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I was sitting on the front porch swing smoking a cigarette. The night air was still and the woods were quiet. I watched the smoke move slowly as I exhaled. There was a light fog amidst the dew that began to set in. Seemed too early for dew, but I concurred with nature on its timing when I noticed my watch said 1:52am. Despite the cooler temperatures a cricket began to sing like a male house finch on a spring morning. His chirping grew louder as he wanted one last rhythmic dance from a nearby female before autumn brought on an early frost. Earlier today, I heard a large flock of V-formation geese approach overhead from the north. I watched them fly over and disappear into the sky behind the house; listening to the Doppler effect of their honks and cackles.
Autumn began three days ago and summer seemed to have passed quickly. I was sad to see the lack of hummingbirds this morning. The few that were left filled their little bellies full of sugar water from the three feeders I kept hanging along the front porch. Hummers were frantically readying themselves for a long flight south and I left the feeders out for any migrating passerby. The leaves were changing colors and was I excited to see a forest of oranges, reds and yellows. But, I was apprehensive about the sun moving so far away. The sun was leaving me again; our intimate break-up on every Fall Equinox. Despite, mistrusting the sun, I took him back every spring. It was the act of allowing the sun to control my moods that began the unraveling of distrusting myself. My therapist labeled me as having Seasonal Variation Disorder as she tried to help me relinquish my need to control everything. I know the sun was never solely mine thus I preferred the relations of the moon. At least she returns monthly with her soft glowing white light and the not so delicate effect she has on water. She leaves me monthly red gifts; a reminder of her power.
When autumn arrives, I hardly feel the enthusiasm of falling warm colored leaves or a homemade pumpkin pie with whipped cream. Autumn brings an emotional plague; a weight in my throat, bearing down through my esophagus into the pit of my stomach. All I want to do is crawl away, silently. I felt like I was being sucked into the darkness of winter every day as the earth tilted herself away from the sun; the shorter the days became, the heavier I felt. The people in my life had once accepted all of this about me. They were unsure of my melancholy but respected my solitude. I felt sure of this as I felt sure of the sturdiness of trees. I was lucky to have friends that understood my moods like a foundation provided when the sun no longer held me up.
I didn’t smoke the entire cigarette. I put it out gently to smoke the other half later. I stood up and stretched then opened front door. I felt the cool air behind me as the warm air pulled me inside. I walked into the dining area and sat down at the table where my laptop was opened. I stared at the screen wanting to finish a working chapter but became suddenly distracted by my heart pounding inside my head. A faint voice whispered but I couldn’t make out what it was saying. Another was chanting in rhythm with my heartbeat in spite of its lacking any real pitch. I’d rather be distracted by more pleasurable sounds like a duet of fiddle and Irish flute. I closed my laptop, realizing my brain was done writing for the night. I went outside again. I felt the cool weighty air go silent; the crickets gave up their quest. The moon shone brightly and the Mohawk River anticipated another day before it fully shined. I lit my half cigarette and gazed at the moon smiling through every branch of maple leaves that began their turn to slowly dive to a crunching death.
Every summer I make the drive up to Lake Placid and stay for four months to write and take photos of nature in the area. Getting away from the city and noise allows me to open myself to the forest which brings much needed solace. Summer breezes and waving branches welcome me like Grandma did with open arms on Christmas Eve after a long drive up winding mountain roads. My brother would listen to music on his Walkman. Whatever happened to the simplicity of cassette tapes? He’d stare out the window for hours counting the white dashed lines in the middle of the road waiting to see road kill. I preferred the silence on road trips; spotting the occasional rabbit or deer off the side of the road grazing. Instead, I was forced to listen to my parents argue over money and in-laws.
I think those drives north were only a little over five hours from Worcester but that’s an eternity to a kid knowing what awaits at Grandma and Grandpa’s house. There were always freshly baked cookies and pound cakes awaiting, and the smell of homemade apple and cherry pies baking in the oven. There was even a southern sweet potato pie just for me. I was the only one that liked it besides Grandpa. He was from North Carolina and had a hand written list of recipes passed down three generations of southern cooking. Grandma became accustomed to “fixin” a few of those old recipes for him and me. Breakfast was my favorite: eggs over easy, sausage, bacon, hash browns, grits, and homemade buttermilk biscuits topped with gravy made from meaty grease with flour and milk.
