Author: Sikorski, Grace
Date published: July 1, 2012
I cradle the red-veined, marble urn and wade through the stiffened field of sharp weeds, my skin bruised, my stride labored. This place belonged to my mother and her mother before her. The garden stands rigid, last season's flowers brown husks, empty. The bulbs were not divided in the Spring, so blossoms smother under the weight of their own petals. The air is oppressive, buzzing in my ears. Vines fall heavy with their overripe weight and the earth is hot and black with decomposition. No one has been here in years. I struggle to remember a time when this small expanse of earth once swarmed with color on waves of grass and exhaled a fragrance that seemed to ascend, beckoned by the rays of the sun.
* * *
I was a child here. The garden was wildly haphazard then. Broken bricks formed its borders, cracked clock faces and found objects created mosaics in the flowerbeds, and paths wound around and around and seemed never to end. Amid the random colors and textures of the garden, the wind carried a random medley of voices from the neighboring yards - shards of English and scraps of Polish. Voices were accompanied by wind chimes forged from old rosaries, wooden dowels, and safety pins.
I hung suspended from the limbs of these cherry trees, my stained play clothes sliding up my knees and veiling my face. Gentle fingers would pluck me from my branch, capable arms would embrace me, and from above a voice would sing to me in whispers. My mother would patiently labor in this garden. With hands, large and capable, she divided bulbs, buried seed, and cleared the way for new growth. Later in the season, she would kneel as if in prayer with breasts hanging low to the earth and nourish each green swell struggling to emerge from the dark moist ground, eager to drink whatever she offered. Then, after some time, she would crouch down, caress blossoms, inhale their familiar fragrance, and witness what she had brought into being stretch, animate, and be aroused.
Many times I stood waiting in her expansive shadow as she erected a card in each patch of her flowerbeds to identify what she had planted under the loam. On each was printed the name and birth and death dates of someone who had died, a prayer, and a portrait of a saint. And surrounding each card was a small field of flowers. Violets grew where Uncle Henry's card stood. Lilies were for Rose. Bachelor's buttons were for Kazimer. Blossoms of baby's breath were for Pauline. Pauline was my mother's first-born daughter who stopped moving the second day she was alive. Before she buried each card, my mother would kiss it, water the ground, and silently speak prayers to the sun. Then her face would suddenly stretch itself into a wide smile and her cheeks would swell like clothesline-linen in the wind. I never thought it odd that my mother used prayer cards she had collected from the many funerals she had attended to mark the location of new seed. Her garden was a field of laminated memorials to the dead overgrown with life.
Occasionally, she would dust off each prayer card and plunge it again into the soil. She would show me Babci's prayer card and I wondered at my grandmother's wide open eyes, onyx pools draped with webs of thick lashes, deep and dark, as if to look into them too long would be to get caught on the surface of consciousness. This was a woman who had given birth to thirteen children in her own bed - thirteen. My mother often told me, when she kissed the card and placed it beneath a bush with scarlet blossoms, that her father had been a very loving man.
In every black and white image of him, my grandfather's face was a reused paper bag of creases and wrinkles, blown open by the hearty gust of a laugh. I cannot remember a photograph in which he was not holding at least two babies in his arms. I imagined all of my aunts surrounding kitchen kettles tall enough to feed armies and my uncles, red faced and laughing in a cloud of my grandfather's cigar smoke, and all of them dancing.
Her brothers and sisters. My mother would sway rhythmically through leaves and petals calling to them to wake up and dance with her. Henry had won many Harvest Moon Ball competitions, she said, and Rose always liked to Jitter Bug. My mother's garden was so crowded with whites, reds, pinks, purples, and blues, all dancing wildly in the sun, that one morning she said laughing, "If anyone else dies, I will have to invent another color."
These rituals seemed so natural to me then. In my mother's garden, playing in a field of her memories, I felt safe. I felt warm. I felt alive.
I remember one afternoon as I slept in a corner of the garden, my fists entangled in the small white tips of baby's breath, I dreamt that I cradled a child of my own in my arms. She was drowsy and thirsty. I had nothing for her to suckle but my fingers. In my dream I felt her hot mouth water down my arm. Just then I awoke to find my mother standing above me, singing. As she prodded the baby's breath to come alive with her touch, I heard her whisper, "Pauline, wake up child and let me see you."
When I reached up to touch my mother's smiling face, she was surprised and drew back a moment. And I felt something I had never felt before - hot tears streaming down my mother's cheeks. I helped my mother resurrect the baby's breath, as if I were fluffing a pillow that had served as my bed and my mother told me this story.
* * *
"I can remember. Letters from Krakow with words blackened, Times Square on V-E Day, it was a time for being grateful for having what you had. Babci, your grandmother, and Dziadzi, your grandfather, let them rest in peace," my mother began, "saved everything in those days. There was nothing that had no value. Nothing was discarded when Babci had her way. Dziadzi, your grandfather, worked in the railroad yard and during the depression, he brought home every scrap of wood he could find that wasn't stained with oil. Babci believed everything was worth keeping in those days, even the stained wood."
