-A short story By Raelea C Phillips
I was sitting on the front porch smoking a cigarette. Despite the cooler temperatures, a couple of crickets sang like the male house finch does on a spring morning. The air was still and the woods were quiet. All I could hear between each exhale of smoke were those horny males in the bushes chirping for a last piece from a reluctant female before autumn brought an early frost. There was a light fog amidst the dew that began to set in. Seemed too early for dew but I concurred with nature on its timing when I noticed my watch said 1:52 AM.
Autumn began three days ago. Summer wanted to last an eternity. I was sad to see the ruby-throated hummers fly south and apprehensive about the sun moving so far away. The sun was leaving me again; our intimate break-up on the fall equinox. It made me mistrust the sun but I took him back every year. It was the act of allowing him back that began the unraveling of distrusting myself. I finally realized the sun was never solely mine thus I preferred the relations of the moon. At least she comes back monthly and leaves me red gifts. But I love her anyway for her soft glowing white light and the not so delicate effect she has on water.
When autumn arrives, I hardly feel the enthusiasm of falling warm colored leaves or a holiday pie with whipped cream. Autumn brings an emotional plague; a weight in my throat, bearing down through my esophagus into the pit of my stomach. All I want to do is crawl away silently. The people in my life had once accepted this about me. I felt sure of this as I felt sure of the sturdiness of trees.
I didn’t smoke the entire cigarette. I put it out gently to smoke the other half later. I stood up and approached the open front door. I felt the cool air behind me as the warm air inside sucked me in. The house was silent except for a few reluctant creaks. I sat down and stared at the screen. I wanted to finish this chapter but became suddenly distracted by my heart pounding inside my head. A faint voice whispered but I couldn’t make out what it was saying. Another was chanting in rhythm with my heartbeat in spite of it’s lacking pitch. I’d rather be distracted by more pleasurable sounds like a duet of fiddle and Irish flute. I closed my Macbook realizing my mind was done writing for the night.
I went outside again. I felt the cool weighty air, silent; the crickets gave up their quest. The moon shone brightly; the Mohawk River anticipated another four days before it fully shined. I lit my half cigarette and gazed at the moon smiling through every branch of maple leaves that began their slow dive to a crunching death.
Every summer I make the drive up to Lake Placid and stay for four months to write and take photos but more importantly to see Gramma. Getting away from the city to not think and just spread myself wide open to the forest brings much needed solace. Summer breezes and waving branches welcome me like Gramma did with open arms on Christmas Eve after a long drive up winding mountain roads. My brother would listen to music on his Walkman; whatever happened to the simplicity of cassette tapes? He’d stare out the window for hours counting the white dashed lines in the middle of the road waiting to see roadkill. I preferred to sit behind the passenger’s seat to spot the occasional rabbit or deer on the side of the road grazing while listening to my parents argue over money and in-laws. I enjoyed watching the V of geese fly overhead.
I think those drives north were only a little over five hours from Worcester but that’s an eternity to a kid knowing what awaits at Gramma and Grampa’s house: freshly baked cookies and pound cakes, the smell of homemade apple and cherry pies and even a southern sweet potato pie just for me. I was the only one that liked it besides Grampa. He was from North Carolina and had a hand written list of recipes passed down three generations of southern cooking. Gramma became accustomed to “fixin” a few of those old recipes for him and me. Breakfast was my favorite: eggs over easy, sausage, bacon, hash browns, grits, and homemade buttermilk biscuits topped with gravy made from meaty grease with flour and milk.
I never learned to cook any of it but my memory still holds the aroma of Gramma’s cooking when I walk into this house every June. I miss Gramma. I miss Grampa too but he passed when I was sixteen. I remember our fishing trips when we’d walk down to Little Ray Brook. My brother and I spent two weeks every summer with our grandparents. I always enforced the rule of what happens in Gramma and Grampa’s house stays in their house like cookies for lunch and staying up until three in the morning watching old war movies on video cassettes.
