Authors: Plum Johnson
The garden was one of Mum and Dad’s many battlefields. Cutting Dad’s flowers was like beheading his gods, so if they’d had a fight, Mum immediately turned her attention to flower arranging. Dad would arrive home from work and find the
house ablaze with blooms. Vases of every description, on every table and countertop, were stuffed to overflowing with tulips, daffodils, irises, and buttercups. Dad would stand rigidly still and blink, as though he’d just seen the living dead. Then, bursting through the door onto the verandah, he’d survey his denuded flowerbeds and roar,
But Mum wouldn’t be home. She’d be down at the club … playing tennis.
Today I walk the length of the flowerbeds with Heather, peering through a lattice of dead stalks and examining woody brown tubers.
“What do you think?” Heather asks. “Weeds?”
“Dad called them his Canadian buttercups.”
“They look like weeds to me,” she says, poking them with a stick.
Heather spends three days hauling away dead brush and dragging the debris down to Dad’s compost heap. She’s dressed in baggy tan pants and a loose plaid shirt, and even though it’s chilly her face is damp with sweat and her brown bangs cling to her forehead like limp sea grass. What used to be a long line of tangled wilderness is beginning to look tamed. The grey stalks are gone, revealing a rich contrast between the freshly dug black earth and the bright spring clumps of pointed green shoots. Mum would say the whole garden looks like it’s been to the beauty parlour. We’ve asked Heather to plant red impatiens in between the spring bulbs as a quick summer fix. With enough rain, we hope they’ll spread, providing colour through the fall for Victor and Peni’s wedding as well.
Our landscaper comes with his men to prune the hedge and give the lawn its first haircut. They also bring a trailer to haul away Dad’s compost heap. We’re amazed to see the bottom of the garden without it. The empty space seems large enough to build a second house.
Gem Pools comes to empty, clean, and refill the swimming pool, just as they’ve done every year since they built it more than forty years ago. Huge plastic hoses snake from the pool, across the garden, and out the garden gate to the sewer grate in the road. The bilge pump makes a deafening
sound that goes on for hours as it dredges up the slimy winter muck from the depths of the pool. Men with long-handled scrub brushes are wearing orange boots and yellow overalls. From a distance, they look like miniature rubber duckies in a concrete cavern. They’ll repaint the turquoise border and fill the pool with clean water from Dad’s green garden hose, attached to the outside tap by the laundry room door. Water will trickle in over several days, making the pipes rattle in the basement, and the kitchen walls will vibrate like a reproach from Dad that we’re wasting water.
The weatherman is predicting violent thunderstorms for Virginia’s wedding day, so we watch the sky nervously. Chairs have been delivered for the garden, but there’s no tent and the service itself is to be conducted outdoors, under the walnut trees. A hundred guests have been invited. Unlike Mum, I don’t trust people’s intelligence, so we buy three dozen clear plastic umbrellas and rehearse Plan B. The orchestra they’ve hired to play big-band swing music can still play on the verandah, but the service will have to be moved indoors to the living room if it rains. I can hear Mum’s voice: “Accept what you cannot change.”
On the morning of the wedding we awake to find that the storm has blown over and brought clear blue skies and a warm breeze. Mum always said the lake tells you the weather better than any weatherman, if you learn to read the signs. I look out at the lake and it’s smooth as glass. By noon it’s cloudless and hot—like mid-summer.
Jessica arrives with eight round layers of freshly baked cake in tinfoil and six pounds of butter, and proceeds to spread out all her paraphernalia on the dining-room table. She’s working against the clock to ice the cake because the caterers will arrive soon and need the room. As the clock ticks on, I notice that Virginia is in the swimming pool with her one-year-old son, Ben. Every time I look at Ben, I see my mother—he has her same infectious smile that crinkles his nose; I just hope he hasn’t inherited her teeth. I open the kitchen window and holler down to Virginia.
“Sweetie, don’t you think it’s time to put on your wedding dress?”
“In a minute!”
The catering truck pulls into the driveway and women in stiff white jackets swarm the kitchen with silver trays of canapés. Jessica has managed to spread smooth white icing on the cake, but not to decorate it. She still has four pounds of butter left in her car. Virginia runs in with a towel tucked around her bathing suit, holding a fat, pale pink peony in full bloom.
“Here,” she says, plucking off some petals and tossing them onto the cake, “just decorate with these. It looks beautiful—I love its simplicity! And then can you come upstairs? I need you to braid my hair.”
Upstairs the rooms are humming with activity. Virginia’s dress is hanging from the canopy of Mum’s four-poster bed
and Louis’s suit is hanging on the door of Dad’s closet. I’m in my old bedroom, changing into my favourite pink dress—it’s heavily encrusted with cotton lace, too, and perfect for today. Virginia’s out-of-town friends have arrived. They’re milling around, laughing, playing with Ben, pouring champagne, offering advice on which white flowers to stick in her hair. A red peony gets stuck into mine.
At last, we’re ready. The orchestra on the verandah begins playing Pachelbel’s Canon, the bride takes her father’s arm, and the wedding party wends its way down the grassy lawn, past the seated guests to the lace-covered table under the walnut trees. Baby Ben is the ring bearer, with the wedding ring of Louis’s late mother hanging from a red ribbon around his neck.
Over the hedge, strangers ambling along the lakefront stop in their tracks when they realize they’re witnessing a wedding. There’s a hush as the bride and groom repeat their vows. I wish Mum had waited one more year to see this; she would have loved it. I find myself wondering if she would have hollered over the hedge and invited the strangers to come have a piece of cake. I miss her.
