When Douglas, my youngest son, was eight, he lost his way home. He’d gone to visit his friend, climbing a mile long driveway up a steep hill. We lived in Holderness, New Hampshire then, in a house surrounded by twenty acres of woods. It was March, still winter in rural New Hampshire, and patches of snow dappled the landscape. Standing at my kitchen window, looking out, I stretched the phone cord and called my neighbor. Douglas had left. How long ago she couldn’t be sure. Dusk turned dark. Did we eat supper? I don’t remember. I know we all scoured the woods calling Douglas’s name, our desperate tones hanging in the brisk air. An hour passed. I called Fish and Game. Flashlights in woods. Men and boys calling. It was nearly eight before Richard, my oldest son found his brother, curled at the base of a pine tree. Like a deer, he’d bedded down for the night. In the kitchen, I held him in my arms, pressing his cold cheek to mine. I kept vigil that night, sitting in a chair in his room.
A bush with red berries grows at the edge of my driveway. Zeke, my eight-year-old grandson, fingers a leaf. He touches a bright red berry. “My other grandmother has these,” he says. “We can eat them.”
A pervasive plant, I see this bush in my yard, along the road and in woods where I walk Sam and Lucy, my two standard poodles. Yet, I can’t name it. Nor have I tasted a berry. Touching the top of Zeke’s sun hat, I say. “I don’t think so, Zeke.”
“We can. I know we can,” Zeke says firmly.
The only child of two academics, the grandson of two academics, Zeke is precocious. He breathes teaching and learning, and although he lives on the Lower East Side of New York City, his four grandparents live in New Hampshire and Maine. On his visits to all of us, we teach Zeke to recognize plants and to forage. Zeke drops his hand to his side. “I’ve seen them before. We can eat them.”
Ah, with his other grandmother, the favored grandmother. “I need to be sure, Zeke, and I’m not. I’d hate to see you get a tummy ache.” Pausing, I wait to see if Zeke will speak. He doesn’t. “I love the color, though, don’t you?”
“I love this bush,” Zeke says.
Douglas, Zeke’s father, does not remember the night I kept vigil. But he recalls the day when he was twelve, and I swept his miniature soldiers to the floor, destroying hours and hours of his work with paints and a tiny brush. He remembers the doors I slammed, the mugs I heaved against walls, all of the years he was growing up, attending grammar school, then high school, as I remembered my father’s jutting hand, his voice spewing venom. I no longer slam doors or hurl insults. I do raise my voice, and occasionally grab a shoulder. But even that is too much for my son. Too much for his son. The other
grandmother does not raise her voice, nor does she grab. That is the house Zeke visits most often.
Hands at his sides, Zeke stands for a long time. The day is gloriously sunny, and looking down the driveway, I can see the ocean from where we stand, ever constant, ever beautiful in its manifestations, high tide, low tide or sudden storms when the sky darkens and the sea roils, tossing up rocks and foaming spray. But not today. Today, the ocean is calm, and blue, so blue. In this rare moment when Zeke and I are alone, I feel a delicious closeness to this child. I want to give him everything he wants, but I can’t let him pick and eat. Finding distraction in a bittersweet vine, growing at the base of this bush I ask Zeke if he knows about invasive plants.
“They take over,” he says, eyes cast down.
He wants that damn berry. “Right,” I say lifting my voice as if in song. “This is bittersweet. In the fall it gets those red and orange berries. They’re beautiful, but the vines choke out everything else.”
Two handed, Zeke grabs the vine, and he pulls. “Wait, Zeke. I’ll get the clippers.”
“I can do it,” Zeke says.
The summer after his first year in college, Douglas buried our cat. The cat had been killed earlier that day, and not wanting to make the cat disappear, I’d left her lying on a slope of grass in front of the house, a single daisy growing beside her head, so Douglas could say goodbye. He loved that cat. We all loved that cat.
In the den, his round green eyes bore down. “Why didn’t you bury her? Why did you just leave her there?” He stormed to the work room, grabbed a shovel from a hook. Standing in darkness on the porch, I listened to the shovel’s blade, scraping rock, digging dirt. It was ten at night. Then, eleven. Holding my breath, I watched him hang the shovel back onto a hook. He spoke without facing me. “I had to dig down through rock. I didn’t want a wild animal to get her.”
Zeke shreds the bittersweet vine into fibers. He hacks at those fibers with a thumbnail. “Let’s get all the bittersweet,” he says.
Going back to the house, I return with the clippers, and we make our way along the driveway, searching for bittersweet. In my newly planted field, grass grows tall. Cosmos, yarrow and Queen Anne’s lace bloom. This is what I wanted, a field both wild and tame. Three large boulders sit off to one side. “Leave them,” I’d said to the men clearing brush. Now, Zeke’s imagination turns those boulders into a chair, a place where
we can sit, eating our lunch. “We can bring a table. Put it here,” Zeke says, gesturing with
“What a good idea.”
A vine of bittersweet falls over Zeke’s chair. I cut, and drag, and so we develop a
rhythm, Zeke pulling, me cutting. A tall, thin child with strikingly blond hair, he draws
himself up to survey our progress. At this moment, he is completely engaged, loving
and loveable—not plagued with his need to please or excel. Telling me we can cut a path,
he fingers a flower. “But we need to save these.”
“Queen Anne’s lace,” I say.
“Yes,” he says. “And these.”
The lawn crew had arrived earlier, and now, the driver of the large riding mower waves as he passes us by on the way to his flatbed parked at the end of our driveway. John, a likeable young man with a long face and large teeth, follows with his string trimmer. “Ask him,” Zeke says, looking at John from under his brow.
“Zeke, we’ll need the big mower to cut a path, and it’s up on the flat bed.”
“Aw,” Zeke says, lowering his chin.
Turning off the trimmer, John asks us what we’re up to. “Can you cut a path?” Zeke says.
“Say again.” John tilts his head, removes an ear plug.
“Can you cut us a path with that mower,” Zeke says, pointing to the absent mower.
“You want a path?”
Words of discouragement, weights of my own childhood, growing up with a bullying, volatile, critical father, are ready to leave my tongue. No, Zeke. We can’t ask. These men have to work.
“No problem,” John says. “I can get that mower.”
Zeke flashes a look of pure joy. Then, with his palms facing, Zeke defines a path from the edge of the driveway to the pile of boulders which form his chair. “See this?” he says.
“The Queen Anne’s lace?” John says.
“Yes,” Zeke says. He points to the pink cosmos swaying in the breeze. “That, too.”
“Gotcha,” John says.
My hand rests lightly on Zeke’s shoulder. “What fun,” I say.
Returning with the riding mower, John cuts a path, Zeke walking along side and watching intently. Cutting the motor, John says, “How’s that?”
Zeke gives him a thumbs up.
Still sitting on the silenced mower, John leans toward Zeke. “So what are you two doing today, hanging out?”
Zeke swaggers his shoulders, dips his chin. “Yeah.”
“Cool,” John says.
By September the grass in the field is so tall that one day I miss the path. Doubling back, I lift arching stalks, make my way to Zeke’s chair and sit while watching gold finches rise, then alight. The Queen Anne’s lace is gone. The cosmos is gone. A few zinnias remain. Wild fall asters bloom. The sound of a truck, then of the riding mower making its way down the driveway. At the end of the path I flag the driver.
“Every week?” he says.
“Every week,” I say, watching as he cuts Zeke’s path.
Sandell Morse has published essays and stories in the anthology At The End of Life, Green Mountains Review, Ploughshares, the New England Review, and the Press 53 Open Awards Anthology.