I never learned to cook any of it but my memory still holds the aroma of Grandma’s cooking when I walk into this house every June. I miss Grandma. I miss Grandpa too, but he passed when I was sixteen. I remember our fishing trips when we’d walk down to Little Ray Brook. My brother and I spent three weeks every summer with our grandparents. I always enforced Grandma’s rule of What happens in Grandma and Grandpa’s house, stays in their house like cookies for lunch and staying up until 3am watching old war movies and David Attenborough nature documentaries on video cassettes.
During our summer visits, I listened to Grandma’s old vinyl records of Irish folk music. By the time I was nine my brother and I had every tune memorized. Grandma played the fiddle and Irish flute and taught me how to play the Irish flute. My brother learned how to play the guitar and sing along with Grandpa when Grandma played her fiddle. We were quite the quartet. We learned many of the old songs from those records by ear. None of us were as good at picking up the tune as Grandma could easily pick out each chord, melodic and harmonic lines. At the end of our stay when mom and dad arrived we would put on a concert for them.
When Grandpa died we still came up for Christmas but those three-weeks visits in the summer stopped. Mom said Grandma wanted to travel in the summer. Grandpa never liked to travel so when he passed Grandma took advantage of escaping a constant reminder of loss. She went to Alaska and Mexico, all over Europe and even parts of Africa. She took many photographs of the places she visited. She even had some of her photos published in a few National Geographic magazines. After I finished my undergrad in English Education at Boston University, I served four years in the Peace Corps. On some of my travels I got to visit the same places Grandma showed me in photographs. I admired Grandma for her dauntless travels alone. As an adult, I certainly appreciated her more as a distinguished, intellectual woman rather than the fluffy, sweet, kitchen and garden lady, I used to know and love.
I had decided to settle my life in Albany after the Peace Corps since it was only a two and a half hour drive to Grandma’s house. I received a teaching certificate and became a school teacher at a private institution for exceptional children. School sessions went from the first week of October until the last week in May. Most of my students were highly intelligent but had emotional obstacles ranging from ADHD, anxiety, and depression to mood and personality disorders. I never felt qualified enough to teach these students but special-ed teachers were at a minimum and the few that did hold degrees in that field only lasted a couple years before burnout. I saw teaching these kids as a healthy challenge to possibly gain some insight into my own neurosis. Instead, my anxiety went through the roof, so I stayed doped up on whatever cocktail of pharmaceuticals were popular at the time. The medication numbed me to a blind insistence on staying with this narcissistic guy I had met while serving in the Corps. His only attribute was his taste in music.
Refuge began in June after my first year of teaching. I wanted to spend the summers in Lake Placid where Grandma awaited me once again with open arms. After ten years of traveling she called it quits and returned home. Arthritis and all the other ailments of age had finally caught up with her. She was content to settle down again this time for no one but herself. She refused to have a vegetable garden and instead focussed on her flowers and fruit trees. Grandma loved to photograph trees and landscapes but mostly her daffodils. Staying with her for four months was quite the learning experience besides our relationship blossoming into a best friendship. Grandma taught me everything about photography including how to develop my own photos. She had snapped thousands of photos and developed them herself in a darkroom Grandpa had built in the basement. There are over twenty albums filled with her traveling photos. I need to go through them all one of these days. I haven’t had the heart as of late.
The apple, pear, and apricot trees put out some sweet fruit this year. They need some trimming but I think Grandma would be proud to know that I picked often this past summer and sold at the market what I couldn’t eat. The other farmers were happy to see that I continued Grandma’s spot at the market. It was strange selling fruit without Grandma exchanging stories with the other old farmers. It felt awkward and lonely. However, she would be disappointed if she saw the empty garden of daffodil death. Grandma said that looking out her kitchen window into her garden of daffodils was like God’s hand of sunshine blooming up from the ground. Yellow was her favorite color. My mom’s side of the family were all Irish. Grandma was the first generation American. She held onto long traditions of large holiday meals and playing Irish folk tunes but her favorite family tradition was having a flower garden full of daffodils.
