Orchids

Wendy dropped her boy off at the airport on a Friday morning. He had an early flight out to Fort Benning and basic training. She went home and did not cry. She attended his orchids instead.

Ten weeks later, her boy came home a man, handsome in his uniform, quieter, more serious in his manner. There were hugs and a cup of coffee, then he was off to his orchids in the greenhouse he had built three years earlier. At the end of his two-week leave, Roy gave her some new instructions for the orchids. He gave her a hug and that big grin of his. Then he was off for Fort Hood and his unit.

There he phoned or emailed about once a week. The emails usually contained several snaps, Roy and friends, Roy with a new girl he had met in the town, Roy driving a jeep. Always he had that grin of his. He went on about this new buddy or that one, and always he asked how are the orchids doing. “They’re fine,” she would say, holding back her tears. The news was that his unit would be going to Iraq. He wasn’t sure when. After each call or email, she went out and tended his orchids.

Two weeks went by with only a couple of emails, then he skyped her. He was in Fallujah, he said. “Fallujah?” Fear was in her voice. “That’s in Iraq,” he said. “And I’m fine. I’m with my buds. We watch out for each other. How’s my orchids?” “They’re good,” she returned, holding her fears inside. Each time he would call the flowers by their names. She could never remember the names. All she knew was that the orchids were fine.

Her son’s body arrived at the funeral home on Tuesday. From Tuesday till Saturday, she could not stop her crying. She would stop for fifteen minutes, then tears were back like water breaking through a levee. The funeral was Saturday. The rifles for the salute to her son gave her a headache. Then the words the soldier spoke to her she couldn’t remember, and the flag laid in her arms, instead of the son she had once held.

Wendy walked back to the car between her married daughter and her ex-husband. Ed had flown in from Los Angeles. He seemed to be holding himself together, but she knew how hard he was taking his son’s death. When they got home, there was food and people. She wasn’t ready for all that. “Mom, why don’t you go upstairs and get some rest?” her daughter suggested.

“I’m going out to the greenhouse,” Wendy said. Alice shook her head, understanding.

She opened the greenhouse, turned the fogger on, then slipped on her gloves. In her mind, she went through the names he had given her for the orchids. Somehow she had remembered what she had forgotten before. Then through the mist, she heard Roy’s voice. “I’m okay, Mom,” it said. “I love you. And thank you for taking care of my orchids.” Then it was gone. She picked up one of the orchids, cut the flower off at the stem, and tenderly set it in the basket. When she finished the cuttings, she would have enough orchids for her daughter, her ex and Roy’s closest friends.

Mother of the World

Today being Mother’s Day and I’d like to celebrate it with this story.

It was over. The long night of his mother’s illness. The days upon days upon days of her suffering. She was gone. Only what was left of her empty shell of a body lay under the covers on the bed. All her life she kept her faith. Her last moments were no different. She whispered the word “Jesus”, then she gave up her ghost. Finally she was free of the weight of worry and pain and hard work she carried for her fifty-five years.

Soon his three younger brothers and one younger sister would be there to relieve him of his watch, and they would say their goodbyes. Soon the doctor would come to pronounce her dead and sign the death certificate. Soon the coffin maker would come. He would make her body up best he could and box it up and ready it for the cold, hard ground. Soon that tiny body of hers would be covered with the same earth that was to be found under her fingernails.

For the next little while, he was alone with the woman he called Mother for his thirty-eight years. He sat down on the side of the bed and lifted her very small hand. It was not quite cold yet. He started to make an effort to warm it up with his hands, then stopped. It was no use to try.

Nothing could bring back the warmth of those hands she used to cook and knead dough and mend and chop cotton with. Those hands that ran her fingers through his hair ever so gently. Those hands that folded into prayer thousands of times. Those hands that threw holy water onto her teenage boys to get them out of bed and ready for school, calling on the Name of Jesus to cast out any demons that they might have taken up with.

