Issue Ten - October 2006

Life After Herbert

by Alie Wiegersma Smaalders

Genevieve Heller was on her knees, weeding. The soil, black and soft after the recent rains, let go of the weeds readily. Her fingers tightened around the base of a blooming filaree. Such pretty rose-lavender flowers. Sorry, filaree, out you go.

She swept her hair away from her face with the back of her hand. Her knees hurt. Every time she moved along the border, her knees hurt more.

She hadn’t done a weeding job in years. Herbert did most of the gardening when he was still alive. It was almost four months now since she’d found Herbert in his study with his head on his desk. Gone. No goodbyes, nothing. Sudden death from a heart attack it was called. A clinical and inadequate phrase. Still, losing your husband when you were in your late seventies wasn’t all that unusual. It happened to lots of women.

She had come to the end of the border. Done! She tried to get up, but was unable to push herself upright. Her calves were cramping. Letting herself down carefully, she sat with her legs outstretched, waiting for the cramps to subside. As soon as she turned back to a kneeling position, the spasms returned full force. She just had to wait longer. Impatient, Genevieve sat, fumed and waited. Her body didn’t seem like her own, it no longer responded. She finally managed to turn onto her knees, but getting up was impossible. Selfconsciously, Genevieve crawled back right over the discarded weeds, grabbed the railing of the deck and pulled herself up. She wiped her sweaty face and waited until she felt more confident before she brushed off her jeans and walked to the back door. Trembling, she stood at the kitchen sink, scrubbing her hands. She squinted at the brown flecks: more dirt or just age spots? How come a simple task like getting up after weeding could become so awkward and humiliating. What would be next?

She settled down on the chaise lounge in the living room with a cup of tea.It felt good to rest her legs. She rubbed her tortured knees. What a thoughtful gift this chaise had been, Herbert’s last present.

As she sipped her tea, she realized she had left the weeds on the path and was still in her rumpled jeans and her gardening smock. “Cleanup is part of the task and work clothes do not belong in the living room.” Even now she could conjure up her mother’s pinched face when she said things like that. Amazing, she still hadn’t managed to totally silence the voices of parents, long dead. It made her wonder what horrible “don’ts” she had impressed on her own children.

It was time to take herself in hand. She was an old woman.Genevieve winced. Downright foolish to start gardening. Herbert used to get help from a teenager. What was his name? You’re getting to be forgetful, Gen, that’s what Herb kept saying. Used to say. Genevieve felt a sudden burst of anger at Herbert and then at herself for not keeping each other informed. What would have happened had she died first? Herbert would have been at a loss in the kitchen. No sense pursuing that thought.

The phone rang.

“You sound tired, Mother,” Mary said.

“I guess I am. I did some gardening this afternoon; the border was full of weeds.”

“For heavens sake, Mother, why don’t you have Matt Porter do your gardening.”

“Matt who?”

“Matt Porter, the boy Dad used to employ. He was at Dad’s services with his father, remember?”

“Of course.” Genevieve’s hesitating voice belied her words. She had only the vaguest memory of Herb’s services, let alone of the people who came. She scribbled ‘Porter’ on the edge of a newspaper.

“You know, Mother, Jason and I have been talking….”

“About me, no doubt.”

Mary laughed.

“Yes, about you. We feel you ought to investigate senior housing in your area. Why not put your name on a list. We worry about you, living all by yourself.”

“Well,” Genevieve said, mischief in her voice, knowing full well that what she was about to say she had learned from her children, “I can’t help that, that’s entirely your problem.” They both laughed.

As Genevieve replaced the phone, Jason’s voice sounded in her head. What had he said, blunt as always? ‘There comes a point when you just don’t belong anymore in your own home all by yourself.’

She had answered that she was not about to be uprooted yet. Her children meant well, but she didn’t need to be told that living by yourself was scary. She was trying to get used to it. Just to make Mary and Jason feel better, maybe she should check out that senior housing business. One of these days.

Genevieve drew a deep breath. She’d better see about supper. Forgetting to put on her glasses, she was about to walk into the kitchen, when she was stopped by the rattle of the kitchen door. There was a tap-tap-tap on the glass. She held on to the doorframe. Be calm, Gen. A man’s shape stood outside. She wiped her hand over her face. No, she wasn’t imagining things. Again the door handle rattled. Then she heard:

“Mrs. Heller, Mrs. Heller, are you home? It’s me, Mrs. Heller, Matt Porter.”

Genevieve staggered to the kitchen door. There stood Matt, taller than she remembered him.

“Did I frighten you? I’m sorry. Mom said I had to call first, but your phone was busy, so I just came over. Someone pulled weeds. Did you do that yourself?”

Genevieve looked at him.

