The Mother Garden Stories

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  • Edition: Reprint
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  • Copyright: 2009-03-10
  • Publisher: Scribner
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Robin Romm's arresting and resonant stories take on the fundamental themes of the human condition: mortality, loyalty, and love. In fresh and irreverent prose, Romm captures the mo-ments before and after loss, mining the depths of grief with wit and grace.The stories inThe Mother Gardenare at once vividly realistic and infused with the bizarre -- a man uses a chicken egg to test whether he is ready for fatherhood; a daughter plants a garden of mothers to replace her own; a family's ghosts literally fall through the ceiling, disrupting daily life; a woman finds her father sleeping in the desert after twenty-six years of living without him. People stumble in relationships, start families, struggle with illness, learn to mourn -- and as in life, these acts are consuming, magical, and disorienting.Sharply funny and deeply moving, this extraordinary collection introduces a young writer of fierce originality and prodigious talent.


The Arrival

My mother's going to die. This is fact. And there are things that must be done. Last week she instructed us to donate her retirement savings. My father hedged and I cried, but she remained firm. "These sorts of things shouldn't be left to the last minute," she said. She wanted to know where that money would end up, and she was too tired to make the calls herself. We diligently obliged, taking notes until we'd compiled an exhaustive array of possibilities. Now she's furious. After glancing at the list, she's decided we're ready to bury her.

"It's too much reality for me," she says. When she cries, the oxygen tubes get clogged and she has to pull them out. Then she can't breathe. My father's gone out for a walk, as he always does right before she breaks down. I'm left watching the ocean out the window, trying to arrange the problems into something we can talk about.

"We don't have to do this now," I say. (Or ever. You were the one who sent us on this absurd mission.) I want her to look strong, to stand up and start putting the dishes away.

My mother shakes her head.

"I don't want to die," she says. She's been wearing the same blue fleece zipper robe for days. She pulls a Kleenex from the box, yanks the tubes, and looks like she's strangling. I stand dumbly next to her, staring at the top of her head.

I've been visiting my parents at their beach cabin all week. It's warm for early spring. I can sit on the deck without a jacket and watch the waves hit rocks. Sometimes flocks of birds land on the craggy outcroppings. Sometimes a fishing boat appears on the horizon.

The cabin rests on a bluff outside Yachats, a small Oregon beach town. The few neighbors keep their distance, not knowing what to say to a hairless woman who puts an oxygen canister in the seat of her wheelchair, tottering alongside it, tubes pulsing and hissing. A new house is being built up the road; someday soon the dune grass will be filled with houses. They'll obscure the ocean view. Families will park cars on sparkling cement; kids will scatter toys on new lawns. But now there's only sky and sea and a handful of graying wood cabins. Crab nets hang from porches. Driftwood mobiles clatter in the wind. If you jump down the rocks, you are almost always alone with the crash of waves, the cry of gulls, the hard ridges of sand under your feet.

"Do you want some lunch?" I ask my mother. She's calmed down a bit, her eyes focused on the bright lights of the television. Lately, when she sits in the chair, staring at the screen, she looks childlike -- it's in the downward pull of her bottom lip, the way her cheeks have puffed out from steroids.

"No thanks," she says. I root around the fridge and find a large container of yogurt. From the deck, I see my father and the dogs walking back to the cabin. His bad knee makes his gait recognizable from a distance. Rhythmic and slow, he veers perpetually left. He's taken to wearing a news cap, like an old man.

A few minutes later, the dogs, Pico and Lila, bound up the stairs. They wag and drool, slide around the wood floors. My mother ignores them. My father lopes up, sets his coat on the banister, and goes into the bedroom. He'll take a nap now. And the dogs will calm down and follow him. And my mother will block out the world. And I will stare at my feet and feel so quiet it could be a spell that was cast over me.

Yesterday the three of us were sitting quietly on the deck, trying to feel the sun through the wind. No one spoke. My mother closed her eyes. My father gazed at the water. I noted how the deck wasn't made of real wood; it was a weird synthetic wood, gray like all the real wood on the rest of the house, not brown like the wood would have been when the house was new. And I wondered whether the deck was an add-on, built to match the gray wood, or whether at one point the brown house stood on the grass with a gray deck attached like a prosthetic limb. Then my father shot up, his spine a dart. "A whale!" he cried, delighted or distressed, it was hard to tell; he pointed at the blue-black expanse.

