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My Grandmother's Promise
Sometimes it takes something terrible to happen to realize what is important in life. At the dining table, reflecting in silence on the unfortunate event that had stunned the entire family, I stared with blinking eyes at the tattered diary lying on the countertop. My breathing rose and fell as the scattered light from the dogwood trees, which had been plotted with great precision by the caring hands of my grandmother many years ago, beamed through the large colonial window and onto my face. The wind blew soft over the green grass, flowers bloomed, and families united outside on a cool summer day. The voices of the neighborhood fell briefly, and then started back up again, just as ours had the summer past. Without my grandmother, an unsuspected loneliness was ever so present in the house that had regularly been teeming with movement and laughter.
Now, eleven years old, it was summer once again where the evening hours were filled with unfolding treasures. My grandmother lived in a small historic town called Boonsboro, where there were a few young families but mostly older inhabitants. Apart from flint and brick cottages, there was one main street which stretched the length of the town, encased by antique shops, an Episcopal church, restaurants, tea shops, a general store, a bakery, and family-owned specialty shops. To the north on the fringing hills, identical late eighteenth century houses were scattered on equally sized plots of land; but I was always able to separate my grandmother’s from the others each summer I arrived.
The crooked brick path of her colonial cottage, which had been well beaten by her continuous footsteps, captured my attention. An array of lilacs scented and purple, morning-glories, and other blossoming flowers my grandmother tended to on a daily basis, invaded the dark brick borders on either side of the path. From the garden, I ran up the aging steps and into her caring arms.
“My goodness has it really been that long? It feels like only yesterday that you were playing in the sunlit lawn as a little boy,” she smiled.
The white painted weathered porch was decorated in appreciation for the new and the old. The two hunter green rocking chairs which were fashioned in my great grandfather’s carpentry shop many seasons ago had kept their pristine glow over the years with a little touch of paint here and there as paint chips folded upwards. And now as the sun approached its summit in the noon sky, the rocking chairs casted silhouettes upon the broadening horizon.
“What are you waiting for, is it to big for you dear?” she chuckled.
For the past two summers, my feet had not reached the floor. In a glimmer of hope, I grabbed at the chance to showcase my renowned height my mother had discussed on their Sunday phone call conversations. However, my feet fell two inches short of reaching the porch.
“You can grab at another chance next summer,” she reassured me.
That night my grandmother prepared a delicious meal of sizzling steak with buttery mashed potatoes. She placed a bowl of peas on the dining table, pushed back a wisp of silver-streaked hair behind her ear, and said, “Well, it’s a good thing you are here, or I would have all this food to myself.” We ate in silence as the summer stretched out ahead of us, our minds happily occupied with the thoughts of all the things we would do for the four weeks I was there.
After supper, in the warm twilight of that first day, the sky hung low through the opened window in the darkening bedroom, uprooting a perfect opportunity for the spooky civil war stories she had collected from local inhabitants. The town had been used during the Civil War to keep wounded soldiers after the Battle of Antietam in September 1862, many of whom died on the foundation of the neighboring houses. I had heard most of her spooky stories during past summer visits, even then she knew there was no need to share new ones since the old stories still set my eyes blazing with fright. My mind was transfixed on the thought that there could be ghosts roaming outside, so when my grandmother looked into my room, I pulled the comforter up to my chin and pretended to be asleep.
The following summer days were happily occupied with work and relaxation. Her belief in starting the day off right was exercised through her hearty breakfast prepared before I awoke and served each morning. The glow of a cloudless sky clearly lit up the green house and the street below, which captured my attention like a piece of polished glass crystal from her dinning room chandelier, while we ate the scrumptious meal my grandmother had prepared. After breakfast each morning, we stood side by side either in her garden or green house. We potted seedlings, carefully plucked the delicate blooms off of her petunias, watered the long trestle tables that ran the length of the green house with a specially prepared mix of water and plant fertilizer, and harvested any vegetables needed for the evening’s supper. We worked steadily until the time the church clock struck noon and sweat had gathered on our upper lips and brows.
She smiled and said, “There’s food to attend to, set the haversack on the porch, and run on upstairs to clean up.”
My shirt and jeans were grubby and slightly torn. I handed my clothes to her before stepping into the shower. I scrubbed myself with sweet-smelling herbs mixed in a bar of Castile soap. The herbs made a rich lather and caused my unpleasant body odors to vanish. My weariness began to melt away, along with the aches and pains I had acquired from tending to the morning’s chores. She placed a clean shirt and pair of slacks outside of the bathroom and quickly returned to business in the kitchen.
“Could you please hand me that small bottle from the shelf,” she asked, as I entered the large room where a mixture of herbs and vegetables were being sautéed.
It was a comfortable kitchen with bare whitewashed walls, grey with age, which had obviously been used to prepare countless meals over the years. There was a plain table, two wooden chairs, a walk-in pantry stocked with canned food, and an old iron cooking range stood opposite a large stone sink. On cool days, she opened the colonial window adjacent to the countertop, allowing her garden’s vast expanse of sweet-smelling earth and the scent of blossoming flowers to channel through the window screen, while keeping the exploring bees in search of nectar from intruding. My head cocked to one side as I sat watching intently at the movement of her hands; slicing a large onion, cutting a slab of hard cheese, and cooking a well seasoned piece of meat with asparagus. I came to accept that my grandmother possessed a special ability, which allowed her to adjust any meal at a moment’s notice with salt, pepper, herbs, or a combination of other ingredients, which were accurately measured without the aid of any kitchen utensil.
