Well, I knew what it was the moment I happened upon it. But since I hadn’t seen it in six years, why did I know what it was?
I tell myself—that morning six years before was drenched in emotion. It had been only two months since my mother had died, and now my two brothers and I, with our spouses, were standing in the wildflower garden my mother had made in the twenty-acre woods which she owned, and in which she had lived.
OK—correction. The garden was a small affair, smaller than my mother’s living room. And since most wildflowers tend to be rather inconspicuous, as well as fleeting, it was really difficult to tell where the woods ended and the garden began.
My mother had begun the garden after my father died, and thus had called it “Jack’s garden.” He, of course, barely knew a trillium from a dog-tooth violet, and would have snorted at having a garden named after him, but my mother had been a strangely wonderful, practical sentimentalist. He was dead, after all, so if she had wanted to make him a garden? Well, he wouldn’t mind…..
So it had been therapy for her: I could imagine her visiting all her wildflowers—she knew where everything was—and deciding which ones to transplant. It’s therapeutic, after all, these mundane things you do. Clearing out the closets, for example, and facing the inevitable questions: his favorite sweater, he wore it seemingly always, but now fresh eyes see it. And isn’t it a bit ratty? What about those holes on the elbows—had they always been there? Why hadn’t you noticed them? So is anyone at Goodwill likely to buy or need this sweater?
So you are there, weeping a bit over the sweater, which is dumb, really, since your father had no particular love for clothes of any kind. You must do one of two things: discard (read: throw in the trash) or donate (read: give it to Goodwill, who will throw it in the trash). All of a sudden, the decision seems momentous: are you crazy? Who could possibly throw away Jack’s sweater? So there you are, seriously considering taking a sweater back to a tropical island, where sweaters are about as needed as fireplaces.
Now you know you’re crazy….
So she had made a garden for a man who had no need or even love for gardens, and that was the point. Grief is in one sense a stupid emotion: love will make you donate a kidney to your brother, or give a stern dressing-down to your son. But once a father dies, well, what use does he have for your tears? Or a husband, for that matter: the joke in the family was that Franny was going to find herself a gigolo named, of course, Juan. And why not? She had loved my father for fifty years—half a century! Why not have a fling with Juan?
So that morning, a month or two after my mother’s death, we had been in “Jack’s Garden,” and we were not there for Jack. Because later in the day, the memorial service would begin for my mother, and then the next day, we would all disperse. We were picking up our lives again, after the disruption of seeing our mother off, and much of that “picking up” meant going on, emotionally. There is, after all, a time to stop crying. There is a time when your friends really don’t want to hear that you spent the morning sobbing, since you had had the first dream of your mother after her death. And so real had it been that the dream seemed to be real just after you woke up! No, you think, she had been alive: you were dreaming that she was dead!
It hits you again, just as hard as it hit you all that time ago, when the nurse had his stethoscope on your mother’s chest for a solid minute—you checked, since you were a nurse, too, and knew that it was state law….
But you have work to go to, or a breakfast to make, and you pull yourself together. If you’re a woman, you know that everybody will see your puffy eyes, this morning, but they’ll also see your bright smile. And hear you say, “just fine!” Because you are, after all, just fine. Know what? In six years, you won’t miss her so much. In fact, I am weeping now, just thinking about her, but I also have to confess: for the first time in six years, I forgot the anniversary of her death. Yes, May 3 went by, and not a tear did I shed. So I’m paying her back, with interest….
So I am going on, and we were going on, that day of the memorial service, though we have all gone on a lot more, nowadays, then we had gone on that morning. Which means that everybody was in tears, since my brother, who doesn’t so much make decisions as he herds his brothers, like a sheepdog, into doing the right thing. Which was, that morning, standing in Jack’s Garden. Remember? That garden that Jack didn’t much want, and probably wouldn’t have proclaimed just a piece of damned foolishness, but guess what? Dead men get no votes, Jack!
So why were we standing in the wildflowers / probable-and-or-presumptive poison ivy? You know, the stuff that will send my eldest brother—who inhaled the smoke of a fire burning the weed, and turned hyper allergic—to the Emergency Room? We are there because John, my sheepdog / brother, has decided to get my mother’s ashes, and to bury them, where else? Among the wild flowers and poison ivy of….
Somebody dug the hole. Then, we lifted the bag out of the box. And then came this:
“Crem” must mean ‘crematorium.” “Serv” is what, “service?” “SP” is a mystery, as is the “12954,” though I highly suspect the corpse before my mother was “12953….” Anyway, it was on the bag that held my mother’s ashes, and it both secured the bag and identified the ashes.
Which, as you may know, are not really ashes. They are roughly the size of small-grained rice, and it would take a quite a wind to scatter them. So John had taken the tag off the bag, and then looked at it. What to do with it? He turfed and handed it to my eldest brother. And what did he do?
Why me? Had it been because I had been there all the way through her death? Had it been because I had, a bit more than the others, masterminded her death? Or perhaps it is simply the case: the younger child is given the last of everything, from his mother’s milk to his mother’s ashes. Anyway, I held the thing in my hand, and then slipped it into my pocket.
I should have put it, of course, in the hole, along with the ashes. That would have been logical, but had my mother enjoyed the services of Juan, the gigolo? Of course not, so it felt, somehow, totally, totally, important to have this disc that had sealed up the remains of “12954,” or rather….
And so I got to Puerto Rico, after having placed the disc along with the small change into the security bowls at airport security. I pulled off my Wisconsin clothes—the six layers of needed clothing even in June—and pulled on my shorts. Then I emptied my pockets and said, “what in hell….”
Well, I had lost my mother: was I now to lose “12954?” Of course not, so I put the disc under the candleholder in the guest bathroom, and hoped against hope that some guest would find it valuable enough to steal….
And so I discovered it today, after six years, since cleaning is not quite cleaning in my house. It is, in fact, more akin to an archeological dig. And so here I am, as befuddled today as I was six years ago, because you know what? I lost a mother and then substituted her through a book, but I still cannot, I really cannot, bear to throw away….
Lady comes by….
“Take this,” I tell her. “And keep it utterly, utterly safe, because I will never see it again.”
I hand her the disc.
“But…” she begins.
I purse my lips towards my computer: it’s a Puerto Rican thing, why be so rude as to point, when you can purse your lips?
“Tomorrow,” I tell her.
She kisses me, pats me on the head, pockets the disc into the purse that shelters the thousand mysteries, relics, and memories of her life, which is everybody’s life, and my life as well, and now “12954’s” life, as well as, now…