Grandma was always tending to her garden. Eleanor watched her as she went about her duties, a smile stretched across her kind and wrinkled face, a pretty little melody being softly hummed (and occasionally whistled), a wide-brim straw hat pushed snugly on her head. The hat always made Eleanor laugh, due to the ridiculous way in which the brim flopped all over the place. Knowing this, Grandma moved her head as often as possible, and in as exaggerated movements as possible, to cause the hat to flip and flap more often.
Eleanor loved her grandmother. She was proud to tell people that her name was a twist on the septuagenarian’s; she was called Eleanor (or Ellie by her friends) and her grandma was called Elaine. Ellie thought this was super-neat and boasted of it often — a fact that made Grandma grin.
Ellie often wondered how Grandma got her garden to be so lovely. Mum and Dad couldn’t get theirs to be even half as nice, and they worked on it every weekend, weather permitting. Grandma’s garden was the envy of the whole village. Nobody outright said they were jealous — they just offered pleasant compliments — but Ellie could sense it, hovering above their heads like a black thundercloud. “Just how does she get it to be so nice?” Betty from across the road would always ask, a look of baffled puzzlement (and was that just a hint of annoyance in her voice?) imprinted upon her face.
“Nitrogen,” Grandma would say, with a sly wink. “Amazing what a bit of chemical and biological knowledge will get you.” Ellie wasn’t quite sure what nitrogen was, but it sounded very scientific. She’d looked it up in the dictionary back at home, but that hadn’t given her many answers, only more questions. What was an ‘element’? What was an ‘atomic number’? What did ‘unreactive’ mean? Her science teacher at school had brightened up when Ellie had posed him these questions.
“Quite the budding scientist, aren’t you, Ellie?” he’d said, beaming. Ellie wasn’t sure what he meant by that. He then went off on a digression about ‘nitrogen-fixing plants’, or whatever the hell they were (and just what, pray tell, was broken about this ‘nitrogen’ that needed fixing?). Adults could be so confusing at times. She guessed that she’d understand the science behind her grandmother’s garden as she got older.
Grandma’s garden was split into sections. Neat little squares of not-quite-uniformity. Blocks of colours sat side-by-side, transitioning from yellows into purples, from blues into reds; every colour of the rainbow sprouting from the earth. Different plants and flowers of varying species and size grew and twisted about one another, only the hue of their petals matching. Neatness and order juxtaposed with chaos and wild nature. It was gorgeous, and truly something to behold.
The only thing that Ellie didn’t like, the single thing, was the name of these grids. Grandma always called these something very peculiar indeed. Ellie often thought that it was a scary name, and a glint in her grandmother’s eye when she said it told Ellie that it might be true. “Why’d you call it that, Grandma?”
Her mother would then scold her grandmother before an explanation could be given (much to Ellie’s chagrin). “Mum!” she’d cry. “She’s only six! Ellie doesn’t need to know about that for at least another seven years or so.”
And then Grandma would laugh. “Suzie, she’s got to learn sometime!”
“Yes, but not now.” The stern tone that crept into her mother’s voice said that she was not to be argued with. In spite of her age, Ellie understood that sometimes — just sometimes — her grandmother overstepped invisible boundaries. Dad was important, and Grandma even more so. But Mum was the ultimate authority.
So, Grandma would give Ellie a cheeky grin. “Oh, all right, Suzie. In two-and-a-half thousand days or so, Poppet.” And then she’d wink at Ellie. Ellie had no idea what the wink signified, but she understood that it was a code for something. Something unspoken. Ellie would wink back at her grandmother, out of fear that she’d be thought an idiot if she didn’t “get” what was being communicated. (Although, Ellie knew Grandma would never be so mean as to say something like that outright, she still didn’t want the thought to ever occur within her grandmother’s mind — Grandma’s opinion of her was very important.) The reciprocated wink would make Grandma cackle with laughter.