He felt the callouses embedded in that hand thin and gnarly. He laid the hand gently down by her side, then his hand slowly cupped her hairless skull, bald from the chemo that failed to check the cancer surging through her body. He pushed back what he could imagine was once her hair. The hair she’d taken pride in, hair once black and beautiful, its long tresses folded and pinned into a bun with a set of combs, an heirloom passed on to her from her Cherokee mother. The cancer stole that pride of her hair and left her bald.

His gaze lingered over her face, a face that always carried a smile when she saw one of her kids. The mouth never speaking an unkind word for anyone. And now would never speak comfort to him again with her mellifluous voice. He looked at the veins sticking out from her neck, then the body covered with the sheet and the quilt she’d made in the last two years of her life, that tiny body containing a great heart for all she met along her way through life.

Memories of her flooded through his mind, and they were memories of this woman who called none a stranger. They were memories of the times she sat at the kitchen table with a cup of coffee, a cigarette and a listening ear for a neighbor and the burdens the neighbor  carried. Of the times she bartered with her children and negotiated their arguments, so they didn’t end up in knock-down-drag-outs. The nights she sang him to sleep with a lullaby when all he wanted to do was chatter and romp and take on the world with his five-year old bravado. The times she poured castor oil down his throat and rubbed his chest with vapor rub, telling him that there was no sickness they could not heal.

It was hard work to make a good man out of a boy, much less four boys and a girl, doing the raising all by her lonesome the way she did. It was a work that never let up but went on from sunrise to sunset day in and day out and all night too, and she did it with nary a complaint. Rather she applied her love liberally but she never hesitated with the discipline. It was amazing what some holy water and a switch could do to get a kid to tow the line. When all was said and done, there was a hug for her kids and her grandkids, when they were in need of a hug. And they knew that those hugs came from a love that reached deep down all the way to her toes and back again.

Then his mind turned to the men in her life. The tenant-farmer Pa, that Joseph of a man who took care of his two young’uns just like that long-ago man took care of the infant Jesus and his Mama. This man, whom she adored, was a blacksmith and a good provider and everything a Pa should be. But her three husbands, they were no darn good. They weren’t worth the dirt she walked on. Hank, the laziest man in the state; Jock, twenty years her senior who had thrown his anger at her in dozens of ways; Tor, the man who had stolen her savings and left her in such poverty she was forced to beg her children for help.

Tears welled up into his eyes and he buried his face in her body. He cried his grief, all his grief into this dead woman’s body, the body of the woman he called Mother.

He swiped away the tears and stood up and walked over to the window. Outside the sun dropped out of the sky and over the edge of the horizon. Streaks of purple, blue, orange, yellow and red colored the sky. Soon the sky turned blue and it was night. A breeze touched his cheek and it felt like a kiss. Then the woman’s soul slipped through the window to join what once was and what is, the then and the now and the forever. She was now a part of everything and everything was a part of her. He looked up at the stars and thought that he had never seen anything so beautiful before. And maybe he never would again.

Sand Castles

Elsie never knew her father. When Elsie turned five, Terese, her mother, took with a case of wondering fever. She left her daughter with Elsie’s Uncle Peter and Aunt Sophie to live on their farm. Elsie loved the farm.

Elsie loved waking up early in the morning and milking the cows. She loved slopping the hogs, and she loved the sounds they made as they ate. She loved the sleigh rides across the countryside. She loved planting the seeds and watching them grow into food. She loved the coloring of the leaves each autumn. This would have been heaven if her mother had been with her.

Each year on her birthday came a letter from her mother. It wasn’t a letter so much as a journal. Each journal began with “Dear Elsie, my love. I miss you so much.” And each year Elsie became more sure those words were not true. Then the journal shared her mother’s adventures. By her fifteenth birthday, Elsie no longer read the journal when it came.

The journal told of her mother’s sand castle collecting, for Terese called herself a sand castle collector. Not that she made a sand castle and then slipped it into a case. That would have been impossible. She made the sand castle on some faraway beach. Each time she went to the beach, gathered sand, buckets of it, and carried thm to a point the high tide wouldn’t reach. As she built the castle, she filmed it, then, like a Tibetan Buddhist monk, destroyed it.

