Getting married, you gain a whole new set of parents. Toss in a few divorces—Hemingway had one for each big novel—and by age fifty there’s a dozen moms and dads in your stash of ancestor trading cards. That’s twenty-four grandparents—two platoons, half a company, one sixteenth of a regiment—making a big splash on anyone’s Normandy.
Last week I spent two days visiting my mother—the one I started with—to help with a spring clean-up about four months overdue. I packed a few metaphors like a pitchfork and a machete to bolster the effect. Tanned oak mulch mounded the bed of my pickup. On top of this was a two-wheeled cart. A determined bug-eyed look and a chin full of sweet woodruff made it seem as if my face were a bumper sticker: flowers are forever and make honey not war.
The real reason for my coming was that her mother—my grandmother Joan—had died. I wanted to make sure mom was doing OK. My mother had been planning on becoming an orphan for a few years now. She had already made arrangements with disability charities for the walker and the wheelchair and the “hospital” bed.
“Damn,” I said. “I wanted that.” The souped-up recliner had more levers than a Major Jackson love poem. It was like an easy chair on steroids. Everything we had at home was meant to be admired, not actually sat upon. I liked our house OK, but unless I were eating supper I mostly just stood around waiting for bedtime.
So it was just a few details: a strategy session with the lawyer to keep my grandmother’s medically dwindled estate out of the hands of relative gamblers like myself and others, and what to do with my grandmother’s ashes until they could join her husband at Arlington National Cemetery. With combat veterans still returning in boxes from two wars, there would be a six month delay in getting our hole dug.
My mother’s garden of good and evil definitely needed a rake job. Her passion had been hydrangeas, while my dad’s passion was lower to the ground: daffodils, day lilies, and the odd crocus. I could see where the two had been fighting the last fifteen years of their marriage. He liked to plant soldiers in a row, and preferred brick curbs to natural edging. She was the insurgent, footing an oak leaf hydrangea a little too close to his smoldering fig.
“I planted 21 varieties of hydrangeas,” my mother said. “He pulled up a few, not knowing what he was doing, but when he did I told him that tree cost $800. He was such a miser, it was my way of making him suffer.”
Checking up on mom is not for the faint of heart. That day, I hand-sawed dead rose-of-Sharon branches, sheared perennials, pulled weeds like a goat. Heading out for dinner in my mother’s car I glanced at the back seat and saw my grandmother. The cremation parlor hadn’t gone digital. Her name was typed on a box label. “Don’t you think we should fasten her seat belt or something?” I asked.
At Fat Tuna’s restaurant I ate baked fish and she ate chicken, breaded with pistachios, fried, with a cream sauce on top. We’d made a special truce. I promised not to talk about her weight and she agreed not to talk about my drinking. The Guinness was more of a digestive aid anyhow. Some trainers gave it to their racehorses. I asked if she wanted to go in on one. I was sure it wouldn’t lose.
“When are you going to learn that a passbook savings account never broke a leg?”
Well, it was worth a shot. In the morning I surveyed yesterday’s sweat. Extremes are so extreme. Good? Evil? No, thank you. Hers had become the garden of the halfway decent and the not so bad. The soldiers were still in place alongside the rebel hydrangeas, but everyone seemed to be getting along. It was pretty, and complicated, the way things are meant to be.
I asked my mother about my grandmother’s final moments. My mother had been with her for twelve hours through the night, reading and re-reading an edition of the New York Times. Maybe it made her feel international. Coming from the San Saba River country in central Texas where the houses still don’t have numbers didn’t mean you couldn’t be part of the larger question—the question was big enough for all of us.
My grandmother had made a muffled noise. My mother pushed her breathing mask aside. “Anything good in the paper?” she’d asked. And then she was gone.