“Roses, Poppies, Forget-Me-Nots” – Short fiction

Mary TeckYear of the Pilgrim

By Susan Severson

Rose Quinn sullenly watched her grandmother hide her saltine crackers under the frayed tablecloth. As she studied the hunched figure she noticed that her grizzled mane was even more shockingly disheveled than usual and that the strawberry patterned apron she wore every day had cranberry juice stains bleeding through the fabric. Rose couldn’t understand why she wore the damn thing; she couldn’t even cook anymore.

“Grandma, you know you really don’t have to hide your food. The depression is over.” Rose scolded as she set her journal and pen aside and reached for the bowl of crackers that her grandmother’s hand was currently raiding. Rose was surprised at how young her hand looked next to the mottled one of hr grandmother’s.

“What’s that?” the old woman stared at her quizzically.

“I said… Oh never mind.” Rose shook her head as she stood up and leaned across the table to expose her grandmother’s stash of contraband, “Here, let me take these.”

“No!”

Rose clenched her jaw in anticipation as the old woman made a fist and then swung a left hook into the girl’s forearm. She was shockingly strong for an elderly lady. The surefire punch reminded Rose that it was Alzheimer’s and not osteoporosis that plagued the woman. Rubbing her arm, she pushed her chair back from the table and strode into the paisley wallpapered sanctuary of the kitchen.

Rose again noticed the note that her mother had left before rushing out that morning. The gaudy floral stationery was the only splash of color on the sparkling yet black counter tops. Rose had labored all morning to clean that little kitchen. She’d scrubbed the counter tops until they displayed a lusterless gleam. The porcelain knobs on the cabinets now shown faintly under the sole ceiling fixture that Rose knew would now pass her mother’s white glove test. Cleanliness was not a trait that Rose possessed in great quantities, but cleaning was better than babysitting an eighty-four year old woman who was ferociously territorial about her mid-morning snack.

Picking up the slightly damp note, she read her mother’s scrawled writing:

Don’t forget her cranberry juice. Crush the two white pills in Ziploc bag and mix them in her drink. She has another UTI. Thanks for taking my shift, Mom.

That wasn’t the first time Rose was taken aback by the fact that she would have to worry about another woman’t urinary tract infection. Rose went to the fridge. The contents yielded nothing exciting: skim milk, low fat vanilla yogurt, a dimpled cucumber, some tapioca… stuff like that. The typical old-people fridge. She found the cranberry juice with no trouble and quickly poured it into the plastic cup that, try as she might her grandma could not shatter. Alzheimer’s would do that to you; suddenly throw you back to the pre-pubescent stage of constant guidance. A stage where you had to have your diaper changed, your hair brushed for you, and you had to drink out of plastic cups. Pathetic. She cautiously reentered the dining room and tried to gauge the mood that Grandmother was now in. Was it the laughing mood? The angry mood? Oh God, hopefully not the violent mood. Rose sighed and the tension eased from her body when she saw that the woman was sleeping in her chair, her breathing calm and even. She knew there was no way that she could lift her; Rose only weighed a hundred and twenty pounds, while her 6’1 grandmother probably weighed around a hundred and seventy pounds. She grabbed a couple of throw pillows from the living room and put one behind the sleeping woman’s head and the other under he swollen ankles.

Having nothing else to clean, Rose sat in the sunless corner of the dining room and wished she had brought a book to read. What else was there to do on this small farm? How had her grandma been able to stand it these last fifty-some-odd years? Rose knew she would have gone insane, if not from the lack of a social agenda then at least from the smell of cow manure. The stench was everywhere. It clung to the ancient, crumbling furniture, it steeped in through the cracks of the wooden windowsills, and her own grandfather ushered it in through the frond door s he stooped down to unlace his work boots. Oh, that was another thing she didn’t understand. How could her grandpa stand this current living situation? He had to constantly give his wife a conglomeration of multicolored pills, withstand her legendary fists of steel, and wake up with her at two in the morning when she decided that she would like to walk the twelve miles into town. Rose didn’t understand why he hadn’t put her in a nursing home by now.They were nice at nursing homes, weren’t they? They kept their patients clean, well fed, and conveniently out of the way. The last part was really the only part that mattered. Grumbling slightly to herself, Rose decided to have a look around the dilapidated farmhouse. She hadn’t done that in years.

