Our stories became intertwined…(Goddess Grove Ch. 1)
Everyone faces death, some earlier than others. I had already looked into its eyes, stared it down, and dealt with its aftertaste every day since I was seven. No one ever expects their father to die, but everyone knows it could happen. What they never tell you, what the frowns on the nuns’ faces and the pathetic pats from the school principal never tell you, is why. Sure, there are the doctors’ reports, the talk of pneumonia, the charts and graphs. But no one ever explains why some little girls grow up with a daddy and others don’t.
So it shouldn’t have surprised me that day, as I swayed my Irish hips to Spanish guitar– with Italian wine no less– that I found Grandma’s poem. Losing my dad so young, knowing my grandfather only through pictures and Grandma’s eroding memories, I should have expected that people would look for solace. Except Grandma’s poem was a solution more than a comfort. A panacea for death. That was what she needed, what we all needed.
And yet it still startled me to see Grandma, after all these years, after so many widowed decades, still wrestling with the divine, still hoping to manipulate fate. So our stories became intertwined, mine and Grandma’s. They coiled together that morning in my kitchen, interweaving like the fibers of a flower basket.
This shared histoire began many years before that, only I didn’t know it at the time. For me, the pieces only began to entangle that morning in my kitchen. Dancing to Gypsy Kings was something young co-ed Muira would have done, back when other Modern Language majors were around to help me laugh at myself. But there I was, alone in the kitchen during my lunch break, alone for the first time in days, with no one around to judge post-pregnancy weight. I could pretend it wasn’t a decade later, that I wasn’t living in the suburbs, that Wes hadn’t served me the divorce papers in their crisp, unwrinkled envelope. How quaint, I thought. How sophisticated.
Those solitary lunches allowed me to close my eyes and recall the days I traveled through Europe. I could pretend I was still at Temple, drinking my way through four years of language study.
It was then, lost in my memories while clumsily dancing my crumbs into the garbage, that I knocked over Grandma’s photo. Where the photo came from had slipped my mind. In a house with two young daughters, the walls had become permeable, a place where food and furniture, backpacks and people all slipped in and out without notice. Only I did notice. I noticed my girls being gone. Even the liquid walls seemed to ache for their laughter.
A tiny slip of paper flew out as the frame fell; it drifted like you’d imagine a feather falling, slowly and purposefully even though it tried to appear arbitrary. I watched, a bit too detached, as it settled on my knee-high riding boot. The sales clerk said they accentuated my legs, not that anyone ever noticed any more. About to toss it with my lunch remains, as moms do, I caught some handwriting on the thin vellum.
The mourning shall cease
When the blue of truth strikes Central Square,
And the four shades of green he will pare,
When in Goddess Grove the yellow grows,
The crone laughs, and the maiden glows.
An icy breeze flew in the window, nearly knocking the sheet out of my hand. Of course a Pennsylvania winter was the best time to leave the window over the sink open all morning. The words were clearly in Grandma’s slanted, elegant handwriting, but she was far more likely to have a Guinness in her hand than a poem. I would have to ask her about this next time I took the kids to visit her. At least, these were the thoughts running through my mind that afternoon, before I ever thought to connect the words to death, or to any one particular death.
The antique German cuckoo clock clanged, knocking and kicking as if fighting for its last breath. My lunch break was over, and crap, I would be late getting back to the store. Aviva would be there already, throwing her overachieving in my face. I supposed it was easy to work hard when you’re a college student, when you don’t have an ex and kids to think about on top of everything. But God love her, she was a great help.
The paper ended up back on the table, weighted down with my moon-in-the-glass paperweight. The little poem might have been something she’d want back, if she even remembered it. The doctors, their white coats keeping them a safe distance from our humanity, had told us that her long-term memory was better than her short-term. As if her where am I’s weren’t clue enough. It all depended on how long ago she wrote it.
This I pondered as I closed up the window, the previous night’s sprinkling of snow still lingering on the ledge. I realized that I could relax my eyes enough so that everything went fuzzy, and that I might even prefer it that way: fuzzy, warped. The snow distorted things, made them appear cleaner than they really were. It seemed only fitting to distort them further. Reluctantly, I dragged myself out the door, wondering where we ever decide to draw those lines between distortions and realities. I was guessing it had something to do with childhood ending.
The house’s old wooden door locked more easily than usual this time. Blurry. Clear. Blurry. Clear. I could have stared at the door for a while longer, imagining its knocker crumbling into powder. Ashes to ashes. I pulled myself away, calling Aviva to let her know that I’d be late getting back.
The heat and defrost came on slowly, chugging a bit of life into the Escape. Certainly I knew the difference between animate and inanimate, that even hybrid vehicles couldn’t have life. But after driving the same vehicle day after day, year after year, it began to feel like an appendage. I was anthropomorphizing again, wondering what pain the wheels must feel, rolling on the icy roads.
Pandora’s World Beat station helped the loneliness of an empty back seat recede. Who was this anyway, Ivy? “Sha-la-la-la-la-la-la. We can have shins again.” It was the singing along that mattered, not the actual lyrics.
