Peace Garden Memorial Park, Noon
The picture Trish had found the night before bothered her. It was of her mother, young… so young and in a wedding dress with a man she had never seen before. That, and what she had read in the diary the picture had been tucked away in, hinted her mother’s life—her past—had not been as she, her sister and brother believed to be.
Not a cloud in the sky or even a wisp of wind, she broiled inside her black dress under a blistering, early August sun. Thankfully, the dark fabric didn’t show the perspiration pooled under her arms and trickled down the back of her neck. A steady stream between the shoulders made the dress cling damply to her skin. She squinted through tears and sweat at the casket. She hurt. God, how she hurt inside at all the things unsaid… all the things not done. Minutes later, the kind but anonymous pastor had finished speaking, but she couldn’t move. Others stepped around her, and after a moment, Trish followed them. As she leaned to place a single orchid, her mother’s favorite flower, among the roses on the casket, she saw the drying splatter on its surface from those before her. Tears and sweat.
* * *
Her Mother’s House (Home), Afternoon
Trish peeled off her soaked dress and changed into jeans and an old T-shirt. Stephanie had stayed to settle things with the funeral director and get the sign-in for all who attended the service. Tom had gone to pick up something for dinner. She had volunteered to start the unpleasant work of going through her mother’s things more thoroughly. She opened the night table drawer and took out the diary and photo she had found that morning and not had time to study.
* * *
She had read through most of the afternoon, ignoring Stephanie and Tom when they returned, each wrapped in their own thoughts and memories. It was near evening when Trish went to the dining room to find them.
“I had no idea mom kept a diary…” she held it in one hand, marking her place with a finger, “did you?”
Stephanie had her lawyerly, yet chic, reading glasses on and was going over the service’s guest log matching to their mother’s address book. “No, I didn’t,” she looked up, pushed her Kate Spade Catalina’s higher on the bridge of her nose, and back down at her yellow legal pad.
Tom came out of the kitchen, their mother’s domain for years of pies, cakes, dinners, and breakfasts. “Nope,” he shook his head as he handed one of the two glasses of sweet tea he held to Stephanie and the other to her. “Mom’s,” he gave them a head nod, “she had a gallon left in the refrigerator.”
“Looks like she kept a journal for years.” Trish sat down and slipped a coaster under her glass; old habits die hard. She could almost hear her mom say: ‘That’s going to leave a ring,’ and she would then zip a coaster at the speed of a hockey player’s slap shot at whoever was about to commit the crime. Trish held up the worn brown leather diary. “And she seemed to like Hemingway’s writing, she mentions him at different times.”
But she would not tell them about one line, where her finger marked, in the diary. She opened it, and re-reading did not lessen how alarming it was: ‘I’m so tired of the pain,’ her mother had written. ‘And I’ve thought about how Hemingway ended his own story. But I can’t do that. That’s not what I want to leave my children as a memory. I won’t let my misery consume me. My weakness won’t help Stephanie, Patricia, and. Yes. I cry. Yes. I hurt. I’ve learned that’s part of life. Let it go. You can set aside the pain and replace with what’s better within reach. If you can only see beyond what’s in front of you and at what’s out there. If you hold on to the pain, you’ll never grasp the good things you can have. Bad seasons pass and roots strengthen. I have to look ahead and not behind me.’ Trish paged back to the date. Her mother had written it over 20 years ago. She realized Steph had been talking to her and closed the diary.
“… always a heap of books in her room, she liked to read.” Stephanie put her pen down. “Okay, the Thank-You mailing list is done, I’ve got all their addresses,” she sighed. “We should each write something to them,” she pulled a stack of stationery to her and reached for the pen.
“Wait,” Trish opened the journal to another place she’d marked with the picture she had found, “I want to read you both something.”
Stephanie sighed again, “Tom, quit playing with your dumplings and sit with us,” she called to him in the kitchen. “You can take a break from screwing up mom’s recipe. Trish needs to tell–”
“To read,” Trish interrupted her.
“To read something to us from a diary she found in mom’s bedroom.”
Tom leaned into the pass-through. “I can cook… I’m not screwing up.”
Stephanie gave him her oldest sister’s commanding finger hook, “Come here and sit down.”
He came around and pulled a chair out as Trish took out the photo and began reading aloud: “I should never have married so soon after high school. I was too young to understand what made a good man and husband, or how to find one that would fit. His—my first husband’s—fault or mine… doesn’t matter.” Trish glanced at her brother and sister, “I didn’t know she married right out of high school.” She passed the wedding picture to Stephanie, who studied it with eyebrows rising over her glasses before she gave to Tom. Trish thumbed past some pages, “She writes about the time—years—lost with whoever that man was before finally divorcing.”
