THE MOON GARDEN
By Jan Marin Tramontano
Jillian stood in the kitchen. She put her coffee cup in the sink and leaned against the counter. “I’m sorry, Blake, but it’s sick. If I were you, I’d be choking on the ‘Emma’ cookies you eat every year. It would be better for all of you to just move on.”
Blake scowled at her. “Think about it. One day, she was my healthy, big sister. Then, from what seemed like a flu, we watched her fight for her life when she should have been at dances, dating.”
Jillian sighed, looking squarely at her husband. “All I’m saying is that after all this time, there has to be another way to acknowledge the anniversary. This ritual sends the three of you careening down a tunnel.”
Blake muttered, “This is the first time I didn’t go to the cemetery with them.”
“Maybe you could skip the whole deal. Think about all the time your parents spend focused on her instead of you.”
“Jillian, that’s heartless and totally unfair.”
She softened, “Blake, I’m sorry your sister died. I can’t imagine what that must be like for all of you. But it’s enough. She’s been dead for years. From all the Emma stories I’ve heard, she’d hate all this. And that garden. Why didn’t they just bury her in the front yard?”
“Stop right now. Maybe if you could bring yourself to be nicer to my mother, maybe she’d…”
Jillian huffed, “She makes me want to scream. If it made your mother happy to see Chelsea playing with the old toys, it would be one thing. But she doesn’t. She doesn’t remember all the fortresses or towers you built with those blocks. Instead, it’s Aunt Emma made this. Aunt Emma made that. Let me show you what your Aunt Emma made when she was your age, Chelsea. It creeps me out and shortchanges you. What’s worse, Chelsea thinks she has a real Aunt Emma who’s going to pop in someday.”
She stiffened. “I’m the one who has your back.”
“This isn’t about me. It’s about my poor mother whose only daughter died.”
“Just do what you have to do and come home. I’ll try to cook a decent dinner tonight.”
“Can hardly wait.” Distracted, he kissed her and left.
She watched him walk to the car. No wonder just being alive is enough for you. Want something, Blake.
Blake pulled up to the house he grew up in, a blue Dutch colonial with black shutters. A graceful maple shaded one side of the house. He sat in the car for a minute looking towards the sprawling, flawless moon garden his parents planted along the driveway fence line. Neither his mother nor father ever called it Emma’s Garden, yet there it was. White flowers bloomed in all the growing seasons—spring daffodils. tulips, lily of the valley, moving in summer to roses, phlox and peonies, to fall white spider mums and clematis— draping the post and rail fence. In all the years since the garden was planted, Blake’s parents never allowed a weed to sully the enriched soil nor would they leave a spent blossom.
As time went on, Blake wanted to mow it over and scream at them to stop. But he never said a word.
He grabbed a bakery box from the passenger seat and went into the house, banging the screen door shut behind him. “Mom?”
“In the kitchen.”
Dressed in the black sheath she wore to the funeral and every anniversary since, his mother sat at the table. She hadn’t aged much since the day Emma died but her hair, still shaped into the same neat bob, had turned from brown to silver. Blake strongly resembled her—they had the same thick hair, penetrating sapphire blue eyes, narrow nose and wide, warm smile. But today, she wasn’t smiling and her eyes were swollen and dull. A puddle of cream floated in her coffee and the newspaper neatly folded in quarters to the crossword puzzle was blank.
She stood to give him a lingering hug.
“I was in the neighborhood so I thought I’d drop by.”
“Liar.” His mother faked a smile.
“Busted.” Blake exhaled and poured himself a mug from the pot. “Sorry I didn’t go to the cemetery with you. I got hung up at school,” he stammered. “But I stopped by Leona’s to get Emma’s lemon cookies. Even they remember. She had a box ready for me no charge.”
“They didn’t remember. No one does. I called them earlier this week.”
“On the good days, Dad would stop at Leona’s to buy them. Emma was apologetic when she could only manage a bite. It’s enough I would say. Taste the sweetness.”
“I know, Mom. Where’s Dad?”
“He’s out back mending the hammock.” She shook her head. “You should have come with us. Nothing could be as important.”
“I can go to the cemetery any day. It doesn’t have to be today.”
“But we always go on this day as a family,” she said, her mouth drawn.
Blake shrugged and opened the box. He handed his mother a lemon frosted cookie. “To Emma.”
“Why doesn’t it get easier?”
“I miss her too, Mom.”
Blake picked up the pencil and started the puzzle. His mother slid it away from him. “No sir, that’s mine for later.”
“Didn’t anyone ever teach you to share?” he quipped.
She picked up her cup, peered at him. “We never get any time to talk anymore. What’s new with Chelsea? How are you? And Jillian?”
“Chelsea’s speaking in paragraphs. She loves that alphabet book you gave her. A is for Albany. Every time she recognizes somewhere she’s been, she’s squeals, ‘We went there, didn’t we, Daddy?’ She is a very happy child.”
“And Jillian? Is she… um, happy too?”
“She’s great. The teaching job at the ballet school is good for her.”
“But is it good for you?” she mumbled.
“What’s the problem, Mom? Come on, out with it.”
“She doesn’t know how lucky she is. Every day with that little girl of hers is a gift. And all she cares about is the career she wishes she had. I want to shake her.”