My mother nodded vigorously as I squinted out into the blueness. "Look at the roof to the right," she said, pointing her manicured nail toward the vastness. "Then look straight out." I couldn't see it.

It was just the spouting they saw; water in the distance emerging from more water in the distance, but it seemed to make them cheerful for a while. Now, sitting here on the deck with my bowl of yogurt, I think I see something moving. It could be a small log straying from one of the mills up the coast. It could be a large piece of foam. Maybe it's a sea lion?

"Hey!" I call into the house. "There's something in the water!" My mother turns. "Maybe a little whale?" I want it to be a whale. Please God, I know you don't like us, but if you're listening, let it be a whale --

"Really?" My mother hoists herself up and tugs at the tubing. She lumbers over to the deck. I point straight ahead.

My parents' bedroom window looks over the opposite side of the deck, and my father, unwilling to miss large life events like this, appears at the screen door with his binoculars.

"Where?" he says. We sit in silence. And then, close to the shore, the thing bobs again. This time it's gangly, struggling. It's not a whale.

"Oh God," I say. My father sets his binoculars down.

The person glides on a wave and crawls onto shore, collapsing a few feet from the tide line.

"Go down there," my mother says. "David, go see what's going on." My father adjusts his binoculars and puts them back up to his face.

"It's a woman," he says.

"Well, go down and see if she needs help!"

My father grips the railing.

"I'll go," I say.

A strong breeze blows the brownish grass toward the water, making it look silver. Despite the proximity of the beach, it's hard to get to the sand from here. Steep, sharp rocks jut from the bluff.

The woman is sprawled facedown on the sand, palms open, her blond hair darkened by the water. She wears dirty white capri pants and a pink sweater.

"Hey!" I call from the top of the rocks. My father approaches. Without his hat, his bald spot shines in the sun. I squat, dangle one leg toward the beach, and jump. My father stays firmly planted on the grass above.

She's about my age, late twenties, early thirties and pretty, with freckles across her tanned face. A thick silver bracelet peeks from the ripped sleeve of her sweater. She's missing one shoe; the toenails on her bare foot shimmer with purple polish.

"What's happening?" my father calls.

"Nothing," I yell back. She twitches slightly, props herself up on an elbow, and jerks her head like she has water in her ear. A trickle runs from her nose, gets caught right above her curvy lips.

"Hey!" my father yells. We turn to look at him. He waves.

I take a tissue out of my pocket and hold it out to her. She grabs her curls, wrings them out.

"What the hell," she says, looking down at her body.

"Go get a towel," I call up to my father. He stands there for a moment like he wants to say something, then he turns, glancing back over his shoulder, and veers left toward the house.

She shakes her head, turns away from me, and looks into the sky. Mist rolls slowly in off the ocean, bringing with it a slow, cold wind. She moves uncomfortably for a moment, writhing in her skin. Then she grabs the sleeves of her sweater and yanks it over her head. She holds it away from her, twists the water out, and sets it neatly beside her on the sand. Her sexy lace camisole matches the purple of her toenails.

"It would be nice of you to tell me what's going on here," she says. She's snarling slightly, giving me the same lip-of-disdain the blond chemo nurse always gives my mother, as if putting the needle in the port is going to damage her nails, as if no one in nursing school had warned her that for this particular job, you were going to have to touch the sick.

My father trots back with the towel.

"Here you go!" he calls, and tosses it down to us. It lands on the rocks a few feet away.

She glares at me, waiting.

"I have no idea what's going on," I say to her. It's one of the old brown dog towels from the garage and I'm embarrassed to give it to her. "Do you want to dry off?" She snatches the towel.

"Whatever," she says and pats at her hair. She looks at me as ifI'vejust washed up onherbeach. "Where's my other shoe?"

Her name is Gracie and she has no choice. She has to come back to the house. We have a shower, a phone. She can figure out what to do. She scrapes her foot on the rocky incline and then walks stiffly next to my father and me, across the prickly grass.

"Are you all right?" my father asks her, his voice grave.

"I'm fine," she says. It's a doorstop of a tone.