“Effective, isn’t it?” she said, as she resumed her cooking.
The evening hours seemed much shorter than others. My grandmother would doze off for awhile but woke the instant the church clock began chiming two o’clock. Other times, she would slip off her shoes, go over to the open window, and switch on a desk lamp to write in her diary. Casually, I would open one of the older-looking books from the shelf to read along side her, but I found it was hard to concentrate. Occasionally, I would stroll to the town’s shops and gaze into the windows. The local residents were very friendly, they used to always say hello as I walked the cobbled streets of the town, exploring all of its unseen treasures. An owner from a local antique shop from time to time offered me money for helping him organize the merchandise on the shelves or sweeping up. I also received a wondrous gift from the owner of a leather shop for helping him with miscellaneous chores. It was a beautiful slingshot made from oak, bound by heavy leather and rubber. On the outskirts of the town, a vast expanse of common land hummed with the rustling of leaves from tall sycamore trees and golden dandelions that crowded the grassy field concealing a shallow, slow-moving stream. It was a daydreamer’s paradise. On most days, I laid in a recumbent position on the warm meadow floor as clouds drifted by and sober thoughts entered my mind. Cloudless days enhanced the beauty of the stream, creating a funny spectacle as I flung little pebbles, aided by the use of my newly obtained slingshot, at the trout that occupied the stream. They quickly darted away once they felt the vibration on the surface of the water.
At 5:15, my grandmother would call me back to the house for evening prayer before dinner was served at 5:45. The kitchen was in business as usual, retaining the anticipation from the meal she was cooking. After dinner, the cheerful atmosphere of the old house quivered with our laughter. There were plenty of memories to share, stories to be told, and board games to play. For one hour, or as long as she could stay awake, we continued our childish antics until we both grew tired and headed upstairs to get a good night’s sleep required for the physically laboring morning that was ahead of us.
The summer had disappeared in the continuous routine my grandmother had been following for many years now since her retirement. Its was enough to absorb my attention until the night she dished out her homemade ice cream topped with buttery caramel. Her homemade ice cream was a special treat that she made only once each time I visited, signaling the last day of my summer visit. The mood and expression on my face was generally sad as I came to realize that tomorrow there would be something missing, my grandmother. She told me to smile and cheer up because she had a secret to tell me.
“I have an idea of opening a flower nursery when you come back to visit me next summer,” she smiled.
The next day, a windburned loneliness disturbed the energized atmosphere of her house. Although it was a warm morning she clutched a shawl draped over her shoulders as we said our goodbyes. I muttered into her ear that I would be returning next summer to help her with the opening of the well anticipated flower nursery. Judging by her tear washed eyes, I knew she was going to miss me as I paused to wave goodbye.
During the school year, it was sometimes hard to concentrate on the school work since I lacked the curiosity for anything else besides my grandmother’s nosily gardens. After church every Sunday morning, my grandmother would call my mother, telling her the progress of the nursery. My thoughts were occupied with the brisk trade my grandmother and I would do the following summer. Eventually, as the school year came to an end, the anticipation began to become unbearable. A week before my arrival at my grandmother’s house, the phone didn’t ring as it used to on Sunday morning. She was best known for keeping any promise she made and the situation seemed odd to my mother and I. After many attempts of trying to reach her, we finally received a phone call. A deep-voiced man calling from the Hospital of Saint Raphael informed us that my grandmother had passed. She had been hit by a car as she crossed the cobbled road of the ancient town in the early hours of Sunday morning, while carrying a tray of flowers for the nursery.
Her house that laid on the fringing hills not far to the north of the town felt more remote than it had the summer past. Many visitors filled the kitchen; conversing with each other about her wonderful life surrounded by family and her beloved flowers. It was the same kitchen with bare whitewashed walls, grey with age, a plain table, two wooden chairs, a walk-in pantry and an old iron cooking range that stood opposite a large stone sink-but something was missing. It would no longer retain the usual business of cooking, the laughter that filled the atmosphere, and the smell of blossoming flowers channeling through an open colonial window. My grandmother with her grey-blue eyes and deep wrinkles had been among this kitchen. The unresolved mystery of why she had to die is unclear to me. It’s impossible in any detail to remember the events that followed her death. Returning from the garden we had plodded on throughout the summer mornings, I reflected in silence on the unfortunate event. Mixed emotions filled the thought wells of my mind; on one hand I was crying and on the other I was mad that she had left me. I noticed a leather bound book, one much older than the other books she had, lying on the countertop. It must have been left behind from a family member when they departed from her house the morning after her funeral. I opened the tattered book; its pages were brown with age and on the title page were the words The Diary of Anne Greene. I flipped to the last journal entry near the end of the large book and read her last comments.
June 28, 2004:
The flower nursery is almost complete. The great pleasure in spending time with my grandson is upon the broadening horizon. Our summer days ahead of us will be filled with happiness and laughter. I wonder if he is still fascinated with strolling through the garden together and never seeming to tire of one another’s company.
Goodnight, Dear Diary.
My grandmother will always be known for keeping her promises.