By Judith Gille
It is a year of dead and dying cockroaches. I wake up each morning, my bedroom floor a battlefield of tiny reddish-brown corpses, with a few near-fatalities scattered in between,their six-legs flailing in desperate attempts to right themselves.
“I bombed the bedroom before you arrived,” my mother says one morning as she watches me sweep the floor clear of roach carcasses. I say nothing, but think: I escaped the city’s toxic summer smog for this? But my mother is a warrior, a woman on a mission. A woman who derives her greatest satisfaction from preserving our family’s heritage: an ancient summer cottage where the insect population—like the weeds in its gardens and the rodents that nest inside its walls—has stymied her for years.
It is a year of bindweed and broken septic pipes and crumbling shingles. It is a year when my resolutely self-reliant mother, who only six months ago was a whirlwind of nonagenarian energy, suddenly must lie down for great stretches of time. A year when she can hardly handle the daily challenge of watering her geranium baskets or filling her thistle feeder for the flock of bright yellow finches that flutters just beyond the screened porch. Let alone tackle the weeds and grasses consuming the flower beds that once brimmed with black-eyed Susans, ladies mantle, bee balm and delphinium. “My lilies have survived just fine,” she says. The saffron-colored daylilies have always been her favorites. Because “they can take care of themselves.”
It is a year when I lie awake at three a.m., worrying that in the morning I will wake up and my mother will not. I convince myself— yet am not comforted by the fact— that she is more likely to depart this life in a sterile, dimly-lit room of a nursing home than in her bedroom at the cottage. As I drift back into sleep, an image of her lying in a hospital bed flickers through my fading consciousness. Like Wellington at Waterloo or Joshua Chamberlain on Little Round Top, she is fighting a war, though hers is imaginary. Against roaches and sugar ants, bindweed and dandelions, small brown bats and the failings of her own frail body, as her five children hover around, fretting about her comfort.
Somewhere there is a photo of my mother, one I took maybe two or three years ago. In it, she is standing among the Shasta daisies and lemon mint that grow on the west side of the cottage, her hands full of weeds she has carefully extricated from between the flowers. Her expression is not so much one of a blissful gardener as it is a look of stubborn triumph. One you might expect to see in a painting of Napoleon or Alexander the Great. Like them, she has once again defeated her enemies—the chickweed and sorrel and bindweed that would choke out her garden.
When she is gone and her gardens are engulfed in weeds and the kitchen overrun with foraging insects that neither her son nor her four daughters have the time or patience to control,
I will search for that photo of my mother in her garden. I will tack it to the cork board above my writing desk as a reminder. A reminder that it is our willingness to take on the most quotidian tasks—the planting and weeding, the watering and culling—that allows each of us to achieve our greatest victories.
Copyright Gille 2012