to him. I sent her a heart-felt letter, and a copy of Flashback Girl with a small heart next to the page on which he appears.

I sent a miniature rose bush, blooming with tiny yellow buds.



There is a line at the end of the Brahm’s German Requiem which always touches me. I know the lyrics because I once sang the piece. However, the words actually come from the Bible, Revelations 14:13. “Blessed are the dead, which die in the Lord from henceforth. Yea, sayeth the spirit, that they may rest from their labors; and their works do follow them.”

“And their works do follow them.”

The smallest things we do impact others. I understand this much more as I age and as I heal. People who are profoundly wounded rarely have the capacity to think about others; they are fully focused on survival. They may feel they can barely breathe. They may not be capable of kindness, or even basic civility.

Those of us who have healed (more or less) should grant grace to struggling people. We are the lucky ones. I think those of us who are healed have another responsibility: to help others as best we can. In this, human nature can flower in endless varieties. Some people help by rescuing animals. Others help by volunteering at the food bank. Others help by becoming firefighters. These are big ways to help.

Here’s the thing, though. We can also help in the smallest of ways, what I call “micro-moments of kindness." I still remember nurses who took an extra minute to tuck in my blanket when I was a lonely little girl on the burn ward. My surgeon, Dr. John Constable, used to patiently hold my foot when I underwent anesthesia, soothing my terror. These moments took just seconds, and probably seemed insignificant to the professionals at the time. But I could see the kindness in their eyes. I felt their benevolence in my bones. I remember them, decades later.

 We don’t have to work extraordinarily hard to make a difference. Being kind doesn’t have to take long or cost us a cent. However, we do need awareness. We need to pop out of our natural self-involvement and truly see the people around us. Help a harried mother carry her stroller up the stairs. Allow a person walking in the rain to cross in front of your car. Notice that little girl crying and walking alone from school.

I hope that when I die, my good works will follow me. I fervently hope that my good works will outnumber the times I have been thoughtless, impatient, judgmental, and unkind. I have been those things too. Sometimes I was hurting too much to know what I was doing. Sometimes I was tired and cranky and simply lost my s--t. Sometimes I was plainly clueless. Those times still happen, despite my best intentions, because I am human and as imperfect as anyone else.

I doubt that Mr. Sam Elder thought that his giving roses away would ever be a story in a book, or the subject of keynote presentations. But he was aware enough to see suffering. He had a heartfelt wish to intervene. In this small way, he became an eternal hero. To this day, the gift of flowers, multi-colored and redolent, makes me feel profoundly loved.

If you are well, be like The Roses Man, Mr. Elder. There are so many ways to make a difference and our world needs all the kindness we have to give.

Thank you, Mr. Sam Elder. Your works follow you, in fragrant trails of yellow, white, pink and red rose petals.

Our works follow us all.

Lise Deguire's multiple award-winning memoir, Flashback Girl: Lessons on Resilience from a Burn Survivor, is available for purchase on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Newtown Book Shop and The Commonplace Reader. Check out her TEDx talk "Scarred Not Scary"

1 Comment

David Roth
David Roth
Jun 05

Nice piece, Lise. It's awesome when FB works like it's supposed to. My brother-in-law works for Convoy of Hope, a faith-based disaster relief NGO. When I visited him recently he was wearing a baseball cap with Be Kind emblazoned on it. I admired it and ended up wearing one home. We cannot be reminded too often of the generative power of kindness. Keep up the good works.

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