I lit another cigarette and let the smoke out slowly. The haze lingered and burned my eyes reminding me of Grandma’s insistence of quitting. Those damn cancer sticks! That was the only time I ever heard her use profanity. As shameful as it was to hear Grandma complain I wish I could hear it now. All I hear is the coming of nightfall and leaves brushing against one another from a slight westerly breeze that just moved in. The occasional muffled hoot of a heart-shaped-face barn owl lets me know that I’m not alone in these woods tonight.
I went back inside and stood at the door gazing around the lifeless family room. The house was silent and felt empty without Grandma despite the faint creaks and reluctant whispers in the walls. To my left was a small bench painted yellow and green. Grandpa had made it for Grandma to set her pocket book and keys on when she came home. Further down the front wall were two windows overlooking the front porch and yard on the north side. It was a little stuffy inside and the house needed some fresh air. I opened the window closest to the east wall. Along that wall was the wood fireplace with two windows on either side. I opened the window closest to the south wall which had a series of bookshelves covering the entire wall top to bottom. The shelves were completely filled with a variety of interests: classic Irish and American literature, gardening and bird watching books, history and war texts, cookbooks and hundreds of national geographic magazines. One shelf in the center contained Grandma’s fiddle and Irish flute. The one below it held over a substantial collection of vinyl records along with a player.
To my right was the dining area which also faced the north side of the yard through one large window. The oval shaped table sat ten people and was decorated with a white tablecloth and Grandma-sewn place mats shaped like apples and pears. I looked out the window on the west wall dining area which overlooked the garden. Connecting to the dining area was the kitchen and it too had a single window over the sink where Grandma could admire the beauty of her daffodils. The staircase ran along the wall that separated the kitchen and family room and led to three bedrooms and a full bathroom.
In Grandma’s bedroom a typewriter sits on a small desk and it hasn’t been touched in over a year. I won’t clean it for fear of wiping away pieces left lingering of her. It is covered in dust except for the letters: E, Y, O, and L. I’m not sure why those letters. I figured I may have walked in my sleep one night and dabbled with the keys. I have been walking and talking in my sleep since I was a child. I am not a talkative person and I suppose I am making up for my waking silence through dreams and nightmares. I was curious what my subconscious wanted to say while I slept so I put a piece of paper in the typewriter to see what it read after a night’s sleep.
Besides walking in my sleep I hear voices. I’ve heard them since college. I am aware of their constant pointless chatter in whispers mostly. The voices have never directed me to do or say anything. I’m not afraid of them. I got used to them years ago. I told my therapist that it was probably the pot I smoked and she told me to stop smoking marijuana as it caused paranoia in some. She didn’t know however, that I was doing other things like mushroom teas, the occasional acid and ecstasy. I drank a lot too.
College was more of a social gathering in great surreal purple clouds floating thousands of miles above campus. The air tasted like chocolate silk gliding into my mouth caressing and fondling my lungs. Half the time I felt like this, and the other half I battled the voices while trying to pay attention in class and taking notes during lectures. My grades were decent. I had a 3.6 GPA by the time I walked across the stage listening to mom, dad, and brother hollering my name and Grandma whistling. Those years were like a Shakespeare comedy and I felt like the rest of my life would define me more harshly.
Teaching became a tragedy. The comedy was over. After the Peace Corps I had entered the real world of work and piss testes. Even the private school sector insisted on random drug testing for all staff. I didn’t miss getting high per se; I missed the social aspect of it all. Getting high meant being able to communicate without thought. Now, I’m not comfortable around anyone. When I’m around people I feel like they are expecting something significant from me; some profound statement that will somehow change the world. They judge every breath and every blink; staring and waiting as if I am wasting their time. I never felt like this with Grandma. I never felt like this with my brother and parents either but they were always a separate category of my expression. I didn’t have to think about my behavior around them. With Grandma, however, I did think about it but I never felt drained afterwards. Grandma gave me energy with her words, her melodies, her food and her smile. I was careful around her like I was careful around others but with her it didn’t feel contrived. I always felt connected. Sometimes I even thought I could BE Grandma, younger, living in a different dimension then one day I just slipped into this dimension with her. Could it be an explanation to the voices I often hear, calling me back to where I originally spawned?
