Peonies- A Short Story
"I was walking home. After such a rough day- well, I don't remember why it was rough really." She shuffled in her seat.
"Besides what had happened earlier" Caroline responded, as if she was there.
"Well. Yes. Your father and I had been in a huge argument. One... I don't remember what it as about..."
"...You never told me what it was about." Caroline admitted.
"It was something silly..." She seemed uncomfortable. She grasped at the ring on her finger, needing something to distract her. She took it off and held it.
"Anyway", she continued. "I had left work a bit early. I needed to go home... I distracted myself by walking to and from work that day... Never walked home before- it was a 4 mile walk! One way! It really was too far to go..." She told her story exasperated. Right on the edge, as if she was to expose a secret. She always told this story like that. No amazing secret was ever told. The same story, the same way, with the repetitive forgetfulness.
"I hadn't spoken with your father the night before. We had a huge fight..."
"You said that already, Mom." Caroline stood up and walked to a mirror hanging on the wall. It was a small room. Enough for a recliner, love-seat, and a vanity. The room was to fit more people, but just Caroline and her mother seemed claustrophobic. Her mother looked frail today. The recliner where she perched contained her; made her look so feeble.
"Alright, alright. Yes.. We had a fight. The night your father was supposed to leave. He was in the navy, you see. Had been for 5 years. Loved it. Sailing. He spoke so fondly of his trips. Well. He called them trips. It wasn't war to him."
Caroline closed her eyes with a smile burning on her face.
"I... Didn't get a chance to say goodbye when he left on that mission. That's 'cuz we fought, see? I think it must've been 'cuz my father had died- I was not myself for many months after your grandfather died..."
"Mom. You're trailing again." Caroline looked at her mother through the mirror. Her mother puttered with the skirt of her dress. Caroline went back to her imagination.
"So, I got home. The door was unlocked. And John's... uh, your father's key was left on the kitchen table. I picked it up and threw it across the room. I was just so mad! I don't know why!" Her mother began to ramble again. Was this old age or just nerves?
"The key landed at the backdoor." Her mother continued. "It hit that door so hard there was a dent in it until Mr Fry from church came over and fixed it when the dog had scratched up the bottom. Now that is a funny story I don't tell as often!"
"Back to dad." Caroline was getting agitated. Her mother sighed.
"The backdoor was unlocked. So, when the key hit it... The door opened just a bit." Her mother used her hands to show the door opening.
"So. I went over to the door to grab the key." Caroline picked up the edges of her gown and went to sit upon the love-seat across from her mother. Her smile widened.
"On the outside of the door was a single, pink peony."
"Your favorite." Caroline jumped in. Her mother chuckled a response, "You know this story well enough. Why do I need to..." Before she could finish her daughter chimed in, "Just finish, Mom!" Caroline inched to the edge of her seat. Her mother smiled, sat up straight.
"I picked up the peony and looked up. Right in the middle of my backyard was a big beam. Like, a wood beam sticking out of the ground. It must've been 5 feet tall. And that's just out of the dirt! Anyway, there was a little envelope on the beam. Stuck to it with some tape. So, I walked over and all I could smell was the dirt. So strong. The envelope had some dirt on it as well. That sticky dirt. Anyway, I took the letter off the beam. Had 'Jennifer' written on it..." Her mother began to hesitate. Caroline just smiled.
"I opened the letter... And..."
"Oh come on, Mom, what did it say!" Swallowing what would have been tears, her mother continued.
"My only love" She recited.
"Life does not make Love easy. Love does not make life easy. Where there is beauty, there is sadness. Where there is sadness there is beauty. In this spot, I planted two seeds. One for each of us. As time passes, our love will grow into the most beautiful thing we will ever feel. And these flowers will be our love. Seen."
Caroline's face began to glow as she jumped up. Caroline ran, holding her gown in both hands, to the vanity. There lay a bouquet of pink peonies tied with a simple white ribbon. She grabbed the flowers, bringing them to her face, breathing in the images she believed of her father.
"So, Caroline. These are the flowers from that bush in the backyard. I wanted to give you something old- and new. Old memories, new bulbs, and.... Your father walking you down the isle."
Both women held back tears. Knowing, the moment they broke, they would be broken forever.
"Caroline." Her mother said.
"Yes, Mom." She glowed.
"Your father would've been so proud of the woman you've become."
There Jennifer sits in the front pew. The music begins to play as she rises.
Roger was a fine man. He stood there, tall, confident. Jennifer liked him. He was a good match for her daughter.
Caroline walked down the isle with her left arm out, holding the bouquet. Everyone in the room knew the story Jennifer spoke. Caroline told everyone. 'The best love story ever' she had said as a child. She believed in love. She never knew loss, personally.
Jennifer began to cry at the sight of her daughter, walking with her "dad". She unclenched her hand. Still holding the ring that was on her finger when they talked.
"We could've had this" she whispered.
The ceremony was short, the reception was long. Roger and Caroline were about to go on a 3 month honeymoon- traveling the world together. Caroline spoke about all the places she wanted to visit with dreams filling her eyes. Talking about the romance of Paris, the allure of Venice, the intrigue of Egypt.
Jennifer was proud of her daughter.
Two weeks before the couple were due back, Jennifer died in her sleep. Caroline got home within days of hearing the news. Crying to the point of physical pain as she walked through her mother's home. There was mail on the table, dishes in the sink, fruit going bad in the fridge. Caroline pulled out a chair and sat down, putting her head onto the table and covering her head with her arms. She took a deep breath. Exhaled. Another. And another. She began to see clearly. Out of sheer habit she began going through the mail. On the bottom of the stack was a letter.
Confused, she opened the envelope. Stationary her mother had of flowers. Not peonies, but they did resemble them. Carnations? Caroline wasn't sure.
'I guess it's time to tell you.' The letter began. Seeing her mothers handwriting made the tears fall once more.
'Your father had proposed to me the night of the fight we had. I told you all these years we were married, but we weren't. When I lost my father I no longer believed in anything. Love, trust, faith. It all was gone. When he proposed to me I felt it was a cruel joke. My ignorance brings me so much shame. He knew I was pregnant with you when he proposed. I hadn't called the morning he was leaving so he came over. 4 months into his deployment he died at war. You knew about his death, I never hid that from you.
I began to believe in love again when I saw his letter. I wrote your father the moment I could, apologizing for the fight and that I would be his wife. But the letter came back. Your father never got to know how sorry I was. Your father never got the chance to be your father. I wanted to make sure you always believed in love. So you wouldn't make the mistakes I did. Do not give up my dear. Just like the peonies, they may disappear for a while and that's fine. But they will always come back.'
The letter now stained with tears. 'But let it be known. After I had you- I never doubted love again.
Jennifer was buried in the graveyard outside the city limits. Where each plot was green. Where they tried so hard to make it a beautiful place, rather than a depressing one. It had been 3 days since the funeral. Caroline stood alone at the grave, flowers in hand. The flowers were pulled, not picked, so that their roots were scattered about. Caroline knelt down to the grave and put her free hand on the soil.
"Here are some flowers from the bush, Mom."
Caroline paused, as if waiting for a response. Caroline scooped a bit of dirt from the top of the grave and put it in a pile. She took the plants and sat them in the newly formed hole.
"And here, Mom." She reached into her pocket.
"I brought my own seed, Mom." She showed it to the stone with her mother's name.
"Now, no matter what happens in this world---" she buried the seed in between the roots of the peony plant.
"We will always be together."