The original version of this story first appeared in Christian Fiction Online Magazine. While this is a work of fiction (as opposed to a fictional version of my life) it’s one of two times I explore elements of my life in a short story. In this case, my troubled relationship with my late mother. As with the protagonist in this story, I never truly understood the whys of that conflict other than the circumstances I address in the short story, “Poplar.” However, I will someday.
An Ornamental Peace
I never kept a diary, at least not the kind in which you bare your soul and the emotions that torment it on a regular basis. Not since the age of twelve when my best friend found mine and told everyone who I liked, including the boy I had named in those sacred pages. The experience taught me never to write anything I didn’t want someone to read. That anything I said could be used against me in the court of life. A Texas mother learned that lesson after two of her sons were killed in an attack that nearly robbed her of her own life. Though evidence indicated someone beside her husband had been in the house that night, a jury convicted her of murdering her kids. All because of a vague statement she made in a diary.
I’m sure if she had known of the horror to come, she would have clarified herself. Used precise nouns and verbs to explain her exact meaning.
Surely my mother would have done the same.
The call came while I was at work. That night, I listened to the message as I tossed a handful of feta cheese into a salad.
“Hon, it’s Aunt Mary.” My aunt’s voice blipped in places indicating she’d called while driving through the Blue Ridge Mountains. “Your mom is pretty sick. The doctors say she doesn’t have much time. I’m on my way now, and I expect to see you there.”
I put the remainder of the cheese in the fridge and set the salad on the table, unhurried despite the urgency in my aunt’s voice. My mother claimed to face death on a regular basis, so it wasn’t anything I hadn’t heard before. The family never knew if she exaggerated her doctor’s diagnoses or if fate mistook her for a cat. Whatever the reason, she always recovered.
The funeral was lovely, as Mother would have expected it to be, with no carnation in sight. She hated the flower, and in instructions left to direct the event, she’d ordered the funeral home to remove any they spotted in floral arrangements. I brought a handful of them. Since I was responsible for the bill, they let me.
I placed the bouquet atop the closed portion of her casket. Leaning over, I whispered, “See, Mother? If you had bothered to take a closer look, you would have seen they’re perfectly fine flowers.” It was the only time she didn’t disagree with me.
After the funeral, I drove back to the house in which I was reared, accompanied by family members and friends. The grass, a bright green after months of dormancy, had been trimmed and white blossoms covered half a dozen dogwood trees scattered around the yard. Dogwoods were my mother’s favorite. In the spring and fall, their delicate branches had a wispy look that reminded me of a Japanese tea garden. A look Mother called an ornamental peace. The image represented our relationship like no other could.
For the next hour, people who had loved my mother and whom my mother had loved in return approached me balancing plates of pulled pork and collard greens. “Your mama was such a nice lady. I do wish the two of you could have made amends before she left for glory,” several said.
I smiled and nodded, pretending I hadn’t heard the rebuke in their hushed tones. No one understood the complexities that had existed between me and my mother. I know because I never understood them myself. It seemed the moment the doctor sliced the bond between us at my birth, we began living in separate worlds. What meals we took together were spent in silence or with her on the phone discussing her antique business. When I realized she had more interest in work than she did in my grades, I posted a Do Not Enter sign on my heart and kept it there. We existed together until I left for college and barely saw one another after that.
When the last of the mourners left the house, the only common ground my mother and I had shared, I went upstairs to the master bedroom and opened the curtains. The house sat atop a steep hill, and from the bedroom window I could see the skyline of downtown Raleigh. Late afternoon sunlight had cast a golden hue across neighboring yards and houses. A glow that paled, I supposed, to what Mother was seeing in heaven.
The room was as I last saw it—clean, tidy, tastefully decorated with the antiques she so loved. Perishable treasures that now belonged to me. I opened a dresser drawer and then another, rummaging through the personal effects as carefully as I could out of respect, and then did the same with the chest of drawers and the nightstands on both sides of the bed. Nowhere could I find a diary or notebook that contained a record of my mother’s life or her thoughts regarding her only child.
Maybe she didn’t keep a journal for fear someone would judge her for the contents she would have recorded. Maybe she didn’t feel the need to explain herself. As she once reminded me, she’d fed and clothed me throughout the years, and provided me with a nice house that kept me warm in the winter and cool in the summer. I gathered she felt that was enough, that anything beyond it bordered on unreasonable expectations.
I sat on the bed near the foot board and looped my arm around the post. A friend once encouraged me to reach out to my mother, warning me I would someday regret not doing so. Alone now in her room, I felt no regret. Despite my mother’s lack of parenting skills, she had Christ as her king. Someday, when it was my turn to cross the river, we would, as Stonewall Jackson put it, rest under the shade of the trees. Dogwoods, no doubt. Then, in the place where Christ dries all tears, I would ask my mother why and she would tell me. Afterwards, we would find new ground to share, that of worshiping our King.
Until then, I would move into my mother’s house where the best she could offer was an ornamental peace.