“I didn’t know about him,” Stephanie shook her head, “just about my dad.” She pushed her glasses up, “He died when I was three, in a car crash.”
“Mom writes about surviving it,” Trish continued reading: “I had found love and discovered how it and life are so fragile, both can change in an instant that lasts forever. A memory of the scream of tires and metal, the smell of hot asphalt, and the taste of blood in my mouth. I woke in the hospital, scared and in pain. To learn, I’d lost the man I loved, and our daughter would never truly get to know him.” She glanced at Stephanie who had closed her eyes and lowered her head, then continued: “They sewed me up, set my broken bones and pulled dozens of shards of glass out of me and left behind shattered dreams. The outside of me healed with time. Inside? I don’t know if it ever will.” Trish thumbed through more pages, paused and turned to her sister, “It was hard for her, but she had to be strong for you Steph,” she reached over and patted her arm then turned another page. “Then she met–”
Stephanie straightened. “Yours and Tommy’s dad… our dad.”
“Yeah. He loved her, and she loved him, and that healed her,” Trish turned several more pages. “And things were so much better for her. She writes about that, too,” she tapped the page, “it got bad again when he got so sick… and dad died.” She came to something in the diary and paused for a long moment. Tears pooled in her eyes, and she blinked them away. “She writes this: ‘Why? What’s wrong with me that God’s punishing me so? Why!’ That was just before your 18th birthday, I was 13 and Tommy was 10 years old.”
“Tommy, would you get me some more tea?” Stephanie slid her glass to him.
“Sure,” he glanced at Trish, who shook her head. Back in seconds, he set the tea in front of Stephanie, who didn’t pick it up.
They both turned their eyes on Trish and to the diary in her hand. She took a deep breath and continued, “This is the next-to-last entry: ‘I’ve learned how what we view in our life changes. And how perception means everything. Our view can get dirty, become smudged; life’s wear and tear do that. Sometimes what we see our world through has cracks and seems going to pieces. But as Hemingway said, the world breaks us all, but afterward, some are stronger at the broken places. I want my children to understand this. And—this took me many years and thousands of tears to learn myself—you can still see through a broken window. What’s outside it, the things you want… they’re still there. Life is full of sharp edges. We all end up bleeding at some point. But we can still see the sky… the moon or stars. The air we breathe still comes through that window.’”
Trish paused. A song from a few years ago, Maybe Tomorrow by The Stereophonics played in her head, and one line stuck: ‘Been the upper side of down. Been the inside of out. But we breathe. We breathe.’
“What’s the last?”
Trish snapped free of the song and looked at Tom, “What?”
“What’s the last entry?”
She turned to the last page with writing: “The afternoon rains are here, a typical summer. Today the thunder rumbled, and lightning crackled, so I came in early though I’d rather be outside. It’s lasted through the evening, and the sound of rainfall is soothing. It helps me sleep, and the garden needs it. Each drop is a blessing.”
* * *
As Tommy had said, he could cook, and the chicken and dumplings had been almost as tasty as mom’s. He and Steph were cleaning up. Trish stepped into the backyard under drizzling rain. An older neighborhood, the lot was broad and deep. Over the years, her mother had turned to gardening in a big way, and beds of flowers were arrayed before her. Front and center were her favorites, orchids, she had cut one earlier that morning to take to the service. Next to them, off to the side of the yard with a gravel path leading to it, was the small shed where her mother kept her tools. She opened its door and went inside.
On a shelf, under the dim watery light coming through the old window facing the orchid beds, she found a copy of her mother’s favorite story, The Ballerina in the Garden, she’d read to them as children. It was a story about finding beauty wherever you are. She picked it up, turned the pages, and remembered sitting with her at bedtime, her voice as she slipped into sleep. Setting it down, she touched the window… careful of its cracked glass, feeling the grime and pressed her hand against the pane and felt it give. She realized what her mother had written—the thoughts meant for her children—was correct. That the pain you carry would give way… it would lessen. If you let it. That when life turns bad, it won’t always be as it is at that moment. But only if you can see, even if through broken glass, what you want and not accept your life as it is. Believe the right things in life are there on the other side and reachable. You can’t wipe away the past, but you can cleanse your perspective, repair what’s broken… and find your way. Trish saw light and color just beyond and pushed harder. The dirty, broken glass silently fell away and revealed bands of setting sunlight sweeping across the orchids. Beaded with droplets, they glistened, alive, and growing. She looked up at the sky. The rain was moving out.
# # #
“He looked out of the window to think because without a window, he couldn’t think. Or maybe it was the other way around: When there was a window, he automatically started to think. Then he wrote, ‘When I grow up, I am going to be happy.’” —Guus Kuijer, The Book of Everything