My mind likes to wander off on the neurotransmitter paths not taken by most. Music and Grandma helped ground me when I wandered but sometimes I needed to be lost; alone with a particular song. My favorite song is by an Irish rock band called the Cranberries. It is called “Daffodil Lament.” It was a B-side song from their second album. I fell in love with this tune when I first heard the album while traveling in the Corps. Mr. Narcissist introduced me to the Cranberries after he’d seen them in concert in London. We were a seasonal couple; on and off for many painstaking years during my early twenties and into half of my 30th birthday year. After serving in the Peace Corps he would come to Albany to visit me, occasionally. He wasn’t interested in the school where I teaching nor was he even interested in my job. He never wanted a tour of Albany and the surrounding beauty of woods and lakes and rivers and wildlife. His only interest was watching porn, getting high, and fucking me. Fortunately, I don’t associate “Daffodil Lament” with him anymore otherwise the song would be ruined.
The fondest memory I have of “Daffodil Lament” is when Grandma heard it for the first time. It was after my second year of teaching. I had just drove up and Grandma was in the garden trimming off scarred dead pedals from her flowers. I had “Daffodil Lament” turned up loud in my car and was singing at the top of my lungs; windows down, red hair a flaring mess on a cool spring afternoon. Grandma looked up and smiled. The song was almost over as I waited for it to finish. I smiled back all exposed with my intense voice waving across the yard. In that moment I realized Grandma’s unconditional love for me. She accepted my moment and waited graciously as if being entertained by a singing angel. I sensed her knowing my need to hear the finality of the song. I watched her rise up slowly, never taking her eyes off me. She stood surrounded by a yellow pond of blooms mesmerized by my love for this simple pleasure of music. She didn’t open her arms; surely she knew to welcome me too soon would spoil the moment. I felt safe. I was happy. Grandma would always be here.
I sat down in Grandma’s recliner. It was still comfortable. Her small form never wore the chair down. It was brown with small white and yellow daisies all over. I turned off the lamp next to me that stood on a small round side table with one drawer that still contained reading glasses, a pen, foot cream and ointment for sore muscles. The moonlight was peering through the east window. Her hazy white light cast a soft glow toward the wood floor brushing across a few books on its way down. She was loyal to me still; the moon. I was assured by her presence that Grandma was her commander in the sky. I leaned back, closed my eyes, and listened to the breeze whistling through the screens of the open windows. I thought about Grandma and me staying up late playing Scrabble, sipping mint tea while the phonograph played our favorite tunes. Suddenly, my moment was jolted by the thump of a book hitting the wood floor. I looked into the darkness; my eyes slowly adjusting to the faint moonlight while my heart resumed its resting rate. The shadows revealed the slightest edge of a small book. I got up and walked over never taking my eyes off the book. I looked down and noticed it had fallen from one of the highest shelves.
The wind picked up and shifted directions. I don’t remember hearing on the radio anything about a front moving in but up here the weather is about as unpredictable as one of my students during lunch. A cool rush of air swept past me when I noticed the book was open and pages began to flip. I bent down and grabbed the book turning it over to read the cover. It was a hardcover, old, possibly from a library that closed down in town decades ago. The title of the book was “Flowers for Summer.” I turned the book back over as it was opened to the chapter on daffodils. The left facing page was a photograph of a field of yellow: daffodils of many shapes and sizes surrounded by lush green grass. I skimmed through the paragraphs that gave fertilizing and watering tips and when to trim. It was obvious this book had been held and opened to this page many times. But Grandma knew all this stuff. She hadn’t needed to refer to this book in many years.
I closed the book and laid it down on the side table next to the recliner. The wind continued to bring the crisp cool air inside and remove the musty odors of my shoes and curtains that needed washing. The whistling resumed this time from all three open windows. I felt like I was surrounded by a chorus of flutes. Now all I needed were my friendly voices. I wondered if they had finally given up after so many years of not reacting to them. The wind died down and the whistling stopped. I was alone again.