During our summer visits I listened to Gramma’s old vinyl records of Irish folk music. By the time I was nine my brother and I had every tune memorized. Gramma played the fiddle and Irish flute and taught me how to play the Irish flute. My brother learned how to play the guitar and sing along with Grampa when Gramma played her fiddle. We were quite the quartet. We learned many of the old songs from those records by ear. None of us were as good at picking up the tune as Gramma could easily pick out each chord, melodic and harmonic lines. At the end of our stay when mom and dad arrived we put on a concert for them.
When Grampa died we still came up for Christmas but those two-week visits in the summer stopped. Mom said Gramma wanted to travel in the summer. Grampa never liked to travel so when he passed Gramma took advantage of escaping a constant reminder of loss. She went to Alaska and Mexico, all over Europe and even parts of Africa. After I finished my undergrad in English Education at Boston University I did three years in the Peace Corps. On some of my travels throughout Africa I got to visit the same places Gramma showed me in photographs she took while traveling. I admired Gramma for her dauntless travels alone. As an adult I certainly appreciated her more as an intellectual, distinguished woman rather than the fluffy, sweet, kitchen old lady, I used to know and love.
I had decided to settle my life in Albany after the Peace Corps since it was only a two and a half hour drive to Gramma’s house. I was a school teacher at a private institution for exceptional children. School sessions went from the first week of October until the last week in May. Most of my students were highly intelligent but had various obstacles ranging from ADHD to Dissociative Disorders. I never felt qualified enough to teach these students but special-ed teachers were at a minimum and the few that did hold degrees in that field only lasted a couple years before burnout. The school year was shorter than the public schools because these kids went to a four month program every summer to learn basic life and social skills to better communicate despite their so-called mental deficiencies.
I saw teaching these kids as a wonderful challenge to my own issues. I thought if I could help these children then I may possibly gain some insight into my own neurosis. Fat chance on that. My anxiety went through the roof so I stayed doped up on whatever cocktail of pharmaceuticals were popular at the time. The medication numbed me to my blind insistence on staying with this guy who had a serious personality disorder. I had met him while serving in the Corps and his only attribute was his taste in music.
My refuge began in June after my first year of teaching. I wanted to spend the summers in Lake Placid where Gramma awaited me once again with open arms. After her eight years of traveling she called it quits and returned home. Arthritis and all the other ailments of age had finally caught up with her. She was content to settle down again this time for no one but herself. She had no obligation to a family or a husband anymore. She refused to have a vegetable garden and instead focussed on her flowers and fruit trees. Gramma loved to photograph her daffodils. She even had a few photos published and featured in a National Geographic magazine.
Staying with Gramma for four months was quite the learning experience besides our companionship blossoming into a best friendship. Gramma taught me everything about photography including how to develop my own photos. She never did adjust to a digital camera. Mom gave her one for her birthday some time in the nineties. Gramma gave it to me the following year. There must be at least ten albums filled with her traveling photos. I need to go through them all one of these days. I haven’t had the heart as of late.
The apple, pear, and apricot trees still put out sweet fruit. They need some trimming but I think Gramma would be proud to know I picked often this past summer and sold at the market what I couldn’t eat. The other farmers were happy to see that I continued Gramma’s spot at the market. It was strange selling fruit without Gramma exchanging stories with the other old farmers. It felt awkward and lonely. However, she would be gravely disappointed if she saw the empty garden of death of daffodils. They were her favorite flowers to grow. She said looking out her kitchen window into her garden of daffodils was like God’s hand of sunshine blooming up from the ground. Yellow was her favorite color. My mom’s side of the family were all Irish. Gramma was the first generation American. She held onto long traditions of holidays and playing Irish folk tunes but her favorite family tradition was having a daffodil garden.
I lit another cigarette and let the smoke out slowly. The haze lingered and burned my eyes reminding me of gramma’s insistence of quitting. “Those damn cancer sticks!” That was the only time I ever heard her use profanity. As shameful as it was to hear Gramma complain I wish I could hear it now. All I hear is the whispering of nightfall leaves brushing against one another from a slight westerly breeze that just moved in. The occasional muffled hoot of a heart-shaped faced barn owl let’s me know that I’m not alone in these woods tonight.