"There was a closet he had built in their bedroom. Babci always kept the door tightly closed with her mother's rosary hanging inside. She said the wood Dziadzi used to build it was stained with the blood of a child who had been killed on the tracks. Somehow she knew this to be true. We were told that we must always keep the closet closed, must keep what it housed sealed tightly. He laughed at the idea and said the wood was clean."
"Babci was very strong in her beliefs. She would mark the anniversary of the day her parents died so long ago in Krakow, planting fists full of green seeds for each of them deep under small mounds of earth behind the house. We knew in just a few weeks, we would find Babci walking in her small field of rich indigo, chanting "Chwala Ojcu i Synowi i Duchowi swietemu jak byla na poczatku, teraz i zawsze i na wieki wieków." [Glory be to the Father, and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit. As it was in the beginning is now and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.] And when she came into the house, bringing with her a small bouquet for every room, she would be humming church hymns. "On these days, Dziadzi would tease her, laughing. ? am not like you. I have no superstitions,' he would say. ? put them in the ground and they stay there.'"
"I remember the day Dziadzi, turning a deaf ear to her warnings, tore off the closet door, ripped open its casing, and tossed the lumber to the fire. 'The house was cold,' he said, shrugging his broad shoulders, 'and the lumber would serve better to keep us warm - not a sacramental relic!'"
"The lumber burned slowly and the house became warmer than it had been for days, as if the draughts slipping under doors and through windows were sealed up, and we all felt comfort, warmth. Even though we children insisted on taking off our sweaters and even our socks to enjoy the red heat from the stove, Babci would not come out from under her shawl. 'No,' she said, 'the cold will return as soon as someone opens the door."'
"What Babci said was true. The chill returned through the door the very next day when our older brothers, married, with children our own age, as on every Sunday, brought kielbasa and pierogies and babka fresh from their wives' steamed kitchens."
"Uncle Henry, the youngest of our brothers, reminded us we would be turning seven in just a few months. We laughed at him when he struggled to lift us both over his head as he used to when he returned from the war, our hero in fatigues. And when he told us we would then see what all the others had seen already, a child, silent and still, standing in the top west-most corner of the house, we did not believe him through his laughter."
* * *
When I was a child, my mother told me many memories, like this one, of the house she grew up in, how her father had built it from scrap lumber, twenty rooms for twelve growing children. Each of my mother's brothers had a space behind a wall only he knew was there -for privacy or safety Dziadzi knew they might want or need. My mother and her twin sister had one in their room to share. I sat silently as she told me her stories. I envisioned my mother as a thin, blond child of the Depression in hand-me-down, homemade dresses, huddled for safety inside of a wall against her twin sister, fearfully curious about the child who stood immobile in the corner of their room, who would answer their questions if they dared to whisper them..
"Did you ever speak to the dead girl, mother?" I asked. She answered, "The next morning, after my brothers and their wives left our house, we could find no scrap of evidence that there had ever been a closet, a pile of railroad wood, or a fire in our stove. The only trace was a small hand füll of ash beneath one of Babci's flowers. Babci said there has been enough talk of death in her house. Now, we should pay attention to what was alive. She handed each of us a watering can and set us to work."
* * *
The day when my mother nursed her garden for the last time, tenderness in her hands, she felt tugging on the side of her arm, and then hanging like the full weight of a child. She carried it to the house, to her bed, and lay down with it.
The stroke paralyzed her left side and left her speaking in whispers. Her eyes became liquid pools of ink and her face became as white as parchment. Her hands knotted as if they were tangled vines. When her left arm began to curl against itself, she rocked it with the other, hummed to it, and bringing it to her lips, she kissed it and mumbled a prayer in Polish.
The last time I heard her speak, she asked me, "Will you be afraid to have my ashes when I am gone?"
I told her, "I'm not afraid of you now. Why should I be afraid of you when you are dead?"
"You're like your grandfather," she laughed.
Then I asked her, "What will you do when you are gone?"
She said, "I want to travel. I want to go to all of the places I couldn't go to before."
I knew what she meant.
She smiled and said, "I have outlived many people, but I did not expect to outlive a part of my own body."
Later that same day, her spirit passed on, leaving only a stiff statue of herself, so like her, but somehow vacated and discarded. We found her in her bed, her eyes wide open, peaceful. I traced the direction of her last glance; the last thing she saw was the view out her window that revealed one corner of her garden.
* * *
Returning to this garden is strange. It's nothing like it was, how I remember it. But I know what must be done now; what has always been done when there is a loss. Now is the time for remembering. With my back to the cutting wind and my fists full of ash, I reach below the surface and start speaking to the ground.
Grace Sikorski received her Ph.D. and MA. in English at The Pennsylvania State University and her B.A. in English at Queens College. Her research explores fiction of the 20th century and theories of sexuality and gender. Currently, as Associate Professor at Anne Arundel Community College, she teaches courses in English and Gender and Sexuality Studies.