After going through most of the house, and finding nothing to pique her interest, Rose found herself in front of the door at the base of the staircase. The rickety old thing was uncommonly narrow and Rose considered the similarities between it an the ones she had seen in various horror movies. The slight airflow coming from the upper rooms was heavy and dank with the subtle scent of dusty furniture and forgotten heirlooms. Even as a child, Rose and her cousins avoided the upstairs. They had never been barred from it; there was just…something about it. Something forgotten. Something hidden. They would halt, panting in front of the doorway that hid the stairs and, if one of them were feeling particularly brave, would place a miniature sized hand on the doorknob. Rose looked down at her hand, realizing that she had been one of the few to never touch the dreaded knob. Forcing down the lump in her throat, Rose twisted the doorknob then gingerly put her food on the first smooth, wooden step.

Putting both of her hands on each sidewall, Rose warily crept up and onto the second floor. Instead of the gloom she’d anticipated, the sunlight greeted her with open arms. It streamed into the hallway from the room to her left and languidly rolled into the room to her right. She placed her feet in the rays and the warmth spread from her toes to her fingertips, replacing cold anxiety with warm curiosity.

The light gently settled into the thick crimson carpet of the little room now in front of her. Rose took in the room, the colors shockingly bright compared to the drab muteness of downstairs. Her eyes widened with delight, for the walls of the room were plastered with beautiful flower cutouts. It was breathtaking. Roses of every hue dominated the wall, with small splashes of blue and purple forget-me-nots and flaming orange poppies. There was a brass day bed in the corner of the room with a wooden antique nightstand at its side. Three floor length windows bordered the opposite wall. For the first time, Rose noticed the beauty of the lush rolling fields beyond. She felt as if she were no longer in her grandparents’ house; even the smell of cow manure surrendered to the shimmering beauty of this place. Why had she never just walked up the stairs? She sank onto the plush carpet in front of the central window and turned her face upwards to accept the sun’s affection.

As she hungrily leaned into the glowing warmth, she noticed hinges on the lower window frame. The hinges were well-oiled and opened to expose a small cubby that sank into the floor. Tossing her long brown curls over her shoulder, she studies the contents of the cubby: a half burned candlestick, a faded blue sweater, an ancient coverless book, a pad of 15 cent stamps, and a mahogany box. The mahogany box stole Rose’s attention immediately. Even though it was covered in dust, its deep red color battled through with vigor. She lifted the lid and the hinges squealed in protest, startling the silence around her. More magazine cutouts of poppies littered the inside; Rose lifted them carefully and laid them on her lap. A black and white version of her grandmother, sixty years younger, greeted her eyes. She was gorgeous. She had a Mona Lisa smile that Rose couldn’t tear her eyes from. The box was full of them – pictures of her grandma from all ages.

She dumped them onto the carpet and raked through them with her fingers. There she was on horseback, her wild hair tied at the base of her neck and laughing in wild abandon. Rose chuckled out loud when her fingers fondly grazed a picture of the woman wearing boxing gloves, her fierce left hook suddenly explained. Grandmother with a clarinet; Grandmother petting a puppy; Grandmother on a hunting trip; Grandmother with her arms thrown haphazardly over her shoulders; Grandmother with her car; Grandmother watering her flower garden. The images flickered before her eyes. Black and white exploded into color. Rose was back in time. At Grandmother’s graduation she watched her smile for the camera with perfectly applied red lipstick and curls barely contained within her cap. Standing in the fringes was a man in uniform, holding a bouquet of red roses. Grandpa.

The scenes changed. Grandma in front of a clean white farmhouse, her eyes lovingly trained on the one who held the camera. Grandma with a pink little bundle nestled in her arms, cooing sweet words into tiny ears. Grandma in the kitchen, four spotting the tip of her nose and spilling onto her crisp, strawberry patterned apron. Another baby. Another meal. Over and over the same. Over and over the mundane made beautiful.

And then the scenes changed yet again. There she was on the front step, deep wrinkles etched into her face and the lipstick gone, hair cropped short, and her eyes gazing into the distance.

Rose didn’t realize that she was crying until the tears fell like salted raindrops on the picture she found of herself. There she was, toddler Rose, sitting on Grandma’s lap, eyes alight with laughter and reaching for the glass of cranberry juice that the old woman offered.

Rose rushed down the stairs with tears streaming down her cheeks. She reached for the doorknob, knowing that the downstairs was just as beautiful as the floor above.

Susan Severson is a Kansas native traveling enthusiast and aspiring poet. After graduating with a major in English and Secondary Education from Benedictine College, she married her best friend, Jonny, in 2011. Together they have two beautiful boys.