Inside feels different and empty despite the faint creaks and whispers in the walls. The house feels lifeless without gramma. Her typewriter hasn’t been touched in a year. I won’t clean it for fear of wiping away pieces of her. It is covered in dust except for the letters: E, Y, O, and L. I’m not sure why those letters. I figured I may have walked in my sleep one night and dabbled with the typewriter. It sits on a small desk in Gramma’s bedroom. I was curious to what my subconscious wanted to say while I slept so I put a piece of paper in the typewriter to see what it read sometime tomorrow after I woke up.
Voices. I’ve heard them since college. I am aware of their constant pointless chatter in whispers mostly. My voices, as if they are really mine, have never directed me to do or say anything. I’m not afraid of them. I got used to them years ago. I told my therapist that it was probably the pot I smoked. She told me not to smoke if it caused me paranoia as if any other time was okay. I think she was like a page out of a hippie history text. She didn’t know however, that I was doing other things like mushroom teas, the occasional acid and ecstasy. I drank a lot too.
College was more of a social gathering in great surreal purple clouds floating thousands of miles above campus. The air tasted like chocolate silk gliding into my mouth caressing and fondling my lungs. Half the time I felt like this and the other half I battled the voices while trying to pay attention and take notes during lectures. My grades were decent. I think I had a B average by the time I walked across the stage listening to mom, dad, and my brother hollering and Gramma whistling. Those years were like a Shakespeare comedy and I felt like the rest of my life would define me more harshly.
Teaching became a tragedy. The comedy was over. I had entered the real world of work and piss testes. Even the private school sector insisted on random drug testing for all staff including the principal. I didn’t miss getting high per say; I missed the social aspect of it all. Getting high meant being able to communicate without thought. Now, I’m not comfortable around anyone. When I’m around people I feel like they are expecting something significant from me; some profound statement that will somehow change the world. They judge every breath and every blink; staring and waiting as if I am wasting their time.
I never felt like this with Gramma. I never felt like this with my brother and parents either but they were always a separate category of my expression. I didn’t have to think about my behavior around them. With Gramma, however, I did think about it but never felt drained afterwards. Gramma gave me energy with her words, her melodies, her food and her smile. I was careful around her like I was careful around others but with her it didn’t feel contrived. I always felt connected. Sometimes I even thought I could BE Gramma, younger, living in a different dimension then one day I just slipped into this dimension with her. Could it be an explanation to the voices I often hear calling me back to where I originally spawned?
I undoubtedly feel like I’m from another world when I get lost in particular songs. My favorite song is by an Irish rock band called the Cranberries. It is called “Daffodil Lament.” It was a B-side song from their second album. I fell in love with this tune when I first heard the album while traveling in the Corps. Mr. Personality Disorder introduced me to the Cranberries after he’d seen them in concert in London. We were a seasonal couple; on and off for many painstaking years during my late twenties and half of my thirties. He visited me often in Albany but most of the relationship was long distance. Fortunately, I don’t associate “Daffodil Lament” with him anymore otherwise the song would be ruined.
The best memory I have of this song is when Gramma heard it for the first time. It was after my second year of teaching. I had just drove up and Gramma was in the garden trimming off scarred pedals and dead daffodils. I had “Daffodil Lament” blaring in the car’s CD stereo and I was singing at the top of my lungs; windows down, red hair a flaring mess on a cool spring morning. Gramma looked up and smiled. The song was almost over and I sat in the car waiting for it to finish. I smiled back teeth and all exposed with my excited voice waving across the yard. In that moment I realized Gramma’s unconditional love for me. She accepted my moment and waited graciously as if being entertained by a singing angel. I sensed her knowing my need to hear the finality of the song. I watched her rise up slowly, never taking her eyes off me. She stood surrounded by a yellow pond of blooms mesmerized by my love for this simple pleasure of music. She didn’t open her arms. Surely she knew to welcome me too soon would spoil the moment. I felt safe. I was happy. Gramma and me would always be happy here.
