The Word: FLOWER
Susie sat on the floor to arrange the flowers. Her mother heard her better when she was low and in front. People always loomed so over her shrunken form. Susie examined the materials that had composed a mixed bouquet from Gelson’s–various shades of orange. She’d hoped her mother would like them. Her mother liked orange. When Susie was a child, the largest room of the house, the playroom, had been painted a violent tangerine. The starburst saffron gerbera, she decided, would be the focus, and the tallest of the eucalyptus spikes would be the center.
Music filled the air, a Mozart string quintet, with two violas. Her mother loved music, but had forgotten how to manage the radio.
The rose blended with the spicy scent of carnations and the green of chrysanthemum, the resinous eucalyptus. “How are things going, Mom? Making friends?” Susie always waited to arrange the flowers until she’d arrived in her mother’s room, so she’d have something to do with her hands while she tried to make conversation.
“Some and some,” her mother said. “In any place, there’s all kinds.”
Her mother looked good, sitting in her peach wing chair from the old house. Better than she had any right to. Her thick hair, gone perfectly white, looked just as good as it had in its former state–expensively blonde and carefully layered. She was nicely dressed in black and gray, modern. Susie had managed to leave the pastel track suit behind.
“Bill’s in Boston, for his son’s graduation,” Susie said from the floor, enunciating clearly. “Sean’s getting his Masters, in education.” Snipping the stems of the button chrysanthemums.
“He speaks very good Spanish,” her mother said. ”He can talk to the people here, tell them what I want.”
“That’s Noah,” said Susie. Her brother. “Bill’s my husband. Remember, he plays the guitar for you.”
“I know,” said her mother.
She measured the gerbera’s long stem against the vase, judging the best height for it, recalling the basics from her ikebana class with ancient Mrs. Morita at LACC. How she’d struggled with her pathetic two flowers and little branches of foliage. But she learned. The idea was to create the shape of a large dome using just a few sprigs of greenery, a couple of flowers, a branch. Ikebana was about making the most impact with the least materials, a true arte povera. Before taking the class, she would never have thought to cut a large bloom short. Now she clipped the gerbera low, and let it come forward as the focus. “Pretty?” she asked.
But when she looked up, she saw that her mother’s gaze was trained on the swaying cypress across the street.
“I love that view,” Susie said. The light through the jacaranda, the breeze in its feathery fronds.
“Have you been here before?” her mother asked.
Susie held her breath, felt the zing! in her lungs. She had built that chest of drawers herself, an assemble-at-your-own-risk kit from Crate and Barrel. The nightstand too. She’d assembled each of the room’s four lamps—two hanging Craftsman fixtures on either side of the bed, a magnifying lamp and the corner’s torchiere. She’d built the ikea worktable.. She’d selected every garment in the closet, put away every sweater and scarf, arranged tchotchkes and shelved the books, hung every painting.
She picked a sprig of carnation and snipped it, trying to keep her voice level. “Yes, I have. Many times.”
The question was, why did she do this? Why keep visiting someone who had no idea who she was, and didn’t really care?
Her mother liked the new place all right, had made friends, knew where she liked to sit for meals—the round table by the window—Susie was happy for that. But the flip side was—her mother’s indifference. Her own mother treated her exactly as she would a presentable stranger. Cordial but distant.
Why did she come at all?
The old woman gazed out the window at the afternoon sun filtering through the jacaranda, listening to Mozart. They had chosen this room because of the view, the trees, the hillside, the green wall and the Spanish apartment and even the traffic’s steady hum. Now she was content.
It beat the hell out of how she’d been–desperate, anxious, calling a million times a day, Everything an emergency. It wasn’t long ago that Susie took off work to bring her mother to the doctor when she was panicking, my throat’s closing up! And when she got there, her mother told the doctor her foot hurt.
But now those calls had ceased, and in addition to the sheer giddy relief she had expected to feel, came a shock and a sadness she hadn’t anticipated. Although she didn’t miss the constant need, the complaining and demands, it had always been accompanied with love and tenderness. ‘I don’t know what I would do without you,’ her mother used to say. ‘You’ve really changed a lot.’ (From the sullen teenager she’d been, about forty years ago!)
But now that was over. And this was what was left.
And she came because she wanted whatever was left, she would make do with that–the way you inhaled the last fragrance of a summer rose.
She picked up the arrangement in its vase, and positioned it on the side table. It was beautiful, airy and striking, a real painting. Her mother would enjoy it, even if she didn’t remember who had made it.
Well, she’d certainly got the most of that small bouquet. Filled space with the modest materials at hand. She kissed her mother goodbye, hugged her, feeling the sharp fragile bones of her shoulders. “I’ll come back on Sunday.”
She left the radio playing, they could turn it off when they took her mother to dinner. The old lady sat with her eyes on the trees, listening. At least she had not forgotten Mozart.
Part of a semi-weekly series of short short stories based on a writing exercise, The Word. “Inspired by a simple word, chosen at random, write a two-page double-spaced story, using the Word at least once.”
Next week’s word: BITE