It was late and I finally felt tired. I walked upstairs to Grandma’s bedroom passing both guest rooms. When I entered, the window on the east wall just over the desk was cracked. The room was cold. The cool air from downstairs had rushed through and sucked out any warmth that normally settled upstairs after dusk. I closed the window and looked at the typewriter. The paper was still there. I went into my room and plopped down on top of the bedspread, staring at the ceiling for a few seconds before I felt the weight of my eyelids fall to a close.
Falling, falling, falling leaves. Why are their colors the brightest before death? There is snow. It gently fills the space between leaves. Both; a race in slow motion. Each snowflake a fingerprint; as each leaf a mark of death. My eyes should be burning from the cold wind rippling. Snowflakes whirl into a funnel cloud as leaves join the dance. I’m standing in something but cannot tell what it is. I bend over to touch but cannot quite reach. I dare not move in fear of harming what surrounds me. The leaves scatter clearing my vision. The snowflakes fall like a blanket of shiny crystals all over a field of yellow daffodils. Suddenly the sky is clear and all that’s left is this endless field of beautiful flowers. The sunlight reflects off each tiny peculiar ice sculpture that has delicately landed on daffodil pedals.
I woke up around 10:00 AM. I sat up in bed and noticed the sunlight shining down the hallway. It was cold. A front had moved in this morning. I got up barefooted and walked out of my room; wobbling with sleepy still in my eyes. The wood floor was cold but I felt the warmth of sun rays coming from Grandma’s room. I walked towards the room squinting taking small deliberate steps. With every step the floor grew warmer and the sunlight grew brighter coming through Grandma’s window. My eyes adjusted rather quickly. The particles of light were in consonance carrying an obedient dust pattern that floated in a circular motion. When I approached the open door Grandma’s room was cast in a myriad of yellow and gold hues. The sunlight poured in through the east window. Why had he returned? He was supposed to be moving farther away. I was curious to see if I had sleepwalked as I approached the desk. Suddenly everything stopped; the dust and light particles frozen in a space. Silence engulfed the room removing any unwanted creaking sounds from the walls and floor; no voices. I was held by the moment without the need to take a breath. I couldn’t move anything but my eyes. I felt the warm sunlight wrap around me like a blanket. I was cocooned and it felt safe. I felt loved by the sun again. But then in an instant, the sunlight unwrapped me into a cold lonely room. The light no longer shone through the window; the sun began its quest for its daily rise over the house. I began to cry. I wanted Grandma here with me. I needed her arms to be open again while standing in her daffodil garden. I needed to see her smile welcoming my embrace. I wiped my eyes and pulled out the paper from the typewriter; it read Y E L L O W! I dropped the paper; hobbling out of room and down the stairs.
I approached the kitchen window wiping my eyes half expecting to see a garden of yellow. But there was nothing but death left over from last year’s daffodil’s. Red, orange, gold and brown leaves covered the ground. This time last year Grandma and I were raking the leaves before my drive back to the city. This year I’d have to do it without her. I realized I only had this afternoon left to clean, pack and check the security of the house before leaving tomorrow morning. I walked into the family room and noticed the garden book, “Flowers for Summer,” on the side table open to the same page of which it had fallen. I picked up the book and sat down in the recliner. And the daffodils look lovely today, look lovely today, look lovely, look lovely...I sang this line over and over as tear drops fell to the page. I miss you Grandma so much.
I remembered last summer recalling Grandma’s health declining. She became fatigued easily and no longer had the energy to stand for long periods. I picked the fruit from the trees alone but she still insisted on going to the market. She didn’t cook as much that summer but I didn’t mind cereal for breakfast and sandwiches for lunch and dinner. No matter how Grandma felt she was still in her daffodil garden every morning. She sat on a short stool focussing what little energy she had left maintaining her yellow beauty. She never talked of dying or seeing Grandpa again and she never complained. We treated each other as if nothing had changed. Leaving that autumn filled me with despair knowing my return for Christmas with my family may be to an empty house. “Daffodil Lament” screamed through my car, windows up, while I wept loudly under its requiem.