I went back inside and stood at the door gazing around the lifeless family room. To my left was a small bench painted yellow and green. Grampa had made it for Gramma to set her pocket book and keys on when she came home. Further down the front wall were two windows overlooking the front porch and yard on the north side. It was a little stuffy inside and the house needed some fresh air. I opened the window closest to the east wall. Along that wall was the wood fireplace with two windows on either side. I opened the window closest to the south wall which had a series of bookshelves covering the entire wall top to bottom. The shelves were completely filled with a variety of interests: classic British and American literature, gardening and bird watching books, history and war texts, cookbooks and hundreds of national geographic magazines. One shelf in the center contained gramma’s fiddle and Irish flute. The one below it held over a hundred vinyl records along with the player.
To my right was the dining area which also faced the north side of the yard through one large window. The oval shaped table sat ten people and was decorated with a white tablecloth and gramma-sewn place mats shaped like apples and pears. I opened the window on the west wall dining area which overlooked the garden. Connecting to the dining area was the kitchen and it too had a single window over the sink where Gramma could admire the beauty of her daffodils. The staircase ran along the wall that separated the kitchen and family room and led to three bedrooms and a full bathroom.
I sat down in Gramma’s recliner. It was still comfortable. Her small form never wore the chair down. It was brown with small white and yellow daisies all over. I turned off the lamp next to me that stood on a small round side table with one drawer that still contained reading glasses, a pen, foot cream and ointment for sore muscles. The moonlight was peering through the east window. Her white hazy light cast a soft glow toward the wood floor brushing across a few books on it’s way. She was loyal to me still; the moon. I was assured by her presence that Gramma may be her commander in the sky.
I leaned back, closed my eyes, and listened to the breeze whispering through the screen of the dining room window. I thought of Gramma and me staying up late playing Scrabble while the phonograph played our favorite tunes; Gramma sipping mint tea. Suddenly my moment was jolted by the thump of a book hitting the wood floor. I looked into the darkness, my eyes slowly adjusting to the faint moonlight while my heart resumed it’s resting rate. The shadows revealed the slightest edge of a small book. I got up and walked over never taking my eyes off the book. I looked down and noticed it had fallen from one of the highest shelves.
The wind picked up and shifted directions. I don’t remember hearing on the radio anything about a front moving in but up here the weather is about as unpredictable as one of my students during lunch. A cool rush of air swept past me when I noticed the book was open and pages began to flip. I bent down and grabbed the book turning it over to read the cover. It was a hardcover, old, possibly from a library that closed down in town decades ago. The title of the book was “Flowers For Summer.” I turned the book back over as it was opened to the chapter on daffodils. The left facing page was a photograph of a field of yellow: daffodils of many shapes and sizes surrounded by lush green grass. The right facing page was text. I skimmed through the paragraphs that gave fertilizing and watering tips including the amount of sunlight needed and when to trim. It was obvious this book had been held and opened to this page many times. But Gramma knew all this stuff. She hadn’t needed to refer to this book in many years.
I closed the book and laid it down on the side table next to the recliner. The wind continued to bring the crisp cool air inside and remove the musty odors of my shoes and curtains that needed washing. The whistling resumed this time from all three open windows. I felt like I was surrounded by a chorus of flutes. Now all I needed were my friendly voices. I wondered if they had finally given up after so many years of not reacting to them. The wind died down and the whistling stopped. I was alone again.
I walked upstairs to Gramma’s bedroom passing both guest rooms. When I entered, the window on the east wall just over the desk was cracked. The room was cold. The cool air from downstairs had rushed through and sucked out any warmth that normally settled upstairs after dusk. I closed the window and looked at the typewriter. The paper was still there. I felt tired finally; it must’ve been well after 4:00 AM. I went into my room; the guest room closest to the stairs and bathroom. I plopped down on top of the bedspread and stared at the ceiling for a few seconds before I felt the weight of my eyelids blink a few times then close.