And then Grandma would start talking about one of the many flowers that called her garden home, or would offer to make a pot of tea (which Ellie could almost never resist — Grandma brewed the best tea, even better than Dad), and Ellie would soon forget about the wicked look that flashed across her grandmother’s face. “So, who fancies a cup of tea?” Grandma would ask, in her flowery sing-song tone, and any thoughts of darkness that Ellie might have had in her mind would flit away, like butterflies on a spring breeze.
Elaine knew that her granddaughter was watching her as she did her gardening. She often did. She pretended not to notice, and continued about her tasks, singing a delightful little ditty (was that Take Five? She couldn’t remember. It felt like Brubeck… or something in a jazzy quintuple meter, at any rate), and occasionally making her big hat wobble comically, much to Ellie’s delight. Her tinkling laughter was like the chiming of a delicate bell, and Elaine never tired of hearing it. It made her heart smile and her soul beam.
For a woman of seventy-six, she was still sprightly and active. When asked about this by friends and family, she’d always tell them, “It’s my granddaughter.” And that was partly true; she did live somewhat vicariously through the youth of the child. But that wasn’t the entirety of the solution. She’d also add: “Never give up your hobbies. If you like to do something, keep doing it, old age be damned!”
“How does she stay so upbeat? So positive all the time?” Eustice from two doors down would ask, a frown furrowing her brow, one hand rubbing absentmindedly at her spine. “My joints won’t let me move like that,” she’d say, with an exaggerated sigh and a wince from her back pain.
The jaunty tune emanating from her through hums and whistles and doo-be-dums, Elaine danced from section to section, pruning where necessary, dispensing water from the can where it was required (“Have a sip of this, my beauties!”), and digging up weeds in the spots where they had the nerve and audacity to dare show their faces. From rose to tulip she pranced, a song in her heart; from lily to freesia she frolicked, a smile of contentment upon her countenance; from gerbera to sweet pea, from orchid to carnation, from sunflower to anemone. It was truly a sight to see — this pensioner happy, full of glee.
Elaine was all-too aware of the propensity for people to become embittered as they aged, and she’d vowed to never become one of them. “If I ever start to grumble or complain, take me out back and put a bullet through my head!” she told her daughter on one occasion.
“Oh, Mother!” Suzie remarked, with a laugh and a shake of her head. But her dancing eyes told Elaine that she saw the humour in her words and appreciated it.
“Oh, sure, I’ve got aches and pains, but, really, I’m still here, so what have I got to whinge about? I could be six feet under!” Elaine then tapped her foot upon the soil, to further punctuate her point. Suzie hadn’t responded to that; she’d raised her eyebrows and simply nodded along, as if to say, Yeah, I know!
And now, Elaine spun around on that very earth, the pretty notes of the jazz song twirling out from her lips, gardening gloves stained brown with soil (her father had once told her that spotless work clothes are a sign of a lack of work), shearers in one hand, watering can in the other, short trowel tucked into the front pocket of her “outside apron”. (Elaine had two aprons: one for use inside the house, one for use outside, and never should the two become confused or trade places.)
Her garden was her sanctuary, and boy, was it in bloom. The secret to her flourishing garden was also the secret to her seemingly perennial youthfulness. Although ‘secret’ may not be the right word for it, as Elaine made no attempts to keep it so. The retiree held her surprises in plain sight, for all to see, in spite of her daughter’s protestations. “The day your husband notices is the day I’ll start to worry,” she’d told Suzie with a smirk.
Elaine’s garden flourished. Just how does she get it to be so nice? Elaine danced. How does she stay so upbeat? So positive all the time? The flowers bloomed, all colours of the rainbow, all scents of the meadow. Nitrogen. Amazing what a bit of chemical and biological knowledge will get you. The pitch-perfect Brubeck melody rang through the air, melody flowing from Elaine’s parted lips and into the gentle breeze that caressed skin and rustled her apron. Never give up your hobbies. If you like to do something, keep doing it, old age be damned!
Why’d you call it that, Grandma?
One day, Elaine would tell her granddaughter all about how decomposing bodies release nitrogen. But for now, the elderly woman was content to simply tend to the flowers that blossomed from out of The Body Dumps.
6th March 2020
Written for Reedsy’s weekly Short Story Contest