Ka-choo. I remember that I’m allergic to pollen as my royal blue Chuck Taylor’s trace the vine-covered walkway. I’ve been here before.
Glancing down to my right, I see the neglected brick I nursed back to health with mud years ago, and on my left I see where the daffodils used to lay that I’d pick for my mother. And somehow, her stone pond, waterfall, lily-pads, oriental fish and all resumed their place in the middle of her backyard.
She smelled like the earth and acrylics, most days. Some days, she had bags under her eyes and couldn’t join us in her garden. Some days, her home reeked of vomit. I didn’t think twice about it – how was my second-grade-self supposed to recognize the signs? I couldn’t even tie my Adidas without using bunny ears, more or less understand the decadence of my best friend.
In second grade, that best friend was my elderly neighbor, Doris. She was classic. Always made up, always dressed to impress. Snowy curls framed her face and a goofy smile revealed her wrinkles that she hated, but we didn’t. We knew she was young at heart.
The pond still has fish in it. Whether they are the same fish, I do not know. Orange, white, red, blue – each as brilliant as the next. She used to have us toss brown food pellets into the pond, and we considered it a treat.
What we didn’t know was that she was never was able to feed the fish on her own, and that those fish needed us in the same way that she did.
She needed our gangly neighborhood group of 8-year-olds’ innocence to cancel out her aging, because she knew there wasn’t much time left for us to be together. Soon she would need real help, but nursing homes scared her. So instead of thinking about it, we picked tulips and watched her paint watercolors.
But her studio is different now. It serves as a screened-in porch for the new family in her home, where a fat grey and black cat guards the residence through the mesh. It watches my every step.
There is a different feeling to her garden. It might be the gray sky’s doing, but I think it’s due to her absence. Because the day Doris gave up on that house, the roots in the ground did too.
“Quick girls – grab the food!”
We ran down her cellar steps, and heaved a bin of fish food back up them.
“Now be generous,” Doris said. “Just grab a handful and toss it in.”
Our tiny hands reached into the bin to cup the food. We hovered over the sparkling water of the pond. On a three count, we’d throw.
The fish swarmed. We giggled and felt accomplished. We were responsible for the hungry fish’s revival. Even five minutes later, watching them gobble up the last pellets, we were beaming.
It was St. Patrick’s Day, so she wore a soft-green turtleneck and jeans held up with a pink belt. It was sweater-weather at most – we dressed light that March morning.
“Ah,” Doris sighed. “Isn’t it just beautiful?”
“Isn’t what beautiful?” we asked.
She said nothing. Her eyes were closed as she faced the sun and let its rays warm her pale skin. And suddenly, as if awaking from a coma, she snapped her eyes open and gathered us girls together – she had a plan.
She told us to stay put and to be patient as she ran and got something from inside. Minutes later, she emerged from her greenhouse with a disposable camera.
“I’m going to take photos of you!” Doris announced.
She had us resume our daily duties. I knelt down and examined a brick that had split in half. Empathetically, I ran over to the grass, whipped up a handful of mud, and slathered it on the shards. For some reason, I felt obligated to fix that brick. I wanted to believe I’d healed it entirely, but the fault line of its crack was too overpowering. I set it carefully down and moved on to my next task.
“Girls! Come over here!”
This time, we kneeled on the ground and picked three yellow daffodils for our moms. While our bare hands pawed at the ground, she supervised and snapped shots of it all.
Then we were on to the green room. She had us mill about and examine her plants and see if any needed tending. She knew none of them did, but she liked the way the light seeped through the glass in that room. She asked for a group picture.
We flashed our crooked teeth and sun-blinded, watery eyes at the camera.
“Oh my beautiful, beautiful girls…”
As I go through the box of her things, I notice the photos. Developed and sharp, they show my clan of four crouching down picking flowers, smiling or tossing in fish food. I look so little.
I don’t like that the new family doesn’t love the garden the way she did, or like I did, either.
I wish I knew where Doris was. I don’t know if she is still at the nursing home, if she is somewhere else, or if she is anywhere at all.
But something in me doesn’t want to know. I want her to live on in my memory, triumphant and healthy. Something tells me that’s what she would want, too.
In my room, I turn around and face her floral painting which hangs over my bed. When we tagged along with her, Doris was old. I never bothered to ask just how old, maybe I didn’t because Mom always told me that it’s rude to ask, or maybe I didn’t because I genuinely didn’t care; she was always one of us. Her adventurous spirit was caged by her decaying body, and on that St. Patrick’s Day morning, I think she knew that.
She kept a copy of those photos, too.
I wonder if she still has them.