Falling, falling, falling leaves. Why are their colors the brightest before death? There is snow. It gently fills the space between leaves. Both; a race in slow motion. Each snowflake a fingerprint; as each leaf a mark of death. My eyes should be burning from the cold wind rippling. Snowflakes whirl into a funnel cloud as leaves join the dance. I’m standing in something but cannot tell what it is. I bend over to touch but cannot quite reach. I dare not move in fear of harming what surrounds me. The leaves scatter clearing my vision. The wind of snowflakes fall like a blanket of shiny crystals all over a field of yellow. Daffodils. Suddenly the sky is clear and all that’s left is this endless field of beautiful flowers. The sunlight reflects off each tiny peculiar ice sculpture that has delicately landed on daffodil pedals.
I woke up around 10:00 AM. I sat up in bed and noticed the sunlight shining down the hallway. It was cold. A front had moved in this morning. I got up barefooted and walked out of my room; wobbling with sleepy still in my eyes. The wood floor was cold but I felt the warmth of sun rays coming from Gramma’s room. I walked towards the room squinting taking small deliberate steps. With every step the floor grew warmer and the sunlight coming through gramma’s window brighter. My eyes adjusted rather quickly. The particles of light were in consonance carrying an obedient dust pattern that floated in circular patterns. When I approached the open door Gramma’s room was cast in a myriad of yellow and gold hues. The sunlight poured in through the east window. Why had he returned? He was supposed to be moving farther away. I was curious to see if I had sleepwalked as I approached the desk. Suddenly everything stopped; the dust and light particles frozen in a space. Silence engulfed the room removing any unwanted creaking sounds from the wind; no voices. I was held by the moment without the need to take a breath. I couldn’t move anything but my eyes. I felt the warm sunlight wrap around me like a blanket. I was cocooned and it felt safe. I felt loved by the sun again.
Then the sunlight unwrapped me instantly into a cold lonely room. The light no longer shone through the window; the sun began it’s quest for it’s daily rise over the house. I began to cry. I wanted Gramma here with me. I needed her arms to be open again while standing in her daffodil garden. I needed to see her smile welcoming my embrace. I wiped my eyes and pulled out the paper from the typewriter. W, E, Y, O, and L. Yellow! I dropped the paper and ran out of room down the stairs.
I approached the kitchen window and expected to see a garden of yellow. But there was nothing but death left over from last years daffodil’s; Gramma’s last garden. Red, orange, gold and brown leaves covered the ground. This time last year Gramma and I were raking the leaves before my drive back to the city. This year I’d have to do it without her. I realized I only had this afternoon left to clean, pack and check the security of the house before leaving tomorrow morning.
I walked into the family room and noticed the garden book on the side table was open to the same page in which it had fallen from the shelf. I picked up the book and sat down in the recliner. “And the daffodils look lovely today eh eh, hey, look lovely today, look lovely, look lovely...” I sang this line over and over as tear drops fell to the page. “I miss you Gramma so much.”
My memory fell into last summer recalling Gramma’s decline. She became fatigued easily and no longer had the energy to stand for long periods. I picked the fruit from the trees but she still insisted on going to the market. She didn’t cook as much that summer but I didn’t mind cereal for breakfast and sandwiches for lunch and dinner. No matter how Gramma felt she was still in her daffodil garden every morning. She sat on a short stool focussing what little energy she had left maintaining her yellow beauty. She never talked of dying or seeing Grampa again and she never complained. We treated each other as if nothing had changed. Despite my concern I knew not to ask Gramma how she was feeling. Leaving that autumn filled me with despair knowing my return for Christmas may be to an empty house. “Daffodil Lament” screamed through my car, windows up, while I wept loudly under it’s requiem half of the song.