“Mom, I wish you’d try a little harder with her. I know you were hoping you’d find a daughter in whoever I married. Maybe that will happen in time.” He looked out the window. “After Emma died, I was flailing. All through high school, it was all about Emma —the next test, a new medication, your nightly sobbing. Then, it was over. She was gone and I was at college with no one but myself to think about.”
He wrinkled his forehead. “When it was happening, I couldn’t wait to get away. But afterward, I was in a complete fog. That is…until I met Jillian. Like Emma, Jillian was vibrant, focused, strong. She brought me back to living.”
Blake flashes to the first time he saw Jillian. The image of her walking across campus fighting the wind—long silky black hair flying behind her, her lithe body holding the ground—is still sharp. She marched as if she knew exactly where she was going in life.
Jillian was exquisite and he fell hard. And so did she. “I’ve never known anyone like you, Blake. Not many would be willing to put up with all the time dance takes.”
“It’s who you are, Jillian. I get that. It’s not a problem for me.”
His roommate was surprised they were a couple. Steve held his hands, palms up, moving them off balance, “Easygoing, normal guy versus tight-assed, snobby ballerina. It’s a no-go, buddy.”
His childhood friend, Mindy, merely asked, “Why would you settle for second place?”
He never saw it that way and more importantly, understood Jillian was his lifeline. He was eager to make her dream his. And when it all fell apart, when she didn’t become a soloist in a major company, he was all that was left.
Snapping back, he heard his incredulous mother exclaim, “You married her to feel alive?”
Blake sucked in a breath, “Of course, it was more than that. I’m just trying to give you some context, Mom. Some understanding of what drew me to her. Maybe we’re so impaired by Emma dying that we don’t know much about living. I don’t know about you but I’m still content with a day when nothing bad happens. When I come home from work, I think I hold my breath until I see Jillian and Chelsea are okay. I’m glad she’s not like that.”
“I can’t talk about this now. Today isn’t the day for that.”
“Maybe it’s just the right day for it.”
“Blake,” his father walked in, interrupting them. “Hi, buddy. What have we here? Ah, the cookies.”
“Yeah, Dad, enjoy them because I just made a decision.”
“What’s that, son?”
“It’s the last time I’m bringing them. And it’s the last time you’re ever going to have one either. Emma would hate this. Keep the morbid garden if you have to but it’s time to just start remembering Emma with happiness. Not this.”
His father frowned, “If only it were something you could just decide.”
“It is, Dad. Think of it this way. If Emma tasted one of these cookies, she’d be honest. She’d say Leona’s forgotten something. They don’t taste right.” He took another bite and screwed up his face. “Nope. ‘Still yucky,’ as Chelsea would say.”
Blake’s mother laughed, “You know something is missing. I thought it was me. The thing Emma liked was the sweetened lemon and these are tart. I wonder if she changed the recipe.”
“So now, you come empty handed, hoping for your mother’s chocolate chips?”
“Leona’s Bakery has a whole case of goodies to choose from or maybe next time I’ll bring Chelsea. She’d love to start baking with you, Mom. Or maybe you could teach her to cook. Jillian could use all the help she can get,” he smiled, thinking about her tasteless repertoire.
His mother frowned. “I’m sure Jillian would just love that. She still hasn’t figured out there’s more to life than dancing.”
Blake chuckled remembering the cookie disaster for Chelsea’s birthday. She insisted that Jillian make homemade cookies like the other moms. Jillian bought slice and bakes thinking that would be good enough. They came out uneven—some thin ones burned, the thicker ones raw. Chelsea was stricken when she saw them. ‘Mommy, what happened?’ Her lips began to quiver. When Blake started to laugh so did Chelsea and they all threw them one by one into the trash saying goodbye, ugly cookie. Jillian saved it by buying beautiful pink frosted cookies and taught the kids a dance.
“I’ve got to get going.” He quickly hugged his parents and grabbed the bakery box.
He stood in the front yard surveying the garden. Blake crumbled the cookies in his hand and spread them for the birds. Crushing the box, he looked at the white stillness of the garden. A sudden burst of anger rose up in him and before he realized it, Blake walked through the bed and trampled the peonies. Bending over, he pulled a cluster of zinnias from their roots and picked up the flattened dahlias. He stared at them wondering what to do next. He could bring them to Emma’s grave or perhaps, give them to Jillian. But imagining the look on her face, maybe he’d just go for a long drive and toss them wherever he ended up.
About the Author:
Jan Marin Tramontano, is a poet and fiction writer. She wrote three poetry chapbooks, Woman Sitting in a Café and other poems of Paris, Floating Islands: New and Collected Poems, and Paternal Nocturne and one novel, Standing on the Corner of Lost and Found. Her second novel is hopefully in its final round of edits.Her poems appear in her poetry collective’s anthologies, Java Wednesdays. and Peer Glass Review. She’s had poems, stories, and book reviews published in numerous literary journals, magazines, and newspapers such as Poets Canvas, Up the River, Chronogram, Women’s Synergy, Knock, The DuPage Valley Review, and Moms Literary Review. In addition, her poems have won several poetry contests.She belongs to the Marco Island Writers Association, served on the board, as program chair and contest administrator of the Hudson Valley Writers Guild She is also a member of Poets House.