This story is by Sue Larkins Weems and was part of our 2017 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the Spring Writing Contest stories here.
Caroline’s father had always been one for grand gestures, when he could be found and sober. Course that had only happened once since her mother died.
When she was thirteen, she had stared out the front window of her grandparents’ house breathless, while he talked to her grandmother on the porch, motioning to a bunny in his arms. Her grandmother didn’t allow pets or her father, and both had been sent away. He walked away, his shoulders slumped, one hand in his pocket, the other holding the bunny under his arm.
Caroline had only considered running after him for a split second, before remembering her anger at being forgotten and left behind. She couldn’t blame her grandmother. Her father had hidden the ashes of her mother and robbed them all of seeing her properly laid to rest.
Now, he was just a gaping hole, a constant reminder of something missing that should have been hers. She had long stopped expecting a grand gesture.
That’s why she was surprised to be standing with a black-coated man in the bitter March wind, holding a small box in front of an eight inch square hole. All she wanted was to be done with this day and forget him for good.
“Do we just drop him, I mean, the box in?” she asked, nodding to the hole. It was perfectly square, like someone had taken a cookie cutter to the doughy red earth and pulled out a perfect plug. The minister’s sympathetic smile angered her.
“Maybe we should say a few words?” he said.
The box was surprisingly light. She could barely remember hugging her father and now here she was holding his entire body, or what was left of it, in her hands. “Is the hole supposed to be that small?”
“It’s all that’s needed.”
The trees surrounding the cemetery were still leafless, the grass patchy and brown. A few plastic flower arrangements haunted some stones. An image flashed in her mind. She searched the landscape, knowing it was still too cold.
“Are there tulips here?” she asked. The box shook in her hands.
The minister flinched. “Yes. All along the north side. Have you been here?”
The wind cut through her pant legs, and she shivered. “No.”
He looked to the ground. “Would you like to say anything?” he asked.
“No.” She wore no gloves, and the cardboard was cold and stiff under her fingertips.
He mumbled a prayer, and Caroline bowed her head.
“Amen,” he paused. “Whenever you’re ready.”
She bent on one knee and looked deep in the earth. She lined up the box, running a thumb over the corner of the box marked with his name, “Thaddeus Knowles.” A bird cried overhead, and the wind blew her hair wildly about her face. She let the box fall from her fingers. It thudded below. So that’s it then.
“Is there a groundskeeper who’ll fill it in?” she asked.
The minister was already dragging a cloth with the earth-plug toward the grave. “Nope, the caretaker…died. Give me a minute.”
He kicked off a bit of the dirt from the end, and then with a swift motion, steadied the plug, tilted the cloth, and popped it back into place. The seam where it had been cut would be gone with the first rain.
“You could order one.” The minister shook out the cloth and folded it up.
She found the nearest stone marker and memorized the name. He was two feet to the left of Miriam Stevens. Now it was her turn to know where he was and refuse to come by. If only her mother was buried here.
“I probably won’t be back.”
“Give yourself time. He made some changes… he…”
“I haven’t seen him since I was thirteen. I don’t care. Thanks for…this.”
The minister searched her face. “Forgiveness will free you. Bitterness will eat holes in you.”
“It’s too late.” She wondered what he saw in her hollow eyes.
He pulled an envelope from his pocket. “He left this for you. Nanny James is the executor of his will, but he left everything to you.”
“See Nanny James. God bless you.”
She took the envelope and ran to her car, anger thumping in her chest. The small cemetery was a perfect match for her father, the small brick retaining wall crumbling, even the weeds standing dry and dead.
She ran her fingers over the textured surface of the envelope, ignoring the small thump in her chest. She popped open the flap, and pulled out a matching sheet of paper. It was a short letter, typed, with various notary seals and signatures. Four handwritten words were scrawled at the bottom, Don’t forget me, Love, Dad.
A frown deepened in her brow as she scanned the typed portion of the letter.
He’d left her a cemetery.
She slammed the letter on the seat beside her and drove to Nanny James’ house.
Nanny James lived on the edge of town with no phone. She was her father’s only living relative, a crazy aunt. Her grandmother had let her come see Nanny James a few times each summer, hoping her father would stop by. He didn’t. Caroline had last visited Nanny’s house the week before her graduation, hoping she’d be able to get an invitation to her father. He’d missed it.
The house had been white once, but now it was a peeling mass of sagging siding and vines. Caroline knocked on the screen door.
Nanny James’ hair was its usual bird’s nest, and her hands curled, as she worked them in and out of the pockets on her apron. She smiled. “Been expecting you.”
“Hi Nanny.” Caroline hugged the frail woman. “Sorry to be away so long. You didn’t come to the grave today.”
“Not my time.” Nanny winked.
Settled in the ancient parlor with a cup of tea, Caroline pulled the letter from her pocket.
“Do you know what he left me?” her voice was accusing, sharp.
Nanny took a long sip of her tea, the swirls of steam rising. “Probably all he had.”