Grandma had requested a simple service with family and close friends. Her Will requested a Wake at the church for friends and acquaintances to pay their respects. Her funeral setting, however, was more intimate. Grandma had asked the family to invite a list of six close friends and have a simple cookout lunch set up next to her daffodil garden. She wanted my brother and me to play “The Parting Glass” and an old neighbor on the acreage just north to play his Irish bagpipes. The bagpipes played before lunch after a prayer. I choked down the tears while my mother wept instead. Grandma’s garden never looked more beautiful than that day. We ate and drank and talked about all of Grandma’s idiosyncrasies and travels around the world passing around old photos of her and family. We cried and laughed and sang bringing Grandma back to life through an endless chain of memories. I felt she was safe with Grandpa again; the two smiling down on all of us.
Morning came quickly. It was nice to rise to a clean house. My suitcase stood at attention next to the dresser. I got up, brushed my teeth and went downstairs to make some coffee. More leaves had fallen where I had raked and I’m sure there were more to come. I drank my coffee without a smoke. I had finished my last one yesterday. I could pick up a pack at the gas station before getting on the interstate since had to fill my tank anyway. A basket of pears and apples sat next to me on the front porch. The air was crisp and cool. I heard a few crows cawing to each other; skittishly keeping their distance. I hated how shy they were considering their intellect. Grandma loved the crows and she used to feed them corn. This was something else I need to do next spring when I come back; for Grandma, for the crows, and for me.
I looked around the yard, took my last sip of coffee and went back inside to gather my things. I walked upstairs and put a new piece of paper in the typewriter. I await your message, Grandma. I love you. I grabbed my suitcase and laptop, walked downstairs then double checked all the windows and doors. I looked around the family room and stopped at Grandma’s recliner but got distracted by the sight of a last minute hummingbird on the feeder outside the from porch window. I noticed my purse and keys lay on the yellow bench so I headed for the door. I locked up and got in my car hesitating to start the engine. I felt like I had forgotten something. I blew it off, turned on some Cranberries and drove down the driveway. Then it hit me. I figured out what I forgot.
Spring has come finally. Winter seemed so brutal this year in Albany. Not a lot of snow but extremely cold and long. It’s been a few years since I’ve made the drive up north. I’ve spent the last couple of summers traveling and meeting some of Grandma’s overseas acquaintances. She had kept in touch with a young couple in Verona and a woman in Montpellier. I traveled though France, Switzerland, Italy, Croatia and much of Eastern Europe last summer and completed a novel along the way. The summer before I spent most of my time on a salmon fishing boat outside Alaska snapping photos of intoxicating sunsets and playful humpback whales.
I left the private school sector and began teaching at a public school; 12th grade Literature. I like it thus far though it has been quite the adjustment. The students seemed bored at the beginning of the school year but that changed rather quickly with a little enthusiasm from this teacher. I had my students work in groups of four the entire year. Each group focussed on personal interests and combined their ideas in writing poetry, plays, short stories or memoirs. Classic works became easier to read and understand once their minds were open to other’s through discussion, introspection and originality. I think I learned more from my students than they did from me! It was a successful year.
I’ve made a few teacher friends at the high school. We’ve gone out for coffee and happy hours downtown on Friday evenings. I’ve even had a couple dates but nothing worth writing about. I’m eating a little healthier and jogging in the evenings. Grandpa would be happy to know I’ve learned to fix some of his favorite southern recipes. I don’t hear voices anymore. They stopped that last night at Grandma’s house. I suppose the medication I’m taking has helped but mostly it reduces anxiety so I can sleep. I’ve been seeing a new therapist for a while now. He has helped me quick smoking cigarettes through hypnosis; more like subtle suggestion really but so far it’s working.
I’m heading home to pack my suitcase. School is out and it’s time to get out of this town. I feel inspired to write but not on my laptop. I want to use Grandma’s typewriter and stories are lined up in my head like a crowded line at a carnival. Grandma’s “Flowers for Summer” book sits next to Grandma’s recliner and awaits my read. I’m ready to dig my hands in the soil. I know I have some long hours ahead of me trimming fruit trees and cultivating new gardens at Grandma’s house. I also intend to pull out all of her traveling photo albums. I am curious to see her beautiful photos next my newer versions of the same places we both visited at different times. I’m looking forward to a beautiful summer, writing, picking and selling fruit, going through Grandma’s photo albums and taking new photos of the Grandma’s new yellow garden I intend to start again; OUR daffodils.