Monday, March 1, 2010

Papa's Pink Geraniums

Sister Teresa of Avila was tired; an aching fatigue that burned deep into her soul. At 54 years old she wondered how her life had come to this. A Discalced Carmelite nun for the past 38 years, Sister Teresa had spent her life in cloister. 38 years ago a life of poverty, obedience, chastity and prayer was needed to keep her alive, keep her from being swallowed into the precipice of despair and nothingness she had no strength to fight.

Closing her eyes, she allowed herself to drift away. In her utilitarian room with its single bed, drab furnishings and old gray bed cover, Sister Teresa was supposed to be practicing her two hours of silent prayer. Her imaginings were frowned upon, of course, but the joy they brought could no longer be denied.

The smell of bacon made Annie’s mouth water. Nana made the best breakfasts in the whole world. Although she didn’t drink coffee, the aroma settling in after the bacon was like a warm blanket. The people Annie loved most always seemed to have a mug of the steaming liquid close at hand. Whenever there was a serious conversation, a pot was brewed and cups poured before any real talking began.

Yet to open her eyes as she lay in bed, Annie felt the fingers of morning sunlight caress her face as they pushed through the opening in the curtains. Another odor invaded her senses. This time, although not pleasant, it was familiar- the musty smell of an old camp. There could be no better place for a child to spend the summers than Nana and Papa’s camp. Set on beautiful Lake Champlain in northern Vermont just an hour from the Canadian border, the small three room camp would never have made it through the harsh New England winters but was perfectly suited for the mild, lazy summers.

No longer able to resist the bacon and the anticipation of a day swimming and exploring the beach, Annie jumped out of bed. As expected, she saw Papa sitting in “his” seat at the table working on the morning crossword puzzle. His trusty battery-powered radio tuned to sports, coffee within arm’s reach and the row of windows in front of him opening up to the lake, there was nowhere in the world he loved more. He turned and smiled at Annie.

“Well good morning sunshine. I’ve got just what you want for breakfast.”

“Do you have some bacon for me?”

“Got it right here, little missy. Your favorite: lamb’s feet.” With a devilish grin, he held up a jar Annie hadn’t seen sitting on the table. Having been hit with a staff infection when Annie’s mother was born, the middle finger of Papa’s left hand was amputated and his index finger, no longer usable, was frozen in a permanent bent position at the first knuckle. His disfigurement was invisible to Annie.

Close enough to glimpse the little lamb’s feet floating in the liquid, it was obvious several were missing. “PAPA! That’s SO GROSS! And they’re so small- they must have been babies!”

He just laughed and laughed. Grossing Annie out was one of his missions in life and she loved him for it; loved that she was the subject of Papa’s attention.

“Raymond, leave the poor child alone. Annie, come have some breakfast.” Nana tried to cover up a grin.

Never able to walk away from her grandfather without resisting the temptation, Annie put her hands on his burr-cut hair. The short gray hair was a trademark of his.

“Crystal ball. Crystal ball.” Slightly trilling her tongue as she said it, Annie rubbed both her palms over the top of her grandfather’s hair. The short spikes tickled her hands.

“I’ll crystal ball YOU, tiger!” With Annie’s arms up in their most vulnerable position, he went straight for the money shot- her arm pits. She instinctively curled up to protect herself and shrieked with laughter.

Sister Teresa’s reminiscing was abruptly halted by a loud rap on the door. The intrusion into her reverie jolted her. Few people would consider a door knock an unusual event, but nothing was loud at the monastery. Brows furrowed in a curious frown, heart still racing, she walked over and opened the door.

“Excuse me sister, but you didn’t respond the first several times. I thought something may have happened to you,” Sister Mary of Carmel stammered, a bit flustered. “You didn’t show up for dinner and we wanted to make sure you were ok.”

“My apologies Sister Mary; I must’ve lost track of time. I’ll be down in just a minute.”

As Sister Mary turned to go back to the dining hall, Sister Teresa quietly closed her door and leaned against the inside of it. Breathing deeply to regain some control, her body quivered as she exhaled, a quiet sob escaping. Her shoulders shook and the voice of emotion grew louder, a physical presence fighting for release. In a place where almost no noise floated in the air, this surely would be noticed.

These episodes were happening more and more. For so many years Sister Teresa had experienced nothing- no emotion, no reflection and no yearnings. The order, routine and focus on prayer were all she needed. Completely unaware of her surroundings, there was no beauty in her world. The colorless monastery matched her soul to perfection.