“I did frighten you, didn’t I? I didn’t mean to, honest.”

With a motion of her hand, Genevieve invited him in.

“I meant to come over sooner, but I’ve been busy after school with band. You know, I promised Mr.Heller last fall, if anything happened to him, I’d take care of the garden.”

Ten minutes later, with arrangements firmly in place, Genevieve bolted the door behind Matt. She stretched. A surge of well-being swept away her fatigue. That Herbert had talked to Matt… Her face softened. Life was unpredictable.

2

When Genevieve woke from her nap, she asked for Herbert.

“Your husband?”

“Of course.”

“I’m sorry, Genevieve, you lost him years ago.”

“Lost him?” Genevieve was perplexed. She mumbled to herself:

“How stupid of me.”

“When can I go home?” Genevieve looked expectantly at the woman in white. Who was she anyway. The woman’s chin and eyebrows moved as if she were irritated, but her voice was patient enough when she answered: “This is your home now, Genevieve.”

Genevieve shook her head no.Now what had she been thinking about? So often nowadays her thoughts drifted out of reach, leaving her groping, bereft. Wait, that woman was about to leave the room. Genevieve needed her help. She no longer bothered with the days of the week, but she liked to keep up with the month.

“What month is it?”

Lightly tapping the calendar on the wall, the woman said: “January.”

January, so she’d put on a cardigan. She chose a polyester one–they didn’t like you to wear woolen sweaters here–and went out in the hall for her “walk”.

She stepped aside to let a man pass who was pushing a gurney. A dark-red blanket, fastened with belts, covered a slight shape. A body, no doubt, but none of her business, not someone she knew.

She saw the man press buttons on the wall near the outside door. Pushing the glass door open, he went through. The door closed softly, without a click. Genevieve watched as the man, all by himself and without any lifting, made the gurney disappear into a panel van, a plain brown one, no letters, nothing.

Out of habit Genevieve tried the door, which was always locked. Today it opened easily. Humming to herself, Genevieve walked out into the sun. Leaving the grounds, she turned onto the sidewalk. She had to pay attention where she put her feet. You’d expect a sidewalk to be flat and smooth, but in some places these large concrete squares looked like they had buckled. It would be easy to stub your toes, or worse, to stumble and fall. Look, there was a date and a name of the contractor who put in the sidewalk. Alder Grove, 1956, Lewis Peters, contr.

“Lewis, you could have done a better job.” Genevieve chuckled. “I’m a heck of a lot older, Lewis, and I’m in better shape than your walks.”

Genevieve turned onto a quiet street with pastel-colored stucco houses which looked familiar, especially the porches. How poorly kept the front yards were; Bermuda grass was a feeble excuse for a lawn. The streety was empty. Where were the children, she wondered. The drapes were closed in most houses. Was there no one at home?

There was no breeze, no sound–as if time were standing still. Alder Grove glowed in the late-afternoon sun. There was something special about the light, something eery. The way it touched the house in front of her with its baskets of geraniums on the front porch. So familiar. Genevieve shuffled up the walk lined with pink bergenias that blushed red. She eased herself down on the metal gliding rocker that stood behind the hanging baskets. It felt good to sit down. That had been quite a walk.

Genevieve closed her eyes. When she opened them again, she realized that the geraniums needed to have their faded blooms picked. It would have to wait, she was too tired to bother. She should learn to pace herself better.Slowly, she started to rock. The metal springs squeaked. The swing needed some oil, she would take care of that tomorrow. What had she done today that she felt so exhausted?

A small car parked at the curb. A young man came quickly up the walk. With a surprised look on his face, he stopped short and said: “Well, hello.”

He didn’t say what he came for. People were funny nowadays. The sun had dipped below the houses across the street, the rosy light was all gone. Genevieve pulled her sweater closer around her. The young man was now standing next to her. He bent over and asked: “Were you waiting for someone?”

It was really none of his business, but he spoke so gently, that Genevieve responded: “I’m waiting for Herbert; I’m waiting for Herbert to come home.”

3

“This place is so dull, it’s like a cemetery.”
“Well, you could liven it up a bit.”
“You mean like dancing down the hall?
“That’s right.”
“What would people say!”
“At your age, who cares.”
“How old am I?”
“Eighty-eight.”
“Did I have children?”
“Yes, one of each.”
“You mean, a boy and a girl?”
“That’s right.”
“They never come to see me.”
“Oh yes they do. I’m your son.”
“You are? I’m your mother?”
“Yes, you are.”
“How nice. Did I have a happy marriage?”
“I’d say so, it lasted fifty-eight years.”
“Did I live with him all that time?”
“You sure did. Dad wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.”
“Is that so. What was his name?”

©Alie Wiegersma Smaalders

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