My mother stands by the top of the stairs, waiting. The oxygen hisses a little tune up her nose. Gracie looks at my mother and freezes. It's always difficult, this moment -- watching strangers assess and absorb my mother's display of bodily decline.

Gracie drips water onto the wood floor.

"Mom, this is Gracie. Gracie, this is Ellen."

"Hello," Gracie says, taking the final few steps toward her. She's visibly uncomfortable, shivering, and I can see her reservation as she extends her hand. "Sorry to intrude."

My mother takes Gracie's hand in both of her own. "You look how I feel, dear," she says, smiling the bright smile my father and I haven't seen in months. Gracie smiles too. Her teeth are obviously capped.

"I'm putting up water for tea," my mother says, shuffling toward the stove. "Why don't you hop in the shower and Nina'll get you some dry clothes to put on." She doesn't look at me when she says this. "There are towels under the sink. And if you need to use the phone, go ahead. There's one in the bedroom."

Gracie disappears into the bathroom.

"What happened?" my mother whispers.

"I have no idea," I whisper back. "She wasn't exactly forthcoming. In fact, she's kind of bitchy."

My mother turns away from me. "For God's sake, Nina. I can't imagine you'd be Pollyanna if you were wet and cold. What do you expect?" I turn to my father for backup, but he's vanished back into the bedroom with the dogs.

My mother goes to the fridge and starts taking out sandwich food.

"I can do that," I say, reaching for the cucumber. She swings it away.

"Contrary to popular belief," she says, raising her eyebrows, "I'm not dead yet." Her oxygen tube gets caught on the stool by the bar. I unhook it. She yanks the slack toward her and gets out the peeler.

"Go get Gracie some clothes," she says again, whacking the cucumber with the blade.

I take the stairs slowly. Is this just jealousy? That I can't make my mother stand up for lunch? That she hasn't called me "dear" in ages? The water from the shower rumbles. Every time Gracie flips her hair up there, I can hear the slap of water against the floor.

It's been months since I've seen my mother animated. In the last months she'd turned dour and brooding, yelling at my father and me for our worried looks, our bad taste in movies, our overeager willingness to be quiet. Or worse, she'd sit at the table and stare at the newspaper. If you talked to her, she would pretend not to hear. She was made of granite, she was waiting us out.

I didn't pack much for this trip. I sit beside my suitcase and finger my red shirt. I should have taken a pair of ugly, paint-stained sweats. Some dirty socks. A turkey costume.

Back upstairs, I set the clothes on the kitchen bar.

"Go knock and give them to Gracie," my mother says. She's cutting a peeled cucumber for the cream cheese sandwiches and she looks different -- a few inches taller, her neck straight, shoulders square.

I stand in front of the bathroom door. It's quiet in there. My knock sounds loud.

"Yes?" Gracie sings. "Come in!" I open the door. She turns toward me, wrapped in one of my mother's red luxury bath sheets. She runs my mother's wooden brush through her hair -- my mother's brush? Where did she dig that out from? My mother's eye shadow and foundation are on the counter as well.

"Thanks," she says, plucking the clothes from my hands. She takes the door and, with a smile that's tight-lipped and all eyes, gently shuts me out.

Back in the kitchen, my mother sets the little sandwiches on her nicest platter. She's cut up oranges, placing them around the sandwiches like little sun rays. A cup of mint tea steams beside it, for Gracie.

"That's pretty," I say.

"Go set the table," she says.

I set out the plates, heavy silverware, tall striped glasses. A woman in my mother's support group made the place mats. They're laminated copies of pastel parrots. Gracie emerges looking like she's hatched from the center of a flower, an oversized Thumbelina. Her blond curls hang heavy, towel-dried into damp ringlets. Her lanky body does something new to my clothes. The pants hang on her, suggesting long, shapely legs. The shirt gathers where she's pushed up the sleeves. She glides to the table.

"That's so pretty," she exclaims, looking down at the sandwich platter. It is pretty. It looks like an edible mandala.

"Thanks, dear," my mother says. "David?" she calls. "Come for lunch."

We take our seats around the table. The windows behind it stretch from floor to ceiling, grimy from the salt in the air. Outside the ocean does its ocean thing. It's blue and constantly in motion, eating away at the rocks, grinding pink shells and green bottles into sand.