“Papa! Papa! Look what I caught!” In the boat with her brother Jack, Annie was holding up the biggest fish she’d ever caught. “It’s a bass Papa! I caught a bass!”

Papa, grinning from ear to ear, yelled back to his grandkids, “Good job Annie, now hush up!” Little did Annie know that it was the day before bass season started. Jack, on the other hand, was well aware that not only were they catching out of season, but his sister didn’t have a fishing license. If they weren’t so close to the public beach, it wouldn’t be a problem. As if that wasn’t reason enough for her to shut up, he hadn’t caught anything and was just plain tired of her yapping.

Twenty minutes later the kids rowed up to shore. Annie, bursting with excitement, had caught not just one, but two bass. Jack grudgingly brought up the boat and secured it to the small dock. He watched his little sister jump over the side, one hand managing to hold onto her largest bass, and take off over the rocky beach to where their grandfather stood waiting.

“PAPA! Look- I caught TWO bass and Jack didn’t even catch one! Can we have them for dinner?” Annie, struggling to hold up the bass, made a poor attempt to hold her excitement in.

Papa beamed as his treasured granddaughter searched his face for approval. “Sure we can, but you’re going to have to help me clean it. That’s the rule.”

A brief expression of disgust flashed over Annie’s face, but she recovered quickly, determined to impress Papa. “If Jack can do it, so can I.”

“Ok kiddo. Let’s go ask Nana for her best knife and let her know we’ve got fresh fish for dinner.” Papa took the fish from Annie and reached for her hand, guiding her up the rickety steps to camp.

Having finally reestablished her veil of repose and able to make her way down to dinner, Sister Teresa recalled with vivid detail the moment she came back to life.

She had been given the task of tending to the garden with Sister Margaret of Jesus, who would teach her the intricacies of plant care. It was a warm, sunny day in late May and several flats of annuals were waiting to be introduced to their new home in the rich soil of the monastery grounds. Sister Margaret handed Sister Teresa a flat, picked up one of her own, and they made their way to one of the beds, already prepared and awaiting its new inhabitants. Sister Teresa watched as Sister Margaret demonstrated the proper planting procedure and nodded obediently as she was told to complete the plantings while the other sister moved on to another bed.

Left on her own, kneeling and sitting back on her heels, Sister Teresa noticed for the first time the plants she’d been given the duty to care for. She blinked several times and a rush of emotion overtook her. Her heart pounded furiously and she felt light-headed. Pink Geraniums. Papa’s favorite flower. This part of her life had been forgotten, a fortress of locked emotion no one, no matter the effort or techniques, had been able to access. Except to Sister Teresa, to Annie, it was far from forgotten. Buried, ignored, hidden and obscured by the life of an obedient, chaste and pious nun, but never forgotten.

“Papa, what are you doing? Can I help?” Annie had spent several hours in the lake trying to catch the tiny blue gill that were always swimming around the big rock not far from shore. She was exasperated that she had yet to even come close.

“I’m trimming up my geraniums and of course you can help. Here’s an extra pair of snippers.” Papa showed Annie how to find and remove the dead flowers.

“Why do you like these flowers- whatever you called them- so much? You have a bunch of them.”

“Well, first they’re called ger-a-nee-ums. I like them for a lot of reasons. My mother, your great-grandmother, who died before you were born, loved them and they remind me of her. Now, look at the plant- it looks like it might have about five or six big flowers on it, right? But if you look closely, you can see that each ‘flower’ is actually a bunch of smaller flowers. And see how they have clusters of buds under the bunch of flowers? It’s like a promise to us that they’ll keep sending us more flowers. That’s why you have to cut off the dead ones- called deadheading- to make sure those new clusters keep growing and bringing us more flowers.” Annie watched as Papa’s large hands, with his deformed fingers, gently parted his treasured plants and expertly removed the dead material.

Sister Teresa wept. Sitting alone in the warm sunshine amidst the gardens of the monastery that had sheltered her for over 35 years, she surrendered not only tears, but pain and guilt and anger and despair. She released the fury she’d felt at God for taking the joy and love from her life. She had no idea how long she was engulfed in her emotional acquittal, but eventually became aware of an easing in her chest. Exhausted, cleansed and thankfully still alone, the sounds of the breeze and birds slowly penetrated her senses.

