My mother can smell bullshit a mile away. She can also name every flower. Every flower I have ever seen, she can name, supply the Latin Root for. When she smells them, she cups her hands around their petals, bends down, and takes one quick, guilty sniff. She never touches them. Nothing in life is for the picking, the taking, with my mother.
I grew up on Long Island in a town called Garden city. Any gardens which actually existed had long since been converted into golf clubs and clothing stores. My mother told me that Garden City wasn't always a large parking lot like the rest of Long Island. She said that once, Roosevelt Field was not a three tiered mall but a wide open space where planes took flight across the Atlantic. Queens was once pretty. The idea of it was as mythic as the golden age of Brooklyn.
She gave tours at Old Westbury Gardens. She was sure to tell everyone who asked and even a few who didn't that she didn't need the money. She gave the tours in order to give something back to Long Island. To keep the memory of the golden age alive. Old Westbury Gardens was a mass of land, once owned by a captain of industry and handed over, generations later, by his family, to the public. There were rolling hills, rose gardens, fountains, a mansion, and a miniature house, an actual house, built for a daughter by her father at the height of his empire. The story goes: when the little girl needed to be away from the sprawling gardens and the mansion and guest houses and riding paths and brick walks, always leading to fountains, she would go there to play pretend. To be alone until she was called back home.
I visited my mother at the gardens last summer and she took me for a tour. It was a hot August day and I wore my sun glasses because, at three in the afternoon, I was still hung over from the night before. My clothes had recently gotten a little tighter and the khaki shorts I wore rode uncomfortably close to my bloated butt. When I visited, she greeted me with a light kiss and I was not sure that her lips had actually touched my cheek. She was wearing a long, paisley skirt and white blouse, her posture so straight that it looked as if she were balancing a bible on the top of her head.
My mother was a neat woman. No one can argue that. Trim. Pretty, possibly, but more likely to be described as handsome. She wore a tight bun that day, no strands undone, even in that Long Island humidity, and she took me from garden to garden, describing each and every flower.
We started at the mile long driveway and worked our way behind the mansion. It was the first time I had seen her since my house warming party three months before and though I had known that my mother was getting on in her years, I only then realized that she truly did look sixty. Not fifty, not forty. But a very healthy sixty. It had surprised me then, as if someone had snatched both of our youths without my having noticed.
We did not make small talk. It was not my mother's strong point. Immediately, after her kiss, she began with the tour as she would with any other woman or group of children who had bought a ticket. "Forsithia" she told me, pointing from one attraction to the next, "Ficus, Rhodemdrum." We made our way up the walk.
After some time, she could tell that I was bored. After all, I wasn't there to look at flowers, I was there to visit my mother. "You'll like the rose garden she said and sighed, "They're flashier," as flashy was a mortal sin.
Behind the mansion, we found the rose garden. Every possible color rose was represented. They were all differing shades of purple underneath my glasses. "Smell them," she instructed, "They only come once a year like this."
I didn't bother. Instead, I told her I wished someone had given me a black rose corsage, just once, because I thought they were so unique. They would have read my mind, I said. She answered that I would have liked a black rose in theory, but upon being presented with one, I would have been insulted. "You are too dark as it is, you would think they were making a joke." She said.
"I have light hair."
"Yes, you have pretty ash blonde hair that shines red in the sun. You should have brushed it today."
I picked a white rose off its stem and put it in my hair. She frowned. "They're not for picking."
"Neither am I."
At a seeming impasse on whether to finish the tour or just go home, we stood at the end of a path, surrounded by roses, long blades of grass itching at my ankles. I could feel the sun on my back. I felt I might throw up. We were silent for a while until she asked, "How is life, life back in the suburbs?" I had moved from New York City to Westchester County.
"Good, we're painting the spare bedroom. I've learned to stencil."
"You were always an artist."
"I wasn't good enough." I said this, not because I believed it, but because I knew she thought it.
"I know. But you were always an artist. You still are."
"They say that a lot at Merril Lynch."
She rolled her eyes. "Well, you drink like an artist," she said, and the tone in her voice reminded me of other times, times when I had still lived at home.
"It's my hobby, mom. John and I sit on the front porch and slop back forties. Then we line them up and shoot 'em down with our shot guns."
She sighed but her posture did not change. Still straight, five inches taller than myself. A rock, my mother, an aging rock. "I'm sure you're a very good shot. These here are my favorite," she pointed at the pink roses. I thought it was strange that she would like something so exotic, relatively speaking.