Tapping my fingers to the beat, I wondered if Grandma would want a visitor. Grandma. Muira. My namesake. She had been the only fun in a dreary youth, the only person honest enough with me to tell me that things get better after childhood. Her dark nylons, a definite three shades darker than her true skin tone, never stopped her from walking me to the carnival, or the park, or whatever else she could squeeze into her one-day visits. I cringed at the image of her in a nursing home, wasting away her last few years and not remembering most of it.
Visualizing my week’s calendar block-by-block while driving-slash-humming, I wondered which day I would be able to steal away to visit her. Because that’s how we measured time: by the day planner, by the squares and lines. Time marched forward. Anything in the past got flipped over to a forgotten page. The kids usually accompanied me, but they would be with their dad this weekend. Maybe Sunday. Small towns forgot their own existence on Sundays, I had learned. A flower shop could close up completely and no one knew the difference.
Yet, this is where I had chosen to live, this place where we were to get a fresh start. Country kindness close to the city, the sign had greeted us our first time to Dobron.
“We’ll be close to your Dad here. Plus the flower shop downtown will be next to a park. You’ll see. It’ll be lovely.” I was convincing Shannon and Meghan as much as myself then.
“But Mommy, it’s so sad.” Indeed.
It was too generous a word for such a dismal town, or maybe the best approximation from my little Shannon, knower-of-all-things-at-only-five. After I bought the flower shop, there in my mom khakis, the townspeople began showing their true colors. Not snobbish. Not pretentious. Just, what, melancholy?
And how was one to make friends when no one smiles or makes eye contact? Meeting my next bosom friend– yes, thank you, Anne of Green Gables– went to the back burner as I sorted through other priorities. Kids. Business. Divorce settlement. Did other moms have this trouble making friends, or was it just that I was a city mom adjusting to suburban life?
Kids adjust better to these things. Of course they didn’t want to move away from their friends and schools, and of course they didn’t want to live in a separate house from their dad. But they didn’t spend Friday nights curled around a bottle of Pinot or crying into a stained pillowcase.
Dobron Avenue was quiet, so much so that I wondered if my singing and shoulder dancing– to who now, Lily Allen?– might draw out some sneers from the neighbors. Glancing into living room windows to make sure no one saw my faux-sexy shoulder shakes, I was distracted from my new route. College Avenue split off and turned north, but that was several off-key lines ago. It was the best route for getting to work, also the longest, Aviva had pointed out to me.
There was nothing inherently wrong with Dobron Avenue, with its twists that pull you under hundred-year-old trees. There was nothing, except for the aches I received on the 400 block. The cruel, abandoned house was camouflaged behind a shrub-lined drive, a pain-inflicting two-story that the townspeople claimed was haunted, the townspeople that would muster the strength to talk to me anyway. I wasn’t about to start believing in ghosts, but I believed in the house’s taunts, the windows that snapped their shutters at me laughingly. Ghost or not, the pangs ran up my spine, contorted my shoulders and somehow became Mexican jumping beans, shooting over to my wrists.
The Escape neared the 400 block, trying to slow down even as I pumped the accelerator. The horse in my horsepower sensed danger, neighed in fear.
I punched off the music. “Shut up Lily Allen.”
Determined not to look over at it, my eyes nonetheless were always drawn to the old house. I gripped the wheel at ten and two, the same way old ladies do every time they go through an intersection. Sure enough, the pains shot up my spine, then on cue came the wrist aches. The aging Victorian sat triumphantly, laughing at me with its snickering chimney and cackling rose shutters. There was probably a history behind this house– maybe recorded in Dobron’s historic register or something– but I don’t think anyone would miss it. It would be a great spot for a community garden, after I was cleared of all arson charges of course.
I could see the headline already: Florist mom burns down abandoned house, forgets her wallet on site. The laughing at myself helped to calm the wrist aches.
Somehow my vehicle ended up at the flower shop, two rigid hands still clutching at ten and two. Pulling into my recently-plowed parking spot– and inspecting the mounds of gray snow that just minutes ago were pure and white– I saw that Aviva had taken out the trash and watered our window planters as I had asked. When she works so hard, then goes to her chemistry or whatever classes, what kept her so energetic? Man, I feel old… and need a nap.
“Brennan Blossoms. How may I help you?” Aviva was far more responsible than I remembered being at that age. Was I the only person who was so immature at twenty?
The back room welcomed me as my thrift store purse fell onto the bench’s peeling green paint. Something about that lawn green color seemed appropriate for a flower shop at the time, before it disgusted me months later.
Perhaps the back room beckoned me because of the mountain laurel and pale lavender orchid order wanting to be finished. The arrangement seemed to come together effortlessly, the delicate orchids in the center and laurel stems around the perimeter, as if the flowers knew exactly how I wanted them to lay. Their delicacy could distract me even from crappy green paint.
