My grandmother actually died in January of this year. I made it (late, but didn’t miss anything) to her funeral. I did not uproot her rosebushes or replant them at her feet. There are lots of reasons for this, the biggest one being that it was January and most of the foliage was dormant. And then there was the NoroVirus, sleep deprivation, and a skunk — but that’s a story for another time. This short story is based on a dream I had several years ago when I was far away from my grandmother and “home” and still trying to figure out a lot of things (a day late and a dollar short, but at least I was trying). It’s a bit longer than some of my other selections; I hope you will enjoy it all the same. Please keep the good comments coming, and — as a reward — I will post a number of short stories for you from now through the end of May. (No, I am not above bribing. You MUST love me, as Evita Peron is rumored to have said.) Enjoy…
Red Roses Wilted
I have a few red roses that I took from my grandmother’s rosebush. They are starting to wilt. Grandmother would have skinned me alive for taking them to their death this way – but there is not better place for them than in her arms. Every time I make the trip to see her, she tries to send me home with something.
“I’m not going to live forever,” she says, “and you could use it now and it’ll save us both the trouble later.”
Later. When she is gone.
I don’t want to think about later. I want to push later into that span of time where people actually meet aliens and have world peace. My grandmother is so stubborn that she might have lived forever to spite those who gave up on her too quickly – to outlive men who may have held her back, maybe.
But Grandmother is not a young woman. She has buried two husbands – one being my grandfather, 12 years ago. Many people swore she wouldn’t want to go on without him, but she did. She spent those years by herself on that huge farm, though the farm is not as perfect now as it was in my memory. The other man is someone I never knew, someone my mother never knew, a part of Grandmother’s past that she won’t shy away from when it comes up in conversation, but no real details. It would be beneath her to speak ill of the dead, but when she speaks of him, he is a person of no consequence. At least, she makes it seem that way to me.
And I suppose it is because things are so rarely what they seem that I am compelled to capture it now on paper. To remember my grandmother in her vibrant life and stories. To plan for her to not be around to tend her roses, the garden she loved and the people she cultivated. To prepare and protect what I can, lest we wilt.
To think for the thousandth time that I need to get her recipe for spaghetti sauce – which she says is written nowhere but in her own head. To remember details that she just skips over. She tells me now that she can’t remember the recipe. She tells me she just adds things as she goes. She tells me it has chili powder and Worchester sauce and hamburger meat and some other stuff. I have no clue what’s in it. It tastes nothing like her sister’s sauces — or any other spaghetti sauce I’ve ever had anywhere. It’s always frozen and ready to thaw when I come to visit. I wonder if she’s keeping the recipe secret so I have to come visit her to get the sauce or if she really doesn’t remember what she does each time. Perhaps it’s like giving someone directions to a place you visit often. You know how to get there, but you don’t remember all the streets or that a building is no longer there or has changed names. You just know that you get there and return home again. What I do know is that like all southern women, the more she tells, the more secrets I know she is keeping.
In an off-handed way, she will reminisce about selling strawberries at the train station during the Depression. School was not important when your family risked starving. Grandmother always said our family was luckier than most – a message that served partly to deflect my myriad questions and partly to instill the same hard-working values in us.
In my dream, I am walking across a wet lawn and laying fresh straw in front of her rose bush. I hear in the background several men, monotonous and droning, going on about the life she lived and how she will be missed. But I know they are at the cemetery. I am alone, in front of the garden, next to the rose bush. The straw crinkles under my feet. And I remember other things my grandmother told me.
I can picture Grandmother as a sassy teen and a headstrong young woman, but only as a quite obedient child. I saw a school picture once – Catholic school, of course. She was in the front row, standing. She was the shortest little girl in the whole picture. Her hands are folded in front of her in a gesture I recognized throughout her life – ultra polite, but uncomfortable. Her dress was black, and fell just below her knees. Maybe she was five, maybe older, but she looked so young.
I know that when Grandmother was a young woman, she worked as a nurse in a doctor’s office. She was also an army nurse, but she almost never talks about this, unless of course, they are one and the same. She does not speak of any work she did on the battlefield — but she wouldn’t, even if I asked her. She speaks often about her role as a nurse, though. She tells me that she told the doctors off “something fierce.” I tell these stories, too. I say what the wild diva in me would have done, which is only sometimes what I really did. And I think Grandmother was that way, too. She might have told one of the doctors to go jump in the lake, but it would come out so sweet, he would think he was receiving an invitation to skinny dip.
