Sunday, June 17, 2012

Gates of Passage

A few of the words came in dribbles, others eluded her completely. Katy’s spotty recollection of the Mending Wall would have crushed Mrs. Carter; a woman who believed the poem to be of such greatness that all third graders should have devoured every word and committed them to memory. Katy recalled the look of horror on her teacher’s face as she explained Frost’s ambiguity left her cold inside. Her teacher coaxed her to an empty corner as if a third-grader with an opinion might be contagious. Swallowed by a state of panic, Mrs. Carter drew the back of her hand across her forehead and crumpled into the nearest chair. Katy had yet to connect the sharing of her thoughts with her teacher’s sudden illness, and she had plenty more to say. She described in great detail her profound sense of disappointment in the author’s inability to act upon his apparent desire to tear down the barrier. Mrs. Carter’s eyelids fluttered as Katy attempted to lighten the mood by suggesting that perhaps Frost was riding the proverbial fence of which he so eloquently wrote. Mrs. Carter’s eyelids slammed shut in a state of unconsciousness as Katy asserted indecision was in part, and in certain cases, a complete indicator of weakness.

She stared past the iron posts until the vertical and horizontal lines melted into a puddle of black. Fences served no purpose other than to keep people or things locked on one side or the other. She supposed the builder of this particular fence a fool. With respect to graveyards and spirits, barriers were helpless to do either.

Katy leaned her bicycle against the fence. She hated when mother was right and she had been on both accounts. In a perfect world Katy would have been mature enough to have attended her grandmother’s funeral with the rest of the family, and she supposed most fourteen year old girls had long ago removed the flowered basket hanging from the handle bars of their bicycles. Most girls her age didn’t ride bikes at all, but that was their problem.

Katy was born a roller coaster, her mother a merry-go-round, and most days the chasm separating them could not be bridged. Mother seemed to believe if she threw the term ‘young lady’ at her a gazillion times a day perhaps at least a remnant of it would stick. Katy wanted to puke a putrid, green, stream every time she heard it. Her mother acted as if she should understand completely what the title entailed and how to navigate the waters gracefully. She didn’t. Life in its present form simply moved too fast. Each day ushered in a new level of awkwardness. Katy longed for yesterday. She missed the way her pigtails bounced when she sprinted to first base, how her dolly’s eyes sparkled when the two sipped tea from tiny cups, and the strange feeling in her tummy when her father bounced her on his knee.
Overnight something swooped down and snatched every beautiful thing from her life. She despised the cakey feel of makeup, like her face could barely breathe; how her breasts continue to swell, interfering with the handle bars on hair-pin turns. The way the boys looked and smiled at her was different and disgusting. If these awful things were part of being a young lady she would rather stay a child. Stopping time didn’t appear to be an option. The injustice of being uncomfortable in your skin seemed inevitable and permanent.

Katy scanned the graveyard for fresh mounds of dirt, finding three that matched the general location her mother had given.  She lifted a paper sack from the bicycle basket, bit down hard on her lower lip, and moved toward the archway that marked the entrance.  The framework of twisted iron rose gracefully from one side of the gate before falling to the other, finding time enough between rise and fall to paint an ornate design against an azure sky. Even in a parking lot for the dead there were hints of elegance if you took the time to seek them out. The hinges of the gate were rusty and the moan dashed any hope of slipping in quietly and anonymously. A doorbell for the dead she thought.

“It’s Katy, Grammy. You home?”

After the words left her mouth she realized how ridiculous they were, but no more so than using ‘Eenie-Meenie’ to select one of the three graves. Her skinny finger bounced from one to the other until two were eliminated. Tightening the grip on the paper bag she tiptoed forward. The lettering on the temporary markers was tiny and difficult to read. By the time Katy could make out the name “Herman Mortimor Wagner” she realized her feet were nearly touching where his should be. She envisioned the toenails tickling hers to be black, curled, and filled with dirt. A sudden creepiness scaled her spine. She drew a deep breath and began backing slowly. Her heel snagged a hardened clod of dirt and a startled shriek ended abruptly when she met with the ground.