My father looks at the sandwiches and for a moment he seems puzzled. Then he maneuvers one off the platter so that the cucumber garnish falls into a hole.

"It's been such a lovely week," my mother says. The oxygen hisses, stops, and hisses.

My father says, "You can see clear out to China."

Gracie smiles, holding a sandwich up. "It's stunning here," she says. "You've got a great piece of property."

At first, when the cancer started, we broke down, we got angry, we denied it was happening. My mother spent thousands of dollars on new appliances. (How could she die if she had a Swedish washing machine to pay off?) When she went into her only remission, we pretended she'd never been sick. We ignored the past year. It was a bad year, misbehaving. But when the cancer returned months later, blooming like a weed in her chest, we started to fight. I nagged my mother about homeopathic cures, special diets that involved eating nothing but seeds. My father invented ways of staying out of the house. But now, eight years later, we're made of a bendable substance. We listen to friends who've never lost anyone tell usit's all part of life's mysterious cycle. Everyone dies, we repeat. This is nothing special, the way she sits all day, frozen in remorse and fear, how she winces with pain when you lean in to hug her.Stop, she says, the word made more from air than noise. These things are now as normal as tea in the afternoon, wind over the sea. We've gone from hoping for miracle cures to just hoping the sandwiches are good.

"These are good," I say. They are good. Salty and creamy with a nice, crisp snap when you bite into the cucumber.

"I love your nails," Gracie says, leaning over to inspect my mother's hands. My mother has kept up her biweekly manicure. "That color looks so good with your skin tone. You've got such pale skin, like a doll's."

"I have this woman in Eugene," my mother says. "She's a miracle."

When we're finished eating, my mother invites Gracie onto the deck. Gracie stacks some plates and hands them over to me. My mother slides open the door.

"Aren't you tired?" I ask her. It sounds like an accusation. Usually, after she sits upright for a while, she has to lie down and use the breathing machine in the bedroom.

"I'm fine, Nina," she says, putting her hand on Gracie's back as they step outside.

From the window above the sink, I can see my mother and Gracie. Gracie's hair blows sideways. My mother stands near the railing. She says something. Gracie laughs and puts her hand on my mother's shoulder.

Gracie hasn't even glanced at the phone. Doesn't anyone need to know that she just washed up from a foamy sea, that she's wearing a dying woman's blush in a house full of hissing tubes and battered green canisters?

My father sits on the sofa, reading the paper. Pico rests near his legs, Lila near the empty fireplace. I get on the floor and put my head on Lila's wiry chest. She lifts her head to glance at me, deeply exhausted, the white hairs around her nose spreading out toward her eyes. Then she puts her heavy head back down.

"What do you think the deal is with that Gracie character?" my dad says, putting the paper aside.

"I know," I say, rolling off the dog's chest. "Where'd she come from?"

"Isn't there a play about this?" my father asks. "She's going to fool us all into thinking she's one of us, then she's going to steal the dogs. Or the cars."

"Or something," I say. "Mom seems to like her."

"Yeah," he says, gazing at the lamp in the corner of the room. "She does, doesn't she?"

When my mother likes something, my father is amazed. He'll buy raspberry soda and she'll slink off to finish the bottle and he'll come into my room to report that she liked it! She liked it!

But maybe this is the right way to deal with the dying: She likes cream puffs? We'll bring her cream puffs. She wants to yell at us for renting another movie with a dying woman in it (it didn't say it on the box, we checked!), then yell away! It's her world; we're just hanging around, trying to keep it turning.

My father puts the newspaper down. Pico stares at him, his eyes little machines of want.

"Pico's so passionate," my father says, looking back at the dog. "I love Pico."

The glass door opens. My mother slowly moves over the threshold, Gracie behind her.

"I'm going to take the dogs out," my father says.

"I'm going to lie down for a bit," my mother says, making her way down the hallway. I follow her and shut the door. She sits on her big turquoise bed.

"Can you hook up the bipap?" she says, lifting the mask. Once she straps that monster on, she'll be unable to talk.

"How are you?" I ask. She hates being asked this. She's told me this over and over again. "I'm peachy keen!" she'll say. "Never better! Why? Do I look sick?"

"Fine," she says. "Tired."

