Tuesday, May 17, 2016
It's a lovely afternoon. Perfectly sunny and perfectly breezy.
We walk hand in hand, our nearly six year-old running beside us on the gravel path and our nearly one year-old in the stroller just below. Joggers and passerby are all smiles and waves and nods. We reach the prettiest tree in the row, in full bloom of feathery white and carefully set our blanket of muted plaid onto the soft grass.
I reach for the sunblock and he, for the sandwiches. Together we feed and lather them, giggling at the geese nearby. A moment of peace as we gaze at the families on the paddle boards in the distance. A moment of panic as one rather large and persistent bird comes within inches of our picnic blanket, forcing a half-laughing, half-terrified toss of bread its way.
They materialize down the path before me. "Cute skirt," I think to myself, and then..."That looks like..." Before I can finish the sentence in my head he begins to yell for his former classmate.
"Oh hello!" we all exchange niceties. A perfectly perfect family of five and a perfectly almost perfect family of four that should be five, in front of the pretty white tree.
And it would have been nice, but I'd been hoping not to see anyone. Today, the smiles actually, physically hurt.
"Crazy seeing you here!" We offer, back and forth.
"It's a tradition," they tell us. They come here every year for a picnic lunch and a walk.
I nod, hoping the tear marks on my cheeks have faded since the car.
"That's so nice," I say.
A few more minutes of polite conversation ensues, and then they turn to leave.
"We have a tradition too!" He stands tall beside me. Enthusiastic. Proud. "We come here to see my sister's tree!"
They turn, look to me for clarity. I open my mouth to speak but per the norm, he's already speaking.
"My sister, Josie. This is her tree. She died on birth."
In a moment I think to correct his grammar, she died at birth not on birth. Then I think to correct the entire sentence, because she died before that. Your sister died and then she was born.
Instead we just look at each other, two perfectly imperfect families, grasping for some shared sense of understanding over the wall now between us.
I sort of shrug uncomfortably.
"We're so sorry," they say, kindly. "And this? This is her tree?"
"Yes," I'm standing now. "Thank you. Sorry!" I gesture towards the branches, suddenly trying not to laugh at the glaring disparity. The smile on my face as I stand above her ashes in the ground.
They stay for a moment, commenting on the tree and offering their condolences in the nicest possible way, and then they are gone. Waving politely and walking briskly down the path, likely too slow for all involved.
I turn, and the laughter is a welcome surprise. Soon it has us both; the bluntness of his statement, the absurdity of it all. Together we fall onto the blanket as our children watch, perplexed.
To my surprise, I realize that there are at least three things that can make me smile on Mother's Day: Pretzel bread, brave birds, and refreshingly honest five year-olds.