Gramma had requested a simple service with family and close friends. Her Will requested a Wake at the church for friends and acquaintances to pay their respects. Her funeral setting, however, was more intimate. Gramma had asked the family to invite a list of six close friends and have a potluck dinner set up next to her daffodil garden. She wanted my brother and me to play “The Parting Glass” and an old neighbor on the acreage just north to play his Irish bagpipes.
The bagpipes played before dinner after a prayer. I choked down the tears while my mother wept instead. Gramma’s garden never looked more beautiful than that day. We ate and drank and talked about all of Gramma’s idiosyncrasies and travels around the world passing around her photo albums. We cried and laughed and sang bringing Gramma back to life through an endless chain of memories. I felt she was safe with Grampa again and smiling down on all of us.
Morning came quickly. It was nice to rise to a clean house. My suitcase stood at attention next to the dresser. I got up, brushed my teeth and went downstairs to make some coffee. More leaves had fallen where I had raked and I’m sure there were more to come. I drank my coffee without a smoke. I had finished my last one yesterday. I could pick up a pack at the gas station before getting on the interstate. I had to fill my tank anyway. A basket of pears and apples sat next to me on the front porch. The air was crisp and cool. I heard a few crows cawing to each other; skittishly keeping their distance. I hated how shy they were considering their intellect. Gramma loved the crows and bought corn to feed them. This was something I should start doing again, for Gramma, for the crows, for me.
I looked around the yard, took my last sip of coffee and went back inside to gather my things. I walked upstairs and put a new piece of paper in the typewriter. “I await your message, Gramma. I love you.” I grabbed my suitcase and Macbook, walked downstairs then double checked all the windows and doors. I looked around the family room and stopped at Gramma’s recliner. I noticed my purse and keys lay on the yellow bench and headed for the door. I locked up and got in my car hesitating to start the engine. I felt like I had forgotten something. I blew it off, turned on some Cranberries and drove down the driveway. Then it hit me. I figured out what I forgot.
Spring has come finally. Winter seemed so brutal this year. Not a lot of snow but extremely cold and long. It’s been a few years since I’ve made the drive up north. I’ve spent the last couple of summers traveling and meeting some of Gramma’s overseas acquaintances. She had kept in touch with a young couple in Salemo and a woman in Montpellier. I traveled though France, Switzerland, Italy, Croatia and much of Eastern Europe last summer and completed a novel along the way. The summer before I spent most of my time on a salmon fishing boat outside Alaska snapping photos of intoxicating sunsets and playful humpback whales.
I have students again. I began teaching at a public school here in Albany; tenth grade Literature. I like it thus far though after a few years off it’s been an adjustment. The students seemed bored at the beginning of the school year but that changed rather quickly with a little enthusiasm from this teacher. I had my students work in groups of four the entire year. Each group focussed on a personal interest and combined their ideas in writing poetry, plays, short stories or memoirs. Classic works became easier to read and understand once their minds were open to other’s through discussion, introspection and originality. I think I learned more from my students than they did from me! It was a successful year.
I’ve made a few teacher friends at the high school. We’ve gone out for coffee a bunch of times and happy hours downtown. I’ve even had a couple dates but nothing worth writing about. I’m eating a little healthier and jogging in the evenings. Grampa would be happy to know I’ve learned to fix some of his favorite southern recipes. I don’t hear voices anymore. They stopped that last night at Gramma’s house. I suppose the medication I’m taking has helped but mostly it reduces anxiety so I can sleep. I was seeing a therapist for a while. He helped me quick smoking cigarettes through hypnosis; more like subtle suggestion really but so far it’s still working.
I’m heading home to pack my suitcase. School is out and it’s time to get out of this town. I’m not bringing my Macbook on this trip. I feel inspired to write on a typewriter and stories are lined up in my head like a crowded line at a carnival. Gramma’s “Flowers For Summer” book has been with me and I’m ready to dig my hands in the soil. I’m looking forward to a beautiful summer, writing, picking and selling fruit, going through Gramma’s photo albums and taking new photos of the yellow garden I intend to cultivate; my Gramma’s daffodils.
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