"The sandwiches were good," I say. She fiddles with the dial of the bipap machine. "So what's the deal with Gracie?" I ask. My mother looks up at me, surprised. Her eyebrows are thin from the drugs and when she raises them, they get lost in the flesh of her forehead.

"She's a lovely girl," my mother says. "She grew up in Wisconsin. Her father's an orthodontist."

"So how'd she wind up here?" I ask.

My mother shrugs. "Switch the tubes for me." And in a fast pull-strap motion, she's got the mask secured. The little motor in the gray box begins to sing. I go to the compressor and pull the tubing in.

The house is silent. My grandmother's oil paintings of forests and sunsets line the stairwell to my bedroom.

"Oh!" says Gracie, putting down the porcelain box that sits by my bed. "I didn't hear you."

She looks guilty. My dad's right. We'll turn around to get the milk out of the fridge and off she'll go with the checkbooks, the credit cards, my mother's wedding ring.

"I was looking for my bracelet," she says.

"Well. It's not here," I say. "Maybe check the bathroom."

"Yeah, good idea." Gracie fidgets and begins to smooth the bedspread with the side of her hand. When she finishes that, she studies her fingers as if a secret scroll might be hidden in her nail bed. "Your mom's great," she says. "Such a fighter."

"Thanks," I say.

"My mom's dead," she says. Her eyes transform, full of tears.

"I'm sorry," I say, but it comes out made of rocks. She's wearing my earrings.

Gracie follows my gaze. Her hands fly to her ears.

"I'm sorry," she says, wincing. "I was just trying them on -- they're very pretty."

"Hard to resist," I say. "Maybe it's not a good idea for you to stay here. Can we get you a room in town for the night?"

Gracie crumples sideways onto the bed. She's a real faucet now, getting mascara on my pale yellow pillows. I struggle to think of what words to toss in the silence that will open up between us, but I'm saved when she begins an energetic round of sobs. She sounds like a goose.

I feel my body go still. I don't care about Gracie, why she's here, what she wants. And I don't care about her mother. "How'd she die?" I ask. Gracie struggles to calm. She swipes at her nose and takes a big, slobbery breath. "She drowned," she says. "She left my father in Madison and was living in some women's colony near Junction City and something happened, I guess she went skinny-dipping in the river." She reaches over for a tissue -- all our rooms have boxes of tissues now. Aside from a little snot and a smear of black beneath her eyes, she still looks good, like she's made out of velvet or suede, not skin. The salt from her tears makes her eyes an even more outlandish shade of green.

"They never found the body?" I ask. This is one of my fantasies, that we'll wake up one day and my mother will have vanished. There'll be no body, no clues. And instead of being nowhere, she'll be everywhere, in everything.

"No, it washed up downriver near a farm," Gracie says. "The police called us."

Everyone dies, I'm tempted to tell her.It's all part of life's mysterious cycle. She takes another tissue.

"There's whiskey upstairs," I tell her.

Both of us walk slowly, our bare feet soft on the wood. I pour two shots in the tall glasses.

"Ice?" I ask.

"No, neat," she says, holding out her hand.

I pluck the list of donation possibilities from beneath the fruit bowl, where it seems to have landed permanently, gathering smudges and grease stains. All over the margins, my father's boxy writing lists numbers, organizations, people who'd help administer grants. I fold it in half and toss it in the recycle box at the end of the bar.

We stare at the refrigerator. I want to ask what she did the moment she found out. Did she drive? Did she sink to the carpet and cry? But I look at her ears, still a faint pink from yanking the earrings out, I think of her drifting on the wave toward shore, and I don't ask.

My mother comes into the kitchen, arranging her tubes. The creases from the bipap mask make her face look even more childlike. She glances at Gracie and the delight from this afternoon is gone; in its place is a flat, drugged fog. Gracie presses herself nervously against the counter's edge.

"Can't sleep?" I ask. A lighthouse down the coast tosses silver-white beams over the water. They dive and quiver, then disappear. The refrigerator kicks into a low rumble. Gracie rubs her palms over her hips, then turns and reaches for another glass. She pours my mother a shot. I start to object. She's not supposed to drink.

Gracie holds up her glass. "To arriving," she says.

My mother holds up the amber liquid with those magenta nails and seems to see something in it.

Copyright © 2007 by Robin Romm

Excerpted from The Mother Garden: Stories by Robin Romm
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

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