Sunday at my writers group meeting, one of the women showed us a book her daughter had given her called “The Complete Story.” In it are about 200 pages of prompts for short stories, and the rest of the page is for you to complete the story. I thought, out loud, what a big help that would be in my quest to attempt fiction. We decided as a group to pass the book around, each of us could take a turn perusing the book and writing based on one of the prompts. Since I clearly needed it the most, I got it first.
I’ve been reading the prompts and marking the ones I think I could do something with by putting a little scrap of paper in the page. I have about 5 marked, so now I have to pick one! What I’m going to do is publish whatever I come up with below, and put the prompt portion in italics. I guess I’m about to see if I can actually write fiction.
Growing Up in the Garden
I didn’t cry when she died, or at the funeral, or at the reception. It wasn’t until the next morning when I went into the pantry and saw row upon row of canned vegetables and fruits and jams she had prepared for the long winter ahead. The shelves were filled with memories, memories of my grandmother’s garden, memories of her laughter, and her stories as we weeded, and picked and watered. One story though, bubbled up to the surface standing in that pantry. One that only I knew, and had stuffed into the recesses of my heart.
Gramma had an acre of land just on the city limits. It had been her family’s homestead, and she had lived there all her life. At one time, it had been a farm in the country, but the town had spread out to her place in the last couple decades and she and my grandfather had sold off the other acreage they owned, so that they could keep the homestead, a rambling old farm house and gardens, and a big shed out back, full of gardening tools, composting bins, wheelbarrows, mowers and wagons etc. She kept a big vegetable garden, a berry patch and some fruit trees. There was a hedge of current berries running along one border of her yard.
As I looked on her shelf at the jars of current berry jelly, with their neatly waxed tops, I was transported back to a memory that changed my life forever.
The berries produced by these bushes were prolific. Gramma usually picked them with me, and she’d always stop before the end of the hedge. If she sent me out there by myself, she’d tell me exactly where to stop. As I got old enough to pick them on my own, I began to idly wonder why we never went all the way down the hedge. I asked her once, and she told me she just liked to keep close to the house, and that the berries on that end of the hedge weren’t as good because the soil was not as good as the soil closer to the house.
I never really believed that story, because there were obviously good berries down there, I could SEE them. So one day when I was 10 or 12, she lay down to take a nap, which became her practice as she got older. As soon as she fell asleep, I wandered out to the end of the hedge. Berries shining in the sunlight, and leaves green and healthy. I pushed aside branches, and climbed into the hedge a little, making a little fort around myself. Seated on the ground, I surveyed my little domain under the branches of the current berry bush.
The branches made a canopy over my head, and a floor of twigs and leaves. I looked off toward the end of the hedge, which also marked one border of her yard. I thought I saw a red ribbon hanging from a branch. It piqued my curiosity. It had to have been put there purposefully by someone who was, like me, hanging out under the berries.
I slowly crawled toward it, intrigued. As I approached on my hands and knees, swatting bugs from my face and arms, I could see the ground had been disturbed underneath the branch where the ribbon hung. Maybe not too recently, but recently enough to have no bed of leaves or twigs around it. I started to dig in the exposed dirt, with my bare hands.
A few inches below the surface my fingers scraped a flat surface, which clearly was not a rock, or a root of the current berries, or even the tree which was about 10 ft away from the hedge. I began furiously to dig the dirt off of whatever it was. My hands were covered, and my clothes, as I flung handfuls of dirt to the side. The form of a metal box began to take shape in the dirt. I found a heavy twig, strong enough to dig down the sides of the box. Finally, I had dug deep enough to be able to lift the box out of the dirt, unlatch the top and open it.
As I reached down to unclasp the latch, I stopped my self. Did I really want to know what was in here? Someone had taken a lot of care to bury this, to hide it from the world. And obviously, it was Gramma who hid it, because she never wanted us to go picking on this far end of the hedge. But my 11 year old’s curiosity got the better of me, and I decided to go for it.
The box, once I cleared some of the dirt off was a rusty black color. I took a deep breath and gently unclasped the latch. I raised the cover and found a stack of old letters, and below them, a pair of yellow baby booties. I gently picked them up and felt the soft yarn, and the satin ribbon around the top. Whose were they? And why were they buried in the current berry hedge?
As I contemplated the answers, I realized the answers may be in the stack of letters tied up with a thick piece of twine. I began to slowly untie the twine, being deliberately careful not to pull it apart. All the letters were postmarked in the 1930’s. I took one off the top and opened it.
I began to read the letter. It was from someone named Dewey Thornton, written to my grandmother who would have been about 15 or 16 at the time.
I promise this will be my last letter to you. I don’t want to make your life any harder. I just want to make sure you know how sorry I am for how things worked out for you and I. I can’t imagine how hard this has been for you, because it’s been hard enough for me to have you torn away from me and sent away, and to know there is a baby out there I will never know.
Please don’t hate me. If you ever want to write to me, I would be happy to hear from you. But since my other letters have gone unanswered, I’m guessing you would rather I butted out of your life, and the last thing I want to do is make it harder for you. Please know I love you. I’m sorry, for everything.
As I sat there, in the bushes, completely engrossed in my reading I felt a hand on my shoulder, and my grandmother’s soft voice calling my name. I looked up at her, through the current bushes, completely disoriented, as if seeing her at that moment was seeing someone I’d never seen before. “Gramma? I choked out her name. She gently asked me to bring the metal box up to the house. I did as she asked. What else could I do?
At the house she sat me down at the kitchen table, one of those old laminated tables with a metal frame around it, and poured me a glass of lemonade. “I see you’ve been digging up some of my old memories,” she said. I began to apologize to her, I’d not meant to intrude. It was just my curiosity got the better of me.
She hushed me and began a long, quiet, sweet talk with me. I learned secrets that no one else knew about my grandmother that day. I guess by then, 50 years later, she was wanting to tell someone. It was a story of young love, culminating in a teen pregnancy and the delivery of a stillborn baby. Her eyes misted as she told me, and her voice was low and a few times, she stopped for a few seconds to breathe.
It was understood that what she told me that day should never be repeated, that it was a sacred trust she’d given to me. We’d not spoken of it again, though it hung between us for the rest of our lives. From that moment on, there was context in everything she did to show her love for her family.
Today, standing in her pantry, with shelves lined with all the fruit and vegetables she had put up from her garden for the winter, I slid down the wall, onto the floor. My head in my hands, deep gutteral sobs bubbled up my throat and into the air. I could finally cry for this tender, sweet woman.