Grandmother was proud of her rose bushes, but I’m pretty sure roses were not her favorite flower. We agreed that roses were too delicate, overdone, and prone to wilting. We happily adorned ourselves with carnation corsages, and had centerpieces of irises and lilies, even daisies. The roses stayed on the bush.
But in my mind, it wasn’t right that the roses lived after grandmother died. It wasn’t fair! Too many questions. Too many answers she either didn’t remember or didn’t want to share. Too many things she knew I could never understand. Like her garden.
Before Papa got sick, he and Grandmother had a two acre garden. Three grape vines, six corn rows, plus tomatoes, green beans, squash, cauliflower, cabbage heads, peas, potatoes, and more. Camouflaging the chicken yard were raspberry and blackberry hedges. My grandparents surrounded their house with pairs of trees. There were peach trees, three kinds of apple and a pear tree, pecan trees, and cherry trees. Rounding out the house were two fig bushes on either side of the garage, and a dogwood outside my aunt’s room – just for beauty’s sake. None of this takes into account Grandmother’s flowers – up both sides of the driveway, nestled around the house on both sides and the corners and terraced on the driveway hillside. Other floral arrangements camouflaged the barbed-wire that held in the cows on three sides of the house.
On top of all this, there were plants indoors, in the basement, and on the patio. In the spring, we spent a day moving all the basement plants upstairs and out to the patio. Just before the first snow, we spent a day moving them back. Out in the yard, flowers were meant to weather the elements – harsh snows, freezing rains, drizzling sleet, pounding hail, driving wind.
Such a transformation occurred in the spring. Papa Rototilled, kids and grandkids picked up rocks – though never as many as our parents did and never without complaint. We kids were always excited to help with these things for an hour or two, but our work was sloppy, unpolished. We were weak – and lazy. Ours was a world of Atari, indoor plumbing, and electric stoves. But I’d like to think that had we been born earlier, we would have adapted, too. Kids are like that. However, we enjoyed planting seeds. Always too many or too few and always too deep – we liked to dig in the dirt. Grandmother was annoyed at our wastefulness, but not at us. She would push us to our limit, and then order us to get the mail or stop and get a drink or go check on the dogs. Then, out of harm’s way, she would fix our mistakes and thank God for her grandbabies. Years and years passed and we never realized, grateful only for the reprieve.
I would like to think I was the first to catch on. Being a middle child – too old to be excused and too young to be truly useful — I couldn’t do things as easily as my big sister or my older cousins, and stayed close to my grandmother for support. To see if I could do something new without the older, sneering, laughing eyes. I fumbled about the garden, and was afraid of the hunting dogs, but won rewards in the chicken yard.
Gangly though I was, I learned to imitate my grandmother’s movements and clucks, not scaring the hens and steering clear of the rooster, who was prone to bite. I remembered how to put out feed first to lure the hens out into the yard and off their nests so I could safely gather eggs. I was eight the first time I successfully poked a hen tail with a long feather to get her off her nest. I was 10 before I could lift the heavy lid from the corn feed that I would use to lure them back into their house before I locked them in for the night. But by the time I was 11, I could feed the chickens, gather their eggs, and lock them up without even Grandmother’s watchful eye. I knew really it was an child’s task, but it was mine, and I was grateful for it.
On Sunday mornings, Grandmother and I would lay dozens of eggs into the trunk of her car. After church, she would sell them to her friends and family, a dollar or two for a dozen, based on a system she kept in her head. Her sisters got the cheaper price, of course. And she charged more to a lady she thought was reselling the eggs in town. Anyone who wanted more than two dozen was given the higher price. She said they knew why, and other than that I shouldn’t worry about it. I would, however, and she told me I could, beam with pride as she told friends and neighbors which ones I was responsible for.
I still smile to know that I’m the only person Grandmother trusts to put away her dishes. Cups and plates, silverware and sauce pans – anyone can do those. But the baking crockery, casserole platters, the ladle, electric knife blades, and the colander – they all have their special places. Even the storage and microwave safe containers – once family helped her make the switch to microwave – had their special way to stack so that space was maximized. No one else agrees with us, and they all do it wrong. Together, Grandmother and I laughed at their folly, shooed them from her kitchen with dishrags, and returned the neglected items to their proper homes. Arm in arm, we celebrated her kitchen. I am selfish and proud for that small victory over my siblings, cousins, aunts and uncles – even my mother!
