“It seems a bit cannibalistic to eat a tomato,” I said, squinting at Raina in the bright summer sun.
She paused, her brown hair glinting with its summer sheen.
“How did she get to be fourteen?” I thought to myself. “She was just a baby.”
“Mom, you’re so weird,” Raina said.
I smiled at her freckles as she tossed her bangs to the side of her dew kissed forehead.
“Well, think about it,” I said.
I pinched a plump red orb still clinging to its vine.
“It’s kind of like a babies butt. All smooth, and firm,” I said laughing.
“Now you’re just gross,” Raina said, but her mouth twitched at the corners, and she turned and looked over at the fence.
“I see you smiling,” I said quietly, pulling the tender tomato from the vine.
Raina continued to stare at the fence that surrounded our garden. She got to her feet and picked up the yellow tabby from the other side of the fence that had been swatting beans through the slats. For a moment she was a little girl, hugging her kitten to her face, her hair cascading over its swatting paw. The cat jumped to the ground and ran off―her childhood following close behind. She turned toward me.
“Can I go over to Gina’s?”
I stood and brushed off the front of my jeans.
“Is her mom home?” I asked.
“Yes, Mom!” she snapped back.
I regarded her a moment.
“Be home at eight,” I said.
“But it’s summer,” she said with a whine, as if her childhood had sneaked up again behind her.
I gave her the mom stare. She did her best to match it but I had years and two kids on her, and she had barely even felt a hormone yet.
“Fine,” she said, turning and stepping over the fence. As she walked to the house I watched her arms swinging defiantly, then gradually moving in a rhythm that matched the songs of the birds in the trees over her head. The sun seemed to wink at me through the branches in a knowing way.
I let out a long breath and returned to the tomatoes, pretending my back didn’t wince as I lowered myself to my knees.
It felt good to be out of school for the summer. I had two more years to go before I would graduate and hopefully find a job. Somehow we were making it. It had been three years since Jason died, and the insurance money was stretched tight. I missed him so much. I took a bite of tomato, letting the juice drip off my chin before wiping it with the back of my hand.
I didn’t really care that much for tomatoes, but god, he had loved them. I took another bite, feeling closer to him as I chewed. I looked around the garden―his garden. The girls and I had kept it going since he’d passed, but it was getting harder. Mel just graduated high school and was working and getting ready for college, and Raina was getting too busy with her friends. I sat back on the ground and tossed the rest of the tomato against the fence. The sun waved as it dipped behind the top of the house, and I smiled back, trying not to notice the tear that had slid slowly down and come to rest on the crease between my nose and cheek.
I put the last tomato in the basket and stood, shaking the stiffness that had settled over me onto the ground with the dirt and straw. My hands found their way to the hair I had pulled back and absently adjusted the band. I looked at my hands, and slid the skin on the back of one with the thumb of the other. I was seeing myself watching my grandmother do the same thing when I was small and sitting with her at her kitchen table, the summer I had stayed with her on her farm. That had been my favorite summer―taming barn kittens, chocolate soup, and catching fireflies in canning jars. I remember the rattling of the cicadas that cascaded through the air, and the smile that would wake up my face when the roosters began to sing in the early morning before the other birds had thought to.
I sat down on the swing, not bothering to dust if off from the absence of little girls. Why was it that an empty back yard was so much easier than an empty house? I looked at the huge basket of tomatoes I had set by the slide. I would bag them up and take them over to Mrs. Lynn’s and Mrs. Saddler’s that evening. None of us like tomatoes very much, but Mrs. Lynn and Mrs. Saddler both like to can them, despite the fact that they were both well into their eighties. I understood, though. Being busy made another day pass.
My old friends don’t call anymore. They didn’t understand, and I didn’t want to explain it. It’s funny how people have about a two week limit for someone else’s grief. First there are cards and flowers and casseroles. Then, just as the numbness starts to wear off, there are a lot of awkward glances and long silences. You haven’t even started feeling the mountain of pain and they are starting to make excuses why they can’t stop by. I figured it out after about four or five months. We hide death under our doormats in this society, like an old rusty house key long forgotten. We know it’s there, but we’d rather keep trying to scrape it off our shoes and stay all snug and warm in our houses, pretending it will get old and rusty like that key. Maybe, if we’re lucky, we’ll never have to lift that mat to find it.
I leaned back on the swing as far as I could stretch and lifted my toes off the ground, closing my eyes to the clouds that swirled between the dancing branches of the big old maple. I didn’t hear her at first, but then pulled myself up when I heard Mel calling out the back door.
“Mama,” she called, and I smiled at the way she still called me that at eighteen.
“Coming,” I called back. I grabbed the basket and walked toward the house like a kid called in for supper.
I looked at her and wondered at the grin she had on her bronzed face. She laughed and kissed my cheek, and I looked around the dining room as she slid the glass door shut behind me, blinking the sunshine from my eyes in the dusky room.
Raina came around the corner following a cake with smoking pink candles and dark brown frosting.
I stood puzzled a moment, trying to think of the date.
“Happy Birthday, Mama,” Mel said, taking the basket from my arms. I looked at her with surprise and she guided me to the table. She and Raina started singing and I sat watching as they turned into loving women before me. Raina ran out of sight for a moment and returned with a large box.
“What in the world…” I started to say, but Raina thrust the box onto my lap and Mel pulled the top off, both as excited as they were on those first Christmas mornings.
Staring back at me was a tiny face of fur, shiny and black and wiggling to be free of its cardboard confines.
I pulled the tiny puppy out and it licked my nose. I couldn’t help but cradle it to me, and looked from Mel to Raina through a mist of tears.
Mel pulled the hair back from my cheek and Raina bent down and kissed the other.
“Happy Birthday, Mama,” they said.