Again noticing the geraniums in the flat, Sister Teresa took a deep breath, the breath of the beginning of a new life. She noticed their color. The flowers were not just pink, like a color swatch of pink. There must have been 10 different shades of pink on each petal. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d noticed color. She thought about what Papa had said to her about cutting off the dead flowers so the new clusters could bloom. Sister Teresa had been allowing the dead elements of her life to choke off the chance of any new blooms surviving.

That awaking had occurred two months ago. Since then, more alive than she’d felt in decades, Sister Teresa had begun to feel strangled by the rituals she’d faithfully performed for so long without thought. Phantom sounds of children’s laughter made her yearn for the games and innocence youth brought to the world. She had an intense longing for more color in her life- pictures, brightly painted walls, flowers and clothes that inspired the essence of life. She missed her family and ached to know her nieces and nephews. Yet, here Sister Teresa was, midsummer, going to dinner in the same unchanging surroundings, the same hushed environment, the same daily routine.

Even as she wallowed in her inability to take the steps necessary to move on, Sister Teresa knew there was one final horror, the anchor of her misery, she’d not fully come to terms with.

“I’m ready Papa. I know I can do this. I’ve practiced and practiced with mom and dad. Will you PLEASE let me drive through the mountains? I am 16 and do actually have my license, you know. And besides, we live in Vermont. I’m going to have to learn to drive in snow sometime.” Annie begged her grandfather to let her drive them up through Smuggler’s Notch. A light dusting of snow had fallen the night before.

“Well, I suppose you’re right. We both know your mom would just make you more nervous and this is an old car, so even if you bump something, it’s no big deal. Let’s just take it easy, ok? The roads are mostly clear, but it can be spotty getting up into the mountains”

“Oh, I’ll definitely be careful! Thank you so much Papa!” Excited but controlling her emotions, Annie took the keys Papa held out to her and got into the driver’s side. She was so proud that her Papa trusted her enough to do this.
Once she’d adjusted everything and they both had their seatbelts on, they took off for the Notch. Annie hadn’t driven on snow before and though happy she’d been entrusted to make the trip, she was scared but refused to show it. She was particularly nervous when a car either came up behind her- better to be all alone- or was in the oncoming lane. Many of the roads in the Notch were much narrower than the roads she was used to driving on.

Papa was encouraging and his calm voice and gentle reminders helped, but she couldn’t help sweating. Annie knew she had to get this experience and prayed for the day she felt as confident as she knew her mother was.

“This is a particularly sharp corner coming up. You want to stay on your side, but be aware there’s not much of a shoulder on this side. You’re doing great.”

Annie glanced in her rearview mirror and saw a vehicle coming up on her very quickly, travelling too close for her comfort. She started into the curve but was nervous about the car following her. She looked at her rearview again.

“WATCH OUT!” Papa yelled.

Annie’s eyes flew to the road in front of her as her hands squeezed the steering wheel, her long nails cutting into her palms. She’d gone too far left while focusing behind her. The look of fear and surprise on the face of the oncoming driver created an instant and permanent image in her brain. Fixated so much on the driver, she saw but didn’t see a passenger in the front seat and two smaller ones in the back. With the instinct of a 16-year-old, she yanked the steering wheel to the right, avoiding the oncoming car. The split second of relief she felt at dodging the collision was replaced by panic as her car spun out of control. All she could think about was the small shoulder and steep drop-off beyond the shoulder. As the car twisted around, Annie’s brain processed a glimpse of the guardrail she hoped would stop them from that drop-off.

The rest became a blur. When the world stopped spinning, Annie had no idea where they’d ended up but she couldn’t move and couldn’t see anything but the inside of the car. She felt no pain, which she thought was odd. Surely she’d been hurt.

“Papa, I’m so sorry. I’m sorry Papa. Papa? Papa, are you ok? PAPA!” Papa never responded. Annie cried, alone, unable to move, unable to bear thinking about what she’d done.

Sister Teresa found herself outside at the bed of geraniums she’d planted earlier in the summer but not been back to since. Making up a story about allergies, she’d been relieved of her gardening duties. Astonished at how much they’d grown, she bent down and slowly ran her fingers over the smooth petals of one of the flowers. They felt like satin.

She’d found a pair of clippers and proceeded to deadhead the plants. It had been many years ago, but she’d never forgotten what Papa had taught her about the process. As she removed the dead bunches, she piled them on the walkway, like a pile of branches awaiting a bonfire. The clusters of new flowers waiting on a chance to decorate the world began to break through, the path cleared for them.

Annie knew then that this was the first step to putting Sister Teresa to rest for good.

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