Rationally, I knew that meeting at Mom’s house afterwards was part of the ritual of saying farewell, but I found it difficult to play hostess. Catherine stepped in and I gratefully spent the time pacing the short halls of Mom’s house instead.
Walking past the hall table, I picked up a framed snapshot, remembering I’d taken it with the Brownie 127 camera Mom had splurged on as a graduation gift. In the photograph, Mom held a pitchfork, posing beside Catherine in the style of American Gothic, except that Catherine sported a ridiculous sunhat. They were both laughing.
Although Catherine rented a small flat near the Cokato elementary school after her husband died, she’d always come to Mom’s for her gardening fix. Together, they transformed the yard into a wonderland. Looking at their faces, I couldn’t help but smile, if briefly.
Next to the gardening photograph stood a picture of Mom and me at my wedding. I fought her tooth-and-nail to get her to wear a dress of any kind. Once she’d started wearing pedal pushers there’d been no going back, and she groused and complained the whole time we shopped for a suitable mother-of-the-bride dress. I remembered our fierce arguments with a rueful smile. I believe Catherine “secretly” intervened and won: Mom wore a dress and smiled broadly in the picture.
Resuming my pacing, I heard my father’s familiar, raspy voice and went to look for him. I found him in the dining room, conversing politely with Pastor Alan. Hank struggled to maintain an earnest expression, but I knew the strain of pretending to be a believer was rousing his nicotine jones, a vice I inherited from him.
The irony of Hank’s visibly hale presence that day did not escape me. Mom, who’d never smoked a day in her life, was dead and gone, but my father, tough as a mule and just as stubborn, remained an unrepentant chimney of a man who dismissed, publicly anyway, the rising health concerns about smoking.
In spite of professing disbelief about the dangers of smoking, Hank had begun several quitting campaigns recently, always claiming that this time he meant to kick the habit permanently. Like him, I had recently kicked off another attempt, which led me into my secondary addiction to peanut M&Ms. My attempt proceeded in fits and starts; even now the crumpled pack of Newports I had stashed in my purse tugged at my mind.
Hank caught me staring at him and grinned broadly. I decided not to worry about Peter finding me smoking. Let him catch me. I jerked my head invitingly in the direction of the front porch, pantomiming having a smoke. Failure loves company almost as much as misery does. Hank made an excuse to leave the pastor and joined me on the porch swing moments later.
“How’re you doin’, Queenie?” I smiled with fond remembrance at Hank’s use of my childhood nickname.
“I’m all right, I guess. How about you?” I answered, rummaging through my purse.
“I’m fine.” A smile snaked up the sides of his craggy face as he saw my cigarettes and silver lighter. “You know, I really am trying to quit.”
“I am, too.” I plucked two Newports from the pack and lit them, handing one to Hank. He looked at his and grimaced before taking a drag—he was more of a Lucky Strikes man. “I have a feeling most people would say that this is a bad time to try quitting, though, Hank,” I said, exhaling with satisfaction.
“Is it ever an easy time?” he asked, raising a shaggy eyebrow. I didn’t answer.
We both pulled long on our cigarettes, drawing the smoke in deeply. I closed my eyes, letting the smoke burn away the tightness in my chest. I felt a surge of gratitude that Hank and I, after years of yelling at each other, didn’t have to speak aloud to each other much anymore. Silent, companionable smoking formed much of the basis for our adult communication. It wasn’t exactly the father-daughter relationship I’d craved growing up—the possibility of that had vanished along with my calling him “Dad” in the stormy aftermath of the divorce—but I remained grateful for whatever it was we had now. It was better than yelling.
“How was the…the service? Everything went all right?” he finally asked. Service wasn’t exactly the word I would have used to describe our small trek up the hill, but it was what Mom told Catherine she wanted.
“Fine. You should’ve been there, you know,” I risked saying.
He didn’t bite. He took another long pull off his cigarette instead, staring out at Mom’s garden, suddenly looking wistful. “They really fixed this place up nice. Your mom always had a real green thumb. I bet it’ll be beautiful when everything starts blooming.” Although Hank lived less than an hour away in Litchfield, he said it as though this was the first time he’d ever been to Mom’s house. Maybe there were too many women around. Observing him over the years, I saw how formal and stiff he became on the rare occasions he found himself in the company of Mom and her friends, even Catherine—and at times, me.
But rather than push him on that, I only nodded in agreement, realizing how much I would miss seeing the garden’s colors after I sold the house.
“They made a perfect team,” I said after a bit. “Mom did the digging and Catherine did the planting.”
Hank grunted unintelligibly.
We fell silent, the sole sound coming from the grating of the chain as we pushed the swing slowly back and forth with our toes, our long legs moving in tandem. Even with the chilly spring air, I welcomed the peace and quiet out here on the swing.
“Is it okay that I came here today? To the house? It feels a bit awkward,” Hank mumbled unexpectedly. He spoke so softly I almost missed it, rumbling out a surprising echo of sadness and time gone by.
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Genre – Women’s Fiction
Rating – PG13