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"I was wondering when you would come through that gate," her grandmother grinned sidelong at her as she replaced the glass at her side and began her work again. "What's up, Buttercup?"
August sighed and sank to the railroad tie that delineated one of her grandmother's small flower beds. She fidgeted with a dandelion that had been yanked from its purchase and tossed to the side. Just the thought of speaking to her Gran was causing her eyes to sting with unshed tears. What was it about voicing a problem that made her puddle like a school girl?
"Take your time," the old woman offered gently, still turning earth over and creating a soft dark pillow around the plants and flowers. "I'm not going anywhere."
August took a long breath as an attempt at steadying her voice. Still unsure, she took another, watching as the gnarled hands of her grandmother worked gently, lovingly, but steadily; turning with the spade, sifting with her gloved hands, the freckles along her papery skinned arm shifting and flexing with each movement.
Finally August offered softly, "I don't know what to do anymore. I feel so lonely and lost," and with that, the tears began to fall. She watched as her grandmother kept on working, shifting her gardening bench into different areas, but still the same methodical movements. She was giving her room, permission to find the words in her own time, with her own voice.
"I don't know, Gran. Maybe I am making a mountain out of a mole hill but he's so distant, and I am so angry and we fight all the time. I wonder if it's over," her voice cracked and broke, tears coursing down her face now, her breath coming in ragged bursts. She swiped at her cheeks, and blew a breath out through her pursed lips.
The old woman rocked back on her haunches and wiped at her craggy forehead with the back of a gloved hand, "Do you want it to be over?" She gazed at her granddaughter with clear, bright eyes, concern etching her thin mouth in tiny, fine lines.
August could only shake her head no, too afraid to risk speech lest she begin to bawl incoherently.
Gran nodded to herself and returned to the earth in front of her, "Then it isn't over."
"But how do I do this, Gran? How do I keep our marriage from imploding? How did you do it, all those years with Poppy?" She listened in desperation as the hat bobbed up and down, rhythmically keeping time with the movements of her hands in the dirt.
A grin crept along the corners of Gran's mouth as she delicately placed an upturned earthworm back into the shade of a peony bush where it burrowed quickly into the soft black soil. She turned her gaze on her granddaughter and chuckled, "I had affairs. Lots and lots of affairs."
August dropped the dandelion and gaped at her grandmother, working ceaselessly non-plussed in the hot sun. Had she heard that right? Surely not! "Gran, what did you say?"
"I had affairs." The hands turned and flicked, sorted and sifted, leaving behind newly turned earth, breathing new life to the roots of her precious garden. She was smiling to herself and patting at the brown carpet before her before turning round and sitting on the kneeling bench, her knees the color of coffee, the wet dirt caking her khaki capris.
August could only stare in shock. Her grandmother had affairs? She couldn't make her head wrap around the image of Gran in another man's arms. It was unfathomable.
"I think one of the things that we women do to our men is put them up on these pedestals that they never asked to be elevated to," Gran continued, "We ask them to be our everything: friend, lover, confidant, provider, and the weight of that is crushing," She took a long draught of the glass heavy with condensation before offering it to August. She refused with a shake of her brown curls.
"We think that once we are married our lives should center around this one man, this one thing about us: our marriage. We think we have to concentrate our entire effort on being the best wife, the best mother and the best couple among our friends. We lose ourselves in that single solitary thing about us and we expect that our husbands will lose themselves too," she glanced at August who was watching her intently. "and when they do not, we are crushed. We wonder what we did wrong, why doesn't he love us they same way we love him? We forget to be who they fell in love with; we forget that we are vibrant, loving, talented women and we wither in our lopsided bitterness."
August sighed at the recognition. She had done just that, but was the answer really another man? She shook her head from side to side, "I don't think I could do it, Gran; take on a lover?"