The silence stretched out. Books lined the far wall, dusty and forgotten. The rag rugs on the floor were threadbare, with holes where the worn wood planking peeped through. Caroline gathered her courage.
“The only possible explanation is that he buried my mother there, right? Is she there?” Hope caused her voice to falter.
Nanny’s cuckoo clock clicked and rattled and the tottering bird hobbled out chirping twelve o’clock.
Nanny set down her cup. “Let me tell you a story.” She smoothed her apron over her knees. “Once there was a boy who was ate up with emptiness. Lived with his old hippie aunt until he fell in love. How that boy loved that girl. She came from good family and he came from nothing.” Nanny’s eyes glistened with tears.
“Can you believe she loved him back? Those two were a pair. He was always doing some fool thing to show off, bringing her a wheelbarrow full of daisies once. Another time, after they had a baby girl, he saved up and bought a white convertible bug of a car and stuck a huge yellow bow on top for her.”
Caroline stared at the fireplace hollow, the embers glowing from the ash.
“But one day that car killed her. He went plum off his rocker. Left their little bird-daughter with me and he disappeared.”
Caroline leaned forward. “Where did he bury her, Nanny?”
Nanny stared out the window, a hand under her chin. Her chambray shirt cuffs were worn white.
“He lost her and that’s the truth.” Nanny’s cheeks were wet, and she shifted her gaze to look directly into Caroline’s eyes.
The cup fell from Caroline’s hands and clattered on the floor, splashing tea down her coat and across the rug. “He lost her ashes? Why didn’t he tell us?” She knew the answer before she finished the question.
“He went wild, retracing where he thought he’d been. He was ate up with shame and tried to forget. Drunk himself nearly to death. Last year, he met a minister who gave him a job as a caretaker at a graveyard. The one where Old Mister James is buried, you know.”
Air expanded in Caroline’s chest. “The tulips.” She could feel the warmth of Nanny’s hand around her tiny one now. Yes.They had taken tea and cakes to Uncle James’ grave and toasted his birthday.
“You remember.” Nanny wiped her eyes with her apron. “Caring for the dead changed him. When the cemetery came up for sale, he bought it, the fool. I’m the last living plot holder. The rest of the families have died out. No one visits the graves anymore.”
“So he left me more trouble. It figures.” She threw the envelope on the side table.
Nanny straightened her back. “I’ll sign off and the place would be free and clear to sell to some developer. They’d handle all the legal stuff with the graves. Might get you through the rest of school. Land’s worth a lot.”
“You didn’t offer your plot to him?”
“He didn’t want it. I think he hoped his time protecting the dead would be penance for losing your mother.”
Caroline wrapped her arms around her waist, her lips trembling. “He couldn’t save her, but why’d he have to lose me, too?” She doubled over in the chair. Years of tears poured from her, and Nanny set a dish towel on her knee, waiting.
When Caroline sat up, she mopped her face. “I can’t forgive him. Who leaves a cemetery to a twenty-year-old girl?” She stared into the fireplace, her anger abating. “I don’t want it. I just want to forget he ever lived.”
An ember popped in the fire, startling them both.
“He was your age when you were born you know,” Nanny stared out the window again. “So young. It all goes so fast. Like your Momma’s car. Too fast.”
He didn’t even come to my graduation, Nanny,” she whispered.
“Land sakes, he dropped off a gift. I forgot you hadn’t been by.” Nanny hopped up and came back with a box. The corners were worn, like it had been moved around and bumped too many times.
It shook in Caroline’s hands. She removed the yellow bow and brown paper carefully and lifted the lid. She opened the folded paper card.
Proud of you. Sorry I missed it. Dad.
Tears slipped down her face as she lifted a plush bunny from the white tissue paper. Her lips shook with a weak smile. “He remembered.”
Nanny picked up the cup and saucer from the floor. “He couldn’t forget you, my little bird. Sometimes love is like, well, falling in a hole. You can’t see straight.”
Caroline crunched the tissue paper. “He was a terrible father.”
“You’re probably right.” Nanny carried the cups and saucers to the kitchen. Caroline brushed her hand along the plush fur of the bunny, hugging it to her waist.
She remembered the pictures of her mother, leaning against the little white car, laughing.
Her father’s slumped shoulders the day he’d left with the bunny.
The seam in the grass at the cemetery.
Nanny James watched her from the kitchen. “Hard to forget though.” Her face was wrinkled and worn, the tired eyes glanced from the bunny to Caroline’s face. With a weary smile, Nanny turned back to the kitchen.
A thought hovered in the dust particles dancing in the light. Nanny James lost them all, too.
Caroline slipped the yellow ribbon off the box and tied a bow on the bunny.
“Nanny, maybe we should wait until summer to decide about the… property. Wait for the tulips?”
Nanny peeked her head back into the parlor. “Maybe find a wheelbarrow full of daisies?”
Caroline smiled. “Let’s just start with the tulips, okay?”