She bent down and smelled one. She smiled, a secret smile she reserved only for her flowers. "How do they keep all the Japanese beetles away, if they don't use chemicals?" I asked her.
"Simple, my dear," her gaze shifted until she found one of the round, black bugs, burying it's way through a white rose. "You take it between your hands," she pulled the beetle off of a velvety petal, "and step on it," she said, dropping it to the ground and grinding her heel into the grass as if she were putting out a cigarette.
It reminded me to light one up.
We sat on the bench at the end of the path and she took a puff off my Camel. When she handed it back, the filter was wet with saliva. She had not smoked an entire cigarette since she knew she was pregnant with me and she had forgotten how. I continued smoking. She adjusted the flower in my hair. "It looks nice on you," she told me and smiled, apparently having forgiven me for having picked it.
"Flowers always look nice."
"So does my daughter. She's a lot like me."
I looked for a convenient place to put out my cigarette. Finding none, I tossed it onto the wet grass in front of me. She picked up the wet stub, wrapped it in a tissue, and put it inside her purse. It was the same gesture she might have used when I was eight, borrowing a hankie from her in church, blown my nose from it, and then returning it to her.
We continued our walk. She pointed and named, talking so much that I stopped listening. "Phloxmaculata," it was tall and green like a weed but she seemed to like it, "Hibiscus Syryacus 'Diana'," white like the September colors of Florida, "Astor Frikartii, wonder of staff," blue, with a yellow center, what I imagined a star to be like if I were ever close enough to see clearly, "Daylillie Grebe, Rudbeckia Goldstrum--it's a black eyed Susan...."
In the distance, I saw a tiny house fit with small windows and a doorway only four feet tall. I pointed at it and she nodded me ahead. I jogged over to it, bent down, stepped inside, and suddenly, I was Alice in Wonderland. There were small velvet chairs and child sized dolls with long blonde hair and blue eyes and a tiny kitchen, equipped with a wood stove and counter. I made my way past the chain barriers and onto a little rocking chair. I sat in it with my thighs popping out between the wood and my knees curled up and thought about eating my flower.
I closed my eyes and rocked.
She did not come for me and I knew she was waiting outside. I heard her call my name. "You come in here, it's nice," I heard myself say.
"I can't come in there," she said patiently.
"No, just bend down, you'll like it."
"I've seen it."
"See it again."
"I'm too big for it and so are you."
I started to cry for no good reason except that it was a too hot August day and I had a hangover and my flesh was confined to this tiny chair and I knew that when I stood up, I would be able to hear the sound of my skin separating from the wood, raw and sweaty.
My mother followed me into the house. She saw me crying. She stood behind me and rocked the chair back and forth. I began to feel dizzy and suddenly I thought that I was Alice, in the rabbit hole, wearing a blue frock like one of the dolls, talking to the Queen of Hearts. "Do you have your period?" she asked.
"You know how you get moody during your period."
"It's not my period." That was the one thing it could not possibly be.
"What is it?"
"I hate flowers."
"Then don't look at them."
"I want to leave John. I want to paint," I blurted out, because this was not a thing I could say calmly, not a thing I could just ease into.
"You need some sleep," she said. I could not see her face.
She walked outside and waited by the entrance, looking in, until my tears were dry.
I stood up, keeping my head bent down so that it did not touch the ceiling. "Come on, let's go. We'll get some coffee at the diner down the road," she called.
I stood there, not wanting to move, my shoulders hunched so that I could only see her skirt and feet, framed by the door, from a downward view.
"You don't belong in there." She took my hand and pulled me outside.
We walked out into the sunlight and I squinted underneath my glasses. "I meant what I said," I told her.
"No, you didn't. You never mean what you say. That's your problem." She did not look angry or sad. She never has. I wiped a piece of hair from my face to behind my ear and found the rose. I extricated it from a snarl and handed it to her.
She held it carefully in her open palm. "I don't need this. It's yours, you keep it. I don't like white," she said returning the flower to my ear. "See, you're a woman who should wear flowers," she told me, standing back.
"You generation was always tougher than mine," I joked, invoking the voice of some hillbilly or Henry Fonda in "The Grapes of Wrath." It came out serious.
She considered, looking at me, sizing me up. Her gaze was mostly focused on my stomach. "Yes," she said, "Yes, I've always been stronger than you."
Right then, I knew that the thing in my stomach would grow inside of me, gnawing at the whole of me until it was full and then it would leave, taking everything with it just as I knew that the child would be a girl. This would happen for no good reason except that she was right.