I hear a knock on the door as I’m coming down the stairs this morning. The three dogs are going crazy, barking and jumping at the screen door.
“Hello,” I call from the landing.
“Hey, Bob from Goldforest,” he says, removing his hat.
“Oh, of course. Just a sec—I’ll get the dogs.”
“Seth,” I yell, “The landscaping guy is here. The dogs are going berserk. Where are their bowls?” I find the bowls before he answers, scoop the kibble and place them on the linoleum floor. They ignore the food, more interested in visitors who show up before 8:00 a.m.
Seth arrives on the porch as Bob and I step off the porch to look at the front of Self Help, the name of our summer cottage.
“Do you want me to come down?” he asks, wearing socks.
“I want you to manage the dogs.”
“Okay,” and, just to spite me, the dogs fall silent, gazing in adoration at their master.
Bob must think I’m a lunatic. Summoning every inch of headmistress dignity in me, I point to the overgrown pachysandra and sedum.
“I think we need to get ahold of this bed; it’s sort of jumped the boundaries,” I manage, pretending I am the lady of the house, which, in fact, I am.
From the porch, Seth adds, “You can see the border of stones. Once all the pachysandra was behind it.”
“How long ago was that?” Bob asks.
How long ago? Before my mother died, certainly. Her last summer up here was 2009. It was before she got frailer those last few summers. 2005? Truthfully, I can’t ever remember anyone tending the front of the house, except for Mom, often attired in her bathrobe and slippers, hacking at the native honeysuckle—now verboten in Eagles Mere—with her clippers.
But that was at the edge of the property. This morning we’re looking at what’s planted close to the house—leggy laurel bushes, a yew bush that is oppressively square…there’s a stump, too, implacable in the front lawn, from a Maple Mom took down ten years or so ago. Why did she leave that stump? It is too late to ask her. One more question I wish I had asked of my amazing, complicated mother.
In the early years of the summer theatre program my husband and I ran—the mid-80’s—Mom was younger than I am now. We spent each summer with her split between this house and one full of teenagers exuberant about theatre. Then, I’m not sure I appreciated her willingness to be who she was, to clip shrubbery in her bathrobe if she felt like it, to invite strangers up onto the porch, to talk to summer people and year-round people in the exact same tone of voice, to tend to Kitty, our elderly across-the-street neighbor, with patience and love, when Kitty would call, frantic.
“Cooie? Is that Cooie?” her tremulous desperation seeping through the line.
“Just a second, Mrs. DeWeese. I’ll get her,” and covering the receiver, I’d holler, “Mom, it’s Mrs. DeWeese.”
Mom would murmur and hang up the phone, “She’s misplaced her mother’s diamond brooch again.” Slipping into her penny loafers, circa 1949, across the street she would go in her elastic-waist green polyester pants, ending unfashionably above her ankles—not in any kind of capri way–—and not in any kind of capri way—and untucked turtle-neck. She’d find the errant pin and return home again, taking up her place on the porch in her favorite rocker. She and my husband were thick as thieves, headed off to auctions together, discussing the house’s electrical load, interviewing contractors, but weirdly, never discussing landscaping.
She and Seth were thick as thieves, always conferring about home improvement projects, headed off to auctions together, re-fencing the tennis court, painting the porch, putting a new roof on, discussing wiring and the house’s electrical load, but, weirdly, never even having a conversation that I can recall about landscaping.
I take Bob over to the side of the house, point out the spindly old hydrangea bushes that burst into huge white blooms in mid-August, now often after I’ve had to leave to return to Ohio. The branches are higher than the porch now, but I love them.
“These are some old trees, all right. Yep, we can put in some new ones below. That won’t hurt these old girls.”
I smile at him, remembering nests of robins practicing for flight while, I, nestled with a book in the porch swing, watched their attempts.
“That tree, over there, though. That ‘un,” he gestures to the enormous blue spruce by the tennis court. “That’s a goner. Got a disease.”
I swallow. It’s my brother’s tree, the one his friends presented to my mother the week after he died at eighteen. I was fourteen. We’d planted it with great ceremony. I’d watched it grow tall and steady, a memory of my brother.
“Important to you, is it?” Bob asks.
I bite my top lip, feeling fourteen again. “It is. Sentimental value.” I cannot explain it all to Bob, the years without my brother.
“See there. The new growth is good, but there in the back; it’s all gone. I’ve got a guy I can call. He says best thing to do with blue spruces is not to plant ‘em.”
Seth is suddenly by my side.
“Call your guy,” he calmly instructs. “Let’s see.”
Hold and release. Hold the memory close; let go again and again and again.