Maria S. Picone
As a child, I loved to pinch the suckers from the tomatoes out underneath the terracotta sun. They grew in between the branches, signaling a riot or a disorder too deep to be named, other than Nature. In my own garden slept a forest of herbs and wildflowers—blue delphinium, purple Johnny-jump-ups, catnip, and spearmint. I made tea, potpourri, and magical concoctions from this bounty. To me, bliss could be nothing other than a summer day on the deck, drinking a lemonade and watching my cat, Elizabeth, frolic like a kitten in the grass, or exploring the woods across the street with my friends, hiking to the mysterious wooden bench where we sat to discuss middle-school secrets, wishes, and dreams with no witnesses but tall patient oaks and each other.
My parents grew eggplants, cucumbers, zucchini, and tomatoes to stock my grandmother’s fridge. If we didn’t have them for her, chances were that her brother would bring them by. He kept a plot the size of a house’s foundation out underneath the pine trees bordering his land. My grandmother cooked until she fell for the umpteenth time, entering a nursing home to give her time to heal.
We paved over the garden so my grandmother could come home; the slope created a driveway, solving the problem of too many stairs for her wheelchair. It was the first time my parents killed something I loved. But I knew about death. Once, I overwatered an African violet. The fuzzy leaves reminded me of a cat’s tongue, their shape the spades in her deck of cards. It burgeoned with good health before it dropped, wilting and half-rotted, its leaves coated in gray dust.
My grandmother’s room at the nursing home faced the nursing home garden and the woods, and she had a large window. In every season, her brother and his wife would decorate it with window clings to brighten the room where she spent her last ten years.
Coming back from college for her ceremony, I ran to the woods when it got too much to be in the house, the darkness. It was a damp March and the slush of the forest floor gave way to rotten leaves. The bench remained, a little grayer than before. I took off my glove and stroked the battered wood with my bare hand. Content in what did and never changed.
I saved the roses, dramatic and dark, from her funeral. Their stems had sharp thorns like a cat’s claws.
My senior year of college, my great-uncle and aunt emailed to tell me that my grandmother’s Christmas cactus, a sickly old plant that had languished with her in the nursing home, had bloomed. “I know it sounds crazy but I’m convinced it’s a message from Gus for Maria’s graduation,” they wrote. I could see in those fertile green leaves, the sharp edges, the red holiday cheer of my childhood home, living on with my cat in the afterlife.
The last time I visited her headstone, we planted geraniums. Someone had left a pot of petunias, the potting soil black with rain. I looked at the slick granite that bore our name, Picone. We pulled a pile of weeds to put in the plastic bag, an offering of clover, bluegrass, and dandelions. The cemetery, like a sacred grove, is wrapped in forest. Neither the sky nor my eyes were clear, but a bliss lingered in me nonetheless as I swept away the browned pine needles blown down from the trees.