She had been staring at the envelope for ten minutes, sipping her black coffee. It lay on the kitchen counter, white on white, in danger of being lost in the loose piles of junk mail and bills, grocery and to-do lists.
I should tidy up that counter. Might lose a bill or worse, a check. It’s okay now but it’s on the verge. The verge of confusion. Like the garden and the housekeeping and the cooking and the accounting.
She wasn’t going to be hard on herself. At 76 one could expect to slow down a little.
Fifty-four years of marriage, then everything changed. Saw it coming plain as day, but we both pretended we had time.
She picked up a stack and started sorting: bills in one pile, junk in another, everything else in a third. She looked at a blue envelope, admiring the fact that it had an actual stamp, but her eyes drifted over to the white one on the counter. The return address was clearly visible through the cellophane window. She tossed the rest back onto the counter and went into the living room. The vacuum cleaner waited in the center of the carpet where she had left it earlier, but she waved it off like an approaching salesman and went out the sliding glass door to the back yard, her small, overweight dog immediately joining her.
If I don’t do that housework, my son will get me a housekeeper. And I’m not ready to have a strange person running around my house. But it will have to wait because right now I want my garden.
She went around the side of the house where dozens of plants grew in various containers. They were mostly annuals, and mostly past their prime. It was sunny and warm but it was already late September. She usually sold flowers at the beginning of the summer, but this year each weekend had gone by and the list of tasks required to make it happen never got shorter and it didn’t get done. A lot of things didn’t get done.
I enjoyed them all summer. Geraniums and fuchsias, dahlias, even some impatiens. Had to find impatiens that could resist the downy mildew this year. I didn’t sell them, but I enjoyed them.
She puttered around the containers for a while, watering, pruning, turning. She started working on a geranium, thick with white flowers.
What a beauty. Never had a white geranium before. Can’t believe my son found it on the internet. He doesn’t know anything about geraniums, he just thought I’d like it. He was right.
The blossoms were beginning to turn brown. Dozens came off as she tried to prune away the oldest ones, hoping to preserve as many as she could. Usually she enjoyed falling blossoms, cherished them, but something about the splotches of whiteness on her time-toughened hands disturbed her, made her think of the envelope with its deadpan insistence.
I’ll open it when my son gets here.
Not the son who wanted to get her a housekeeper. The oldest one, the one who lived in the next town over instead of clear across the country. They had always been close. He stopped in frequently to check on her and help out around the house.
The little dog was growling at something in the underbrush near the fence on the other side of her garden. There was a stand of corn there, several stalks growing out of large containers. She and her youngest granddaughter had planted the kernels last spring, after the memorial.
“Let’s go home, Grandma,” she had said, taking her hand, all braces and ponytail and mother-couldn’t-make-me-wear-a-dress.
“We need to plant something.”
Not that she’s seen it much, being so far away. I’ll take a picture and send it to her. I’ll get my son to show me how to do it on my phone.
The little dog was snuffling around behind the containers, growling, and the woman hoped it wasn’t on the trail of another possum nest. She was not sure of the dog’s ancestry but thought there might be terrier or beagle in the mix, and it suffered no other animals in the back yard. The dog had once brought home an entire family of dead possums, one each night for nearly a week. It would beg to go out and then sit in the darkness in the middle of the yard, waiting, ignoring entreaties to come in. The dog was not fast but had become too heavy for the woman to lift. When a possum would venture out the dog would charge and dispatch the creature with a few quick bites. The mother possum was a relatively large specimen with sharp teeth, but proved no match for the dog’s commitment to its mission. The dog proudly brought each body to the door and dropped it at the woman’s feet.
She winced at the memory, warm bodies limp in her hands. Nothing left for her to save, nothing she could grow.
The dog barked a few times, then gave up and trotted back to where the woman worked, plopping down in the shade near her feet.
No dead possums today.
The woman pulled a few weeds from the containers holding the corn. She thought one of the nearly-ripe ears looked a bit odd, so she took hold of one and pulled away some of the enveloping husk. What she saw alarmed her, so she ripped open the remaining leaves wrapped around the ear. The inside was grey with some insect, an aphid perhaps.
The woman grunted in disgust. It had been decades since a pest or blight had gotten the better of her. In a sudden rage she ripped out all the plants in that container. Carrying them by the roots, she took them over to the compost pile and chopped them into pieces with her hoe.
She paused to catch her breath, then went back and checked the other plants. The next container was infested, but the third was clean. She went to work on the infested container. The dog got up, sensing her anger, and patrolled alertly while she worked. It eyed the offending corn stalks suspiciously and growled while she hacked with her hoe.
Finally the woman rested, out of breath. She felt a little dizzy, but she leaned on the hoe, the worn wooden handle easily supporting her weight.
Not here, not now. Still my garden.
The dog sat watching her, ears perked. The woman nodded and a tail thumped vigorously.
She thought she should go back into the house. The son who lived far away and wanted to get her a housekeeper would be calling her on the computer soon. She looked forward to his video call, she liked being able to see him and sometimes she got to see the granddaughter.
He worries too much. Always asking if I’ve seen the doctor, am I eating enough. He’s paying some of the bills now too. Told him I don’t need it but he pays anyway.
The dog gave a bark and perked its ears, looking at the fence bordering the front yard. She thought she heard a car so she went over to look. Sure enough, her oldest son’s truck was pulling into the driveway. She went back into the house to greet him. The little dog followed on her heels, bursting into a joyous, tail-wagging dance at her son as he came in the door.
“I was just going to get some lunch,” she said. “How about a ham and cheese sandwich?”
“Thanks mom, why don’t you sit down and I’ll fix us both something?”
“Why don’t you get out of my kitchen before I take my spatula to your hind end?”
“Okay, okay, settle down,” he replied, eyes widening in mock terror. His eyes focused on the counter, suddenly serious.
“What’s this? A letter from your doctor?”
“Looks like it,” she said.
“Want me to open it?”
“Go ahead. Maybe I’ll sit down while you read it to me,” she said, sitting at the dining room table.
He ripped open the envelope and quickly scanned the letter, forehead crinkling. Gradually his face relaxed.
“It’s okay, Mom,” he said. “The biopsy came back negative. You are cancer free.”
The woman let out a breath. He put his hand on her shoulder and she reached over and patted it.
“I’m feeling good,” she said. “I might have to do a little dance or something.”
“Whatever you like,” he replied.
“I’m dancing inside.” She wiped her eyes.
Her son leaned down, his head touching hers. She could feel his beard on the side of her face.
“You should take the rest of the day off. Watch some CSI.”
“No,” she said. “I want to work in my garden.”
About the author:
John Langendoerfer lives in East Windsor and works as the IT Director of a small market research company. When not in the office he navigates his other roles as husband, as father to a teenager, and as an aspiring writer. Once in a while he breaks free from the computer and goes hiking or trail biking with friends.