Rooted in the Past
Rooted in the Past
“Dig.” Gram points to a spot at the base of the tree trunk, her finger as gnarled and twisted as the branches above us.
I tuck the trowel under my arm. I can only humor her so much. I took her out to putter in a garden that hasn’t existed for years. I pretended to enjoy the sweet scent of roses when all I inhaled was Gram’s decaying body. I held her arm as we creaked over to the tree where her carved initials still linger. But I can’t bring her to the only man she ever loved, a man who hasn’t been seen in over fifty years. And I can’t dig up a body that isn’t buried.
“Grandpa’s not here. He left a long time ago. Remember?”
Hanks of gray hair slap her cheeks as she shakes her head. “He’s watching us from below. I planted his eyes. Nerve endings creep, creep through the dirt, grip the soil. He’s rooted here, with me.” She licks her chapped lips.
I close my own eyes, hoping strength and patience will be waiting for me in that private darkness, but instead I see the eyes of a man I know only from pictures, from stories. I see his dark pupils in their hazel pools, sliding – back and forth, up and down – within cloudy milk-white orbs. A shudder shakes my bones. I don’t analyze if it’s from cold or sadness. I just let it take me.
I open my eyes as Gram brushes past. She leans against the tree. Her cheek rests on the rough bark, her fingers scrabble over the entwined initials.
“Come away from there, Gram. Come on.” I tug on her shoulder. She twists, hisses and spits at me like a cornered cat.
I step back, my heart too numb to break. Gram’s mind continues to crumble, gray and dry like old tile grout, flaking as if a fingernail scrapes against her memories.
She points again but to a different spot, one near the tree’s upended roots. “Dig.”
“Gram. Grandpa left before Mom was born.”
She looks at me, confusion the only makeup on her face anymore.
“Remember how you’d tell me the story, tell me how strong we Warner women are.” Not a question but an order, a plea.
A flicker in her watery blue eyes.
“You and Grandpa were childhood sweethearts. You fell in love. You gave yourself to him.” I took her sleeve and gently peeled her off the trunk.
“He said we were only children, playing at love, playing at being grownups. I wasn’t playing.” She stamped her foot.
“That’s right, Gram.” Relief ruffles over me like a warm breeze, a foreshadowing of spring, a flashback of the woman I love. “Then what happened?”
She glares at the tree. “He said he didn’t lie. He said he meant all of it. He meant it all THEN. When he carved our initials here, after our first kiss. When he moaned my name and splashed inside me. When he whispered he was mine and I was his forever. But he only meant it THEN.”
“Then you got pregnant, and he got scared and ran away. You were young and not married but you held your head up high. You got a job and had Mom. You took care of everything. You were so strong.” My throat ached with words whose meanings were so old and spoiled, they should be thrown away.
“I don’t know why they all believed me,“ Gram murmurs. “I was never the actor he was. Never the liar.”
Her words tumble over each other like clothes in a dryer. I let them go. I wrap her hand in mine, willing her warmth and strength and sanity, all things I am unable to give.
Her face sags and her voice trembles as she points to yet a third spot. “Dig. Please.”
But before I can answer, she slides to her knees. I fall beside her, the ground hard and unforgiving beneath us.
She keeps her gaze on the soil. “I was so disappointed.”
“I know.” We kneel together, our prayers silent and for very different things.
She looks up at the tree. “I thought he was so strong. But Nature doesn’t lie. The tree shows the truth. See? It leeched the ugliness from him, hunching and bunching and rotten. The worms ate what was left of his soul.”
“Gram, please stop. It’s late. We need to go back.” Pretend roses are one thing, but this world, her world, has turned dark and grim. I can’t leave her wandering around in it.
She scratches at the dirt. I grab at her hands.
“Gram. Stop this. Now. Look at me.”
She raises her face to mine. “He said forever is a long time. I told him that it’s supposed to be a long time. I told him that, right before I killed him.”
I release her hands, only to cup mine in my lap to catch the tears I can’t keep back. I’ve lost her to memories that aren’t even real. My poor Gram.
She turns away and smiles out at a world only she sees. “He said he’d never leave me, but he tried. He said goodbye, but he never left. I made sure of that.” She holds out her hand to me, palm up.
The only thing I can think to do is humor her one last time. I give her the trowel and she begins to dig.
–refers to the lines “ as though / the last of hope has faded, with just/
hints of remembrance” in Helen Losse’s poem One Layer Deeper