After Papa died, I planned to finish my last semester of college and move in to help Grandmother. I could teach at the county school and she wouldn’t be so lonely at night. I was the one she trusted, after all.
Grandmother wouldn’t hear of it. I had my own life, she told me. I think she realized I was bound to marry the next year and move away. I think she knew it before I did. So she was right, of course, but I wonder if she regrets it. I wonder if I do.
I’m dreaming again, and in my dream, 28 days have passed since Grandmother died. I am thinking that I haven’t picked up any new habits – bad ones or good ones. I hadn’t visited in so long – not since Christmas – as a result of my new family – my husband and my year old son — living in another place, a time zone away. I used to spend every other weekend and big chunks of my summers at Grandmother’s house. Weeks without a visit might as well have been years, especially as I watch my baby grow and have no way to share this in real time with my family back home. Why aren’t I home? In the dream, I missed the funeral. Why did I miss it? Too far to drive? Did I just barely miss it? Did I refuse to go to the ceremony, needing to mourn her in my own way? They are selling the house, putting it up for auction. Grandmother’s will states that the proceeds of the sale will be divided among her children – 4 daughters and a son. I could take anything inside I wanted, they said. They knew how much we meant to each other. But “they” are men in suits that belong in the Matrix. “They” are not my Grandmother’s children, not my mother. “They” are strange to me, but also strangely comforting. Perhaps they are the auctioneers. Or maybe angels.
I could take something from the kitchen where we laughed and sang while cooking or putting away dishes. Or the dining room table where we laid centerpieces and I learned how to play Scrabble and Spades. The picture of lilies that I sent her when Papa died is still on the fridge – even though I know it has been taken down and replaced by more photos of growing grandchildren. In my dream, I take the picture of lilies and the photographs of my family. I mark the boxes of kitchen items for the parish hall. The table will go to the Priest’s home. He visited her often while Papa was sick and after he passed; many good times would have been shared at that table. Besides, her children don’t want it. Papa always sat at the foot of the table; Grandmother sat at the head. The rest of us crowded the sides in no particular order. On holidays, we did not all fit, and spilled out to other rooms of the house at other tables and tray tables and laps. After Papa died, only husbands of grandchildren would sit in Papa’s place, and only after the first several months. People who did not know Papa’s booming laugh and felt only sympathy for the frail old man who continued to breathe under Grandmother’s care long after he ceased to live. Family could not sit there. Family could not lay a place for anyone else at Grandmother’s head of the table. Priests are more practical people.
Outside, the garden has dwindled into a very small thing. Grass overgrew the cornstalks while Papa was dying. I was inside helping with him then, then I was away; I wasn’t here to keep it alive. I did have my own life – we all did. The grape vines are still strung, but the crop is weak. Grandmother was its strength, and now she is gone.
The flowers will continue to grace the home, no matter who lives here. I hope they have children, and grandchildren, too.
In my dream, I go to the shed and pick out a sturdy shovel. Not everything will stay here, I have decided, though the shed whose walls I helped pour at 12 have nothing else I want. I lay out sheets of plastic and burlap, as I had seen Grandmother do so many times before.
And I dug up the rosebush. I dug deep, so as not to shock the roots, and I placed the base of the roots into the burlap, covered it all in the plastic sheeting. The thorns bit into my flesh, but I would not notice until later. The rosebush, burlap, and plastic are lovingly placed into the backseat of a car I no longer own – my first car, totaled the same day I found out I was pregnant – and driven to the cemetery.
When Papa died, Grandmother and her daughters bought a $200 flower-saddle to place on his headstone so that the groundskeeper wouldn’t throw the flowers out. Even so, Papa’s arrangements kept finding their way to less fortunate graves. Not this time.
I planted the rosebush at Grandmother’s feet, finally understanding what I was meant to see. The roses would come back each year to grace her grave – with or without me. Other mourners might take the blooms from time to time, but I would not make it so easy. The stems were tough, and those grave robbers would pay in pricks from the thorns. The blooms they would take will wilt and wither away.
Grandmother’s roses would never wilt — never fade while on the bush. Any pesky deadheads would be outnumbered by new blooms season after season. The roots would be a blanket keeping her warm. Spreading to Papa, and everyone else as the bush grew, just as Grandmother’s love spread. Even the roses she gave would be taken with work and some pain – the same way she taught us to work and to love. From age to age, from her to me. No more red roses wilted in stiff arrangements. I walked away with a satisfied smile, got into my car, and drove away. I would not be returning.