Her grandmother burst out laughing, the peals of it cascading around the brick foundation of her home and trickling down the vining roses along multiple trellises, "Oh my word, child! I don't mean I had affairs with other men!" Her laughter echoed around the copse of fruit trees and trotted back to them on tiny unseen hooves, "If I am having issues with the one man, why on earth would I invite another into the mix?" It was Gran's turn to shake her head, grinning from ear to ear as she patted August on the back.
"No, dear child, I had affairs with myself, with my interests. After almost leaving my marriage in only the third year because I had mistakenly made it the complete center of my existence, I decided I had to find another focus. I began to explore me and who I was, who I wanted to be. I gardened," she gestured at the fabulous beds surrounding her home, cultivated from years and years of attentive grooming. "I painted, I read voraciously, I volunteered, I even traveled. I did it all without the aid or company of your Poppy. I had to."
August nodded, recalling all of these things in her Gran's life. She was here because she admired this woman, so strong and vibrant, even with the sudden passing of her husband after 48 years of wedded bliss.
"Once I quit making that man the sole center of my existence, once I released myself to take care of me," she pulled her gloves off, one finger at a time, "I released him to remember I am capable of living without him. It eased the burden he already felt heavy on his heart. It let him breathe."
She lay the gloves on the bench beside her and clasped her hands around her knobby knees, "A marriage cannot survive inside a sealed vault. It has to breathe," her bright eyes locked with August's. "If you hold a bunny too tightly, soft and lovely as it is, what happens?" Her scant eyebrows lifted with the question.
August recalled holding that little grey ball of fluff as it breathed its last in her hands, having refused to put it down for far too long. She had been just a child but it had been a lasting lesson, and her Gran had been the one to pick up the pieces when she fell to devastation over the loss. She sighed into her lap, "It dies."
Gran laid her hand on August's shoulder, "You have to let it rest, honey. If you overwater and over-tend, your garden will die. There is a time to weed and work and a time to sit in the shade with a glass of something and enjoy the view."
"Giving him some space will remind him how much he enjoys your presence. If there is never absence, there isn't a chance to miss someone. If he never misses you, he will take you for granted. If he takes you for granted, you will want to know why you are trying so hard, why you should stay." Gran stood and stretched out long, her bared shins as freckled with skin as papery thin as her arms, but there was strength beneath that aging skin. Her calves were muscled and wiry, her torso thinner than most women her age. She had obviously taken care of herself, thought August, and maybe this was the very reason she still radiated vibrance.
"Does it get better?" August tried to be hopeful, "Did Poppy appreciate you more?"
Gran's face shifted to a wistful smile, "No." The word hung like a pall between them, "But I appreciated me more." A tear traced its way down her soft cheeks, rosy with the heat.
"You cannot make someone notice you nor change who they are inside. You can only decide whether you will stay and what you will do to make it work for you. I knew I loved him more. I knew I would always be a little bit lonely in the marriage, but I also knew I would be devastated without him. I chose. I chose to stay; I chose to choose me when I needed to and I chose to love him in the ways he needed." She stared off into the muggy humidity of the morning. "It was not a silver bullet, darling. Nothing is. Marriage is hard and often an unequal endeavor, but then I was never taught it would be equitable."
"That is a lie that your mother's generation tried to sell you," she grinned and wiped at her leaking eyes, "Marriage is very seldom an equitable endeavor. There will be times when it is easier to look into each other's eyes and then there will be times you are fathoms apart. In those times, when you cannot see eye to eye, don't look to him for your happiness. Look to the mirror and look to God." She bent to reach for the bench and her now empty glass.
"Thank you." August stood and clasped her grandmother in a hug around the myriad awkward pieces of equipment in her arms.
"Go do you, August. You will appreciate it, even if he doesn't." Gran pecked at her cheek and waved with her fingers as she turned to retreat into the cool shade of her kitchen, screen door slamming against the wooden jamb in punctuated finality.
August sighed and made her way back out the garden gate. She would have to find a way… No, she would choose to find a way.