For Terese, it was the pleasure of the process of building what she called her “sand castles”. At Brighton Beach, it was Buckingham Palace. On the Makena Beach, it was the house of King Kamehameha. On the Rhine, it was Bavarian King Ludwig’s castle. At Sochi, it was the Tsar’s Winter Palace. On the beach at Sanya, she made a copy of the Forbidden City. She’d even gone to the sand dunes of the Sahara. There she built a great pyramid ten feet high. The winds had wiped it out.

But it was her latest that was her masterpiece. At Valras-Plage, she built a miniature Versailles. Pictures of it were in all the French papers. When she destroyed it, there were several thousand people on the beach watching. Television cameras broadcast it all over France. So sad was it for the French the President of France declared a national day of mourning. That was three days before Elsie’s sixteenth birthday.

On her sixteenth birthday, a journal did not arrive for Elsie. The mailman did not bring it. It did not come by FedEx. It did not come by UPS.

Shortly after the evening meal, a car drove up to the farmhouse. A tall, thin woman got out of the taxi. The driver set her two suitcases on the ground. She paid the driver, and he went away.

Aunt Sophie opened the front door to welcome her sister. She called to Elsie, “Your mother has come. Your mother has come.”

For all those years, Elsie had dreamed of this day. Until now. The disappointment weighed down on her, and she was in no mood for her missing mother. She walked upstairs, closed her bedroom door, and went to her bed.

For three days, Elsie lay in bed, only allowing her aunt to enter her bedroom. She developed a fever. The doctor came. He shook his head and told Terese, Peter and Sophie the bad news. “She is dying.”

“Is there nothing we can do?”

“I’m afraid not.”

After the doctor left, Terese looked at her sister and said, “What have I done?”

Peter said, “You’ve done what you’ve done.” There was no malice in his voice, just tears. “Now you must do what you must do.”

“And what is that?” Sophie asked.

“God knows but I sure do not.”

Terese stood up. “I have to go up there and save my child.” Then she marched slowly up the stairs.

She knocked at the bedroom door. “Elsie, this is your mother. I am coming in.”
From inside the room came a weak voice. “Go ‘way.”

Terese opened the door. Her daughter lay in bed, her hair spread out on her pillow, her face pale as death.

Terese turned and left the room and went down to the kitchen. She made her mother’s chicken soup. Like her mother, she put in a little of this and a little of that and a little of the other. But the key ingredient was her love.

Several hours later, she walked a bowl of the soup up to her daughter’s bedroom. She sat down beside her daughter and forced the first spoonful of soup into her mouth. Elsie resisted, then swallowed. Terese gave her a second spoonful, and she sang a lullaby to her daughter. Then a third and she told her daughter of the beaches where she had built sand castles. As she told her stories, Elsie felt a little better.

Several days later, Elsie was almost recovered. Terese and Elsie sat out on the back lawn of the farmhouse.

“Why did you destroy those sand castles?” Elsie asked.

“They weren’t you,” Terese answered.

Elsie gave her a curious look. “They weren’t me?”

“You see,” Terese said, “I had to build those sand castles. I had no choice. Something inside me told me they were not enough. You were the real castle I had given birth to.

And you were so permanent.”

“So why did you not come back?”

“I couldn’t. I didn’t deserve you. When you were born, I knew that. When I left you with your aunt and uncle, I knew that. Building those castles was my way of coming to understand that a mother doesn’t earn a child. A child is a gift. Versailles taught me that.”

Elsie reached over from her chair and squeezed her mother’s hand.

“And you know what? I would sit on the beach, looking out at the sea. As I watched the sun set over the sandcastle, the colors were unbelievable. And the wonder of it all was your face written in those colors. The wonder of it all.”

micropoem for the day: the moon

The moon can  be a sleeping beauty. The moon can be a spectacular princess. She can be a warm mother. She can be a cold hearted mistress. Robert Heinlein wrote a novel called “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress”. Some see her with a Man piloting her path across the nightly heavens. The ancients saw her as a goddess. Modern man has seen her as a destination. She is so near. Yet so far. No matter how we see her she is always a constant.

the moon wans
shedding her lunar coat
then a waxing moon