The sun is shining and there’s not a cloud in the sky. Just like my wedding thirty-eight years ago, there’s a canopy of umbrellas, except that today they’re not for rain: guests are holding colourful paper umbrellas to protect themselves from the sun. After the food and speeches and champagne, people wander over to the pool. They find Mum’s swimsuits in the big wicker basket in the basement and start selecting ones for a swim. Some just hitch up their dresses, kick off their shoes, and dangle their feet in the water. Just before the bride and groom make their departure, speeding off in an old sports car,
Virginia throws her bouquet and I catch it. (Actually, I duke it out with an eight-year-old and embarrass myself.)
The day after the wedding, we hold another service for Mum. We’ve already sprinkled one plastic baggie of her ashes at St. Jude’s with Dad and one at St. Mary’s with Sandy. Now we sprinkle the third around the maple tree at the corner of the garden. We commingle Sambo’s ashes with Mum’s. The bronze memorial plaque that Victor ordered has arrived, and he’s sunk it into concrete beside Dad’s and Sandy’s. We gather as a family, stand in a circle, and say goodbye one more time. Mum is well and truly put to rest now, I hope.
When everyone leaves, Victor stays behind to help me clean up. We pick up stray champagne corks in the garden, put chairs back where they belong, and carry in vases of wilted flowers from the verandah. Upstairs, we tidy Mum’s bedroom, which had been the bride’s room only yesterday, pinching up hydrangea petals that had fallen from her hair onto the carpet.
I find some stray bobby pins and open Mum’s top dresser drawer to throw them in. As I do this, something catches my eye—a small piece of folded paper wedged into the right-hand corner, now protruding from the piles of earrings, hankies, and nighties that I’d crammed into this drawer for grandchildren to look at. I unfold it and recognize Mum’s familiar handwriting.
It’s a letter to me, dated on my fiftieth birthday. She tells me how much I mean to her and how much she loves me.
I gasp and start to tremble.
“What’s wrong?” asks Victor. He’s standing by Dad’s dresser, brushing away cake crumbs.
“This.” I hand him the letter as tears spill down my face.
He starts to read it …
Darling, you’ve always been and always will be God’s blessing to me …
Then he stops and looks at me tenderly.
“Why didn’t she ever give this to me?” I ask, sniffling. “She wrote it fourteen years ago.” Victor hands me a Kleenex. He wraps his arms around me and squeezes me in a long bear hug as I cry into his shoulder.
“She wanted you to have it now, I guess,” he says. “She knew you’d find it.”
Dividing What Remains
Two days after the wedding my brothers return and we hold the dispersal. We start at ten in the morning, set up the old square table in the playroom, and draw numbers out of a hat to establish the order of bidding. I’ve drawn number one. Rokeby Rules are that the order of bidding rotates with each round, so the person who goes first goes last the next time: 1-2-3-4 becomes 2-3-4-1, then 3-4-1-2, and so on. Our mathematician, Louis, tells us that statistically it doesn’t matter—everyone gets the same fair chance no matter what the order—but we do it this way for tradition’s sake.
I’ve given everyone an annotated inventory list complete with photographs: there are 422 items, running eighty-one pages long. There are two categories: one for all the furnishings that have been appraised and priced, and one for historical items that we consider priceless—things like family portraits, a pair of epaulets from World War II, the plastic sign of the gun from the mudroom window, the antique ship’s gongs that used to hang on the wall in the pantry (Dad banged them with
the little rubber mallet to call us to dinner, or played reveille if he wanted to rouse us out of bed early in the mornings).
There are only two things I desperately want from the first category—Mum’s four-poster bed and the dining-room chairs—but I decide to use my first bid on one of the three carved Chinese chests because I think there’ll be more competition for these.
To my surprise, nobody else bids on one. Robin chooses Dad’s desk, Victor chooses the mantel clock, and Chris chooses Dad’s favourite beer mug. Then Chris—who went last in the first round—goes first this time, and he takes Mum’s four-poster bed. Victor gets the flatware and Robin takes the dining-room chairs. I let out an audible gasp—I’m last and both my favourite things are gone. Louis was wrong—statistically I’ve been skunked. But it serves me right for bidding competitively, instead of with my heart. I lament the loss of the chairs, so Robin whispers in my ear, “If you bid on the silver basket in the next round, I’ll trade you for the chairs,” so that’s exactly what I do. Meanwhile, Robin scoops the eighteenth-century candlesticks engraved with the tower of Udny Castle— the only remnant of Dad’s Scottish ancestry during the Jacobite Rebellion. As soon as anyone bids on anything I feel a pang of regret. I swear to God, it only lasts a nanosecond, but for the first time in my life I fantasize about being an only child. I don’t want to share—I want to hoard. I feel as if the past is slipping through my fingers. It’s getting complicated.
We motor through the eighty-one-page list at quite a clip, but by three o’clock we’re still nowhere near the end and we need to take a break. Chris has just bid on Mum’s mahjong set and we’re down to the dregs: bronze bookends and carved gewgaws. It’s emotionally exhausting for everybody, and I’ve
noticed that Victor, now that he has his flatware, clock, and opium-bed coffee table, seems not to be bidding on anything else. It’s as though he’s taking a back seat, conditioned as the youngest to taking the leftovers after the rest of us are done. Or maybe, with his impending marriage to Peni in September and the combining of their households, he just doesn’t have room for more stuff.
I speak to him during the break. I remind him that there are certain things his children wanted. In particular, I know that his daughter, Hannah, would like Mum’s engagement ring. I’ve been holding off bidding on it because I know Mum would love Hannah to have it.