The back room felt especially cozy today, more living room than work space. I would need cozy, knowing I wouldn’t see the girls for a full three-day weekend, all so that Meghan and Shannon could “spend time with their other mom.” Never mind that it was Meghan’s third birthday, her first one away from me.
“You won’t believe this,” Aviva laughed as she entered the room. Her slender frame could slip in and out with ease, like air. An etheric human floated in. “One of the professors at the college just called in an order. She wants twelve dozen yellow and white flowers, of any kind, and a dozen candles.”
“That’s not so weird.”
“No, but she wants it all tonight.”
I glanced at the clock. 1:35.
“And she wants it delivered by 4:30 at the latest.” Aviva paused for a response, a zephyr becoming stationary. “What should I tell her?”
“We’ll try our best. Tell her we’ll have to charge double the normal delivery fee.”
Aviva’s breeze left the room as softly as it had floated in. It was partly jealousy, this observation I made; it was a recognition that she never faced the awkward bumping and faltering of being an overweight mom. Seeing she had gone to call back the professor, I wondered how exhausted I would feel after a big order tonight. Would it be a Riesling or a chamomile night?
The blue stone stared back up at me from the floor, a cobalt circle pretending not to be an intruder. It had the audacity to outshine the bench’s fading color, though that actually made me like it more. I found my eyes shifting between my purse on the bench and back down to the stone several times, as if there was a puzzle to solve, as if the stone was a message. But there it sat, just inches from my foot, engaging me in a staring contest.
Aviva popped her head around the corner. “Everything okay, Ms. Brennan?” Her professional tone never ended, even when it was just the two of us in the back room, both staring dumbly at a stone.
“Oh, yeah, fine. This stone just fell out of my purse. It’s not yours, is it?”
“Well no, I’ve never seen it.” Aviva’s dainty fingers, manicured and simple in their beauty, picked up the stone as she examined it. “Is it lapiz lazuli?”
I never noticed before how golden her eyes were, those intense orbs of amber with secrets locked inside. As she leaned in to inspect it further, the entire room silenced in anticipation, the mocha brown walls leaning in closer for a listen. Did everyone suddenly have an obsession with this particular stone?
Aviva kneeled in proposal stance, stone in hand, and the gem’s brilliant dark blue contrasted with its gold specks.
“It looks like it. You’ve heard of lapiz lazuli?” I was mesmerized, completely distracted from the flower order sitting beside me.
“Yeah, my grandpa gave me a lapiz lazuli ring once. It was my grandma’s.”
“So it’s native to Iran?”
“Not sure. My grandma was Jewish and lived for many years in Iraq. There was a legend…” Her voice trailed off just as she stood, staring deeply into the stone. The legend slipped away from her like desert sands. The stone’s hue entranced her. “Such a deep blue, so anchored to the past…”
She shook her head twice, blinked once, and looked up at me. The hand holding the lapiz lazuli slowly ascended to offer it back.
“Your grandma was Jewish?”
“Yeah, but totally Iranian. Our family doesn’t do anything Jewish. Just my name, Aviva, is Jewish I guess. It means spring.”
My frown persisted as I tossed the stone back into my purse, that perpetual frown that began the day I moved out of Wes’s house. It was another mystery I could deal with later. The same soreness from the abandoned house drifted through my shoulders, many centenarian tree-lined blocks from the Dobron Avenue house.
“Aviva, have you ever been by that old abandoned house on Dobron Avenue?” The orchid order rounded out naturally, the lavender hued ribbon slipping itself around the vase to accent the color of the orchids. How quaint. How sophisticated.
“Oh, of course. All of my friends talk about it. I guess last Halloween some students went over there, daring each other to go inside.”
“And did they?” My wrists throbbed once more, just at the mention of the bastard house. “I wouldn’t go in if someone paid me.”
“Well, I wasn’t there.” Aviva leaned in closer, as if anyone would overhear us alone in the flower shop. “But I hear that a girl got in, went down into the basement, and heard a ghost. I guess she ran out screaming.” The smile as she talked revealed her near-perfect teeth, aligning orderly like the soldiers they were. They were either genetic or she had an excellent orthodontist as a child.
“I just get a bad feeling every time I drive by there. I might start taking the long way to work, you know, to avoid it.” Lose weight. Drink less. Take new route to work.
The front door opened, ending all ghost talk. I walked casually up front, appearing not too eager for business. I was good at faking these things, so it seemed.
“I’ll be back in an hour to help fill the order,” Aviva mentioned with coat in hand. “I can help deliver it also, if you want. I would need to leave right after that though.”
“Oh, that would be great.”
Aviva locked the back door on her way out, gliding through the doorway in a single, graceful move. It was the act of locking the door and stepping through it all in the same movement that impressed me.
“Can I help you with anything?” The same line. The same dour customer mumbling a response.
The man shuffled, his hands sliding into denim pockets for safety. What was I going to do, steal his hands?
“Are you here for a Valentine’s gift?”
“No, that’s–” he mumbled, looking slowly off into the distance. “It’s for a funeral.”
* to be continued…