A sudden wave of easiness washed over her. If an angry spirit was on the prowl, her clumsiness would have made his work easy. She could only hope that clumsiness made the flesh bitter and sprits avoided her type altogether. Katy slowly reclaimed the breath squeezed from her. Her face flushed as she felt the breeze, much cooler and in places it should not be. She scrambled to pull the purple dress from her waist back over her hips and glared at the high heels strapped to her feet. She turned to the marker and spoke in an apologetic tone.

“I’m so very sorry, Herman Mortimor—wrong grave. This is all new to me…the heels, the dress, graveyards in general. While I’m not at all sure if spirits communicate with one another, if they do, please don’t tell my Granny you saw my underwear. She’d be very disappointed and embarrassed for me.”

Grannies did those kinds of things without thinking—bearing the good and the bad of their grandchildren’s decisions. “No mistake is unrecoverable”, she used to say. Granny used those words a lot with Katy. The time she confused tablespoons with teaspoons, when purple grape juice dribbled down her white ruffled blouse, but especially when a clumsy turn sent a family heirloom to an early grave. Katy burst into tears when she realized what she had done, but without expression Granny patted the top of her head, grabbed a broom, and swept up the remains. As Katy shivered at the sound of broken glass dropping into an empty waste can, Granny whispered that she had secretly hated the color and shape of that old vase, but never had the courage to do anything about it. She went on and on how it resembled an urn; how the color matched nothing in her home, and the relief she felt to finally be rid of it. Katy supposed grandparents had the latitude to lie, if it spared the feelings of those they loved.

Granny was a master helmsman when it came to people. She steered difficult conversations and circumstance toward the best possible outcome. That day Granny tuned a broken vase into a discussion about the uniqueness of individuals. How some women were graceful and pleasing to the eye, and all that was fine and good, but the world placed too high a value on the exterior. She spoke of how courage was difficult to come by, and Katy had been born with more courage in a hangnail than most would discover during a lifetime. Granny didn’t dabble on the surface; she dove straight into the soul, probing the depths, searching for jewels to bring to the surface.       

Katy plopped down Indian-style before her grandmother’s stone and wasted no time opening the paper bag. 

“Hey Grammy, brought one for each of us.”

Katy laid a peanut butter and banana sandwich at the base of the stone and took a bite from the other. Katy giggled.

“Met your neighbor, Herman Mortimor, a few minutes ago…a little scary at first, but seems like a nice enough guy.”

Katy reached deep into the paper bag.

“I found a vase to replace the one I broke. It’s purple and the lines are curvy and sexy. I hope you like it.”

The weight of holding up a one-sided conversation worked on Katy’s insides. Tears formed in the corner of her eyes as she placed a fresh bouquet of white daisies in the vase.

“Plain and beautiful, Grammy, just like you.”

Sobs came in uncontrollable bursts, tears carving her cheeks like tiny knives.

“The truth is I miss you terribly. Right now life is unbelievably hard. I don’t have the answers to anything, and you’re not here to help me anymore.”

Katy felt the presence of granny close. She adored the strength of her arms wrapped around her and the peace and comfort seeping into her soul. Katy absorbed every ounce of goodness and encouragement a vision of Granny could offer. She placed her hand on the stone and closed her eyes. The sun broke across the bridge of her nose, warm and inviting.  Katy listened intently to the sound the wind made as it slipped through the boughs of the pines. Wanting—believing desperately that her grandmother’s voice could heal everything.  

As is so often the case in life, Katy did not receive what she believed to be the answer to all her difficulties in life. She was however blessed with a measure of understanding that allowed her to move forward one more day in a positive direction.

Katy returned to her bicycle and skipped across the lawn with purpose. She stood a long while admiring the flowered bicycle basket setting at the head of Herman Mortimor Wagner. She expected to return now and again filling the basket with a portion of the flowers she brought for Granny, and they would laugh at how awkward their first meeting had been.  

Granny smiled deeply as she watched a budding young woman slip through the mist of dusk toward home. Piece by piece Katy would discover that her strength was not founded in a tired old woman, but was budding and growing within. Soon the garden in her belly would flourish to excess. Granny could hardly wait until Katy shared it with another and two generations passed through the gate to lay flowers.   

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