by Carrie Lynn Hawthorne
I watched the sun rise over Highway 101, sipped my chai tea latte, and listened to John Prine, as our packed SUV hugged the curvy road that took us deeper into the forest fog. My family of three was on our way to visit my in-laws, Helen and Bob, who lived on an enormous piece of land snuggled among towering redwoods. They lived off what they grew in a garden that was the size of our duplex back home in suburban Los Angeles. A few times a week, they fished in the ocean for crab, snapper, albacore, and halibut.
We arrived to find that the frost had come early and the hummingbirds and the bees had stayed late, and Helen’s trees had borne no fruit. She brushed her silver hair away from her face and looked down at her overgrown flowerbeds. There were plants that needed pruning, vegetables that needed picking, and no tomatoes in the hothouse.
“My poor garden,” Helen said. “It needs me, but I just can’t take care of it.”
She went through her shed and examined the handmade treasures she’d hoarded over the years. She passed them to me, bag by bag. I went through them with her, and she sat her recliner and told the story of each ornament, suncatcher, and holiday decoration. There were unopened Avon products from the 1960s when she’d sold door to door. The narration was good work for her mind, even with the dementia taking the words from her lips.
“I’m getting out of here soon,” Helen said, “but I pray to God for just a little more time.”
I went out front to fill the bird feeders with seed. My boy climbed through the circle of young redwoods. “Is this a trunk?” he asked as he explored the gigantic burned-out stump in the middle.
Bob clutched his white beard and stopped to catch his breath after his long walk around the property. His eyes watered, so he always looked like he was crying. “The trees attract lightning,” he explained. “The old growth stays after it burns to feed the new growth that springs up around it.”
I looked at Helen and remembered how I’d struggled to get along with her, how nobody would ever be good enough for her son. I took her hand and, as I led her back to the house, I examined her thin skin stretched over long bones. I remembered when she’d taught me how to crochet a hat. Later, gradually, her mind had turned the yarn into a tangled spiderweb. She just couldn’t get it right, even after years of making blankets for the babies in the hospital.
I helped Helen shuck the peas at the table by her canning shed. I loved the monotony of peeling beets, carrots, and cucumbers. It was easy to lose myself in the sweet meditation of chopping them, dividing them into airtight Ziplocs, and freezing them for the days ahead.
My husband dug up the garlic with a pitchfork, and Bob reminded me how to clean it. I peeled away the outer layers and inhaled the pungent aroma on my fingertips. We tied the cloves in bunches and hung them to dry from the ceiling in the barn.
All five of us scoured the bushes for wild blackberries and piled our full buckets into a red wagon. I got a few spider bites and plucked some thorns from my clothes. After a few hours, with the help of a yellowed recipe card written in Helen’s cursive writing, we’d made cobbler: thick, syrupy berries bubbling through flaky, buttery crust. We each enjoyed a scoop of it, warm out of the oven, topped with vanilla ice cream.
As I slipped off my wedding ring to wash the dishes, I thought about how my own parents had gotten divorced and each had two other marriages. Bob and Helen had been married for sixty-two years.
Bob had once said, “The redwoods grow tall, but their roots don’t go deep. They grow close together, and they hold each other up. That’s how they remain standing.”
My husband came up behind me and wrapped his arms around my waist. We swayed in a slow dance to a song only the two of us could hear.
Image by edwina_mc via pixabay