The Carolina morning was thick with haze and sticky humidity. The kind of July morning that once you braved opening the front door, every hair follicle on your head would cry and clutch your face.
The early quiet was rhythmically punched with the screams of thousands of cicadas emerging from their 17-year underground sleep. They’d fly with metallic wings to the tips of the tree limbs surrounding us with their calls of resurrection and search for true love. It was deafening.
Mom, the girls and I climbed the steep steps to our garden prepared for our big project. Watching the girls toddling in their baby overalls and pigtails with mini trowels in hand made me giggle. What tiny, determined workers they were. Baka’s girls.
While mom and I prepped the newly mulched earth for the roses, I squeezed the rich, dark soil in my fist and saw it held it shape in my palm. It was good earth. I felt so connected to the permanence of life.
She and I began digging large holes twice the size of the rose bushes that the four of us had chosen yesterday. Tiana and Lexie squatted low near us digging small holes with their own trowels, spraying dirt in all directions.
I wanted the girls involved in our choice of plantings. My ultimate hope was that even if mom would leave us soon from the cancer, Tiana and Lexie would always see her, smell her earthy perfume, and be able to touch her in the petals as they spent time in the garden. But all they needed to know at this moment was that we were planting a garden together.
My mother worked like a soldier. She was hyper focused. In between chemotherapy sessions she could run the world. She learned this from being an orphan of WWII, miraculously surviving genocide and later again escaping from the Nazi’s. She was the girl that lived. And to her, hard work was a joyous activity, it was a rebellious act of living on in spite of so much death chasing her.
But after the heat had cooked us a while in the yard, I had to stand up and stretch my back. When I did, I paused at the sight of the three of them, my little Tiana and Lexie, and my mother- AKA Baka, chattering away as she pointed to each small planting helping the girls imagine that one day, these little greens would grow into magnificent flowering shrubs attracting many living creatures.
A few minutes later Tiana shrieked, “Aahhh, gross, a worm!” Mom bent down into the girls’ dig zone and said in her sharp Serbian accent, “No baby, not gross, but good! She is working hard to make your garden healthy! The girls watched the pink, fleshy body of the worm whipping itself back into the soil until disappeared. Mom explained, “You see, the vorm is necessary in the garden, it does vork in the soil to make it delicious for the plants to grow. Sometimes ugly things make life even more beautiful.”
The ugly things mom saw in her childhood, the barbaric acts her eight-year-old eyes witnessed could never be unseen, but she buried them so deeply in her sacred garden of life.
These stories of her and her five sisters’ survival were miracles. And I pleaded with her to record them so that they would never be forgotten. They have inspired family and friends to have hope in the darkness. To have faith in the midst of terrifying fear. But she never obliged me.
So again, even though I had to be careful about bringing it up because it was such a delicate topic, I asked her that morning while we were finishing up in the yard,
“Mom, when are you going to start recording your story? All you have to do is press a button on the tape recorder and talk into it, I’ll transcribe everything for you!”
I did my best to convince her.
Mom glanced over at the girls as I was pleading, and when she was sure that they were out of earshot playing with their made-up fairy boats of leaves and petals, she kept her eyes on them but replied,
“Sasha, should I take this time now to go inside and talk about the deaths of my family, and so many people I lost, blood soaked forever into our fields and into every weed and tree that grew from there as reminders? Should I talk about the mothers and children whose cries filled the sky? Or should I stay here now in this garden with my grandchildren, listening to their pure voices asking me questions and laughing as they play here next to me?”
“What should I choose for this moment God has given me? To talk about death or to live with all of this joy right here and now?”
I knew that her stories needed recording. I knew their significance to preserve her legacy for our family. For reminding us who we are and from where we came. I understood that Tiana and Lexie should know the full story of their beloved Baka. But I also knew that she could not choose to spend one precious minute in the past if it meant sacrificing being present with her family right now.
My throat tightened, “No mom, I want you to stay here with us, I want you to spend time with the girls, that’s the most important thing.”
“Okay, then”, she victoriously replied, “Then let’s go inside girls, it’s time to clean up and bake bread together for lunch! Baka is hungry like a bear!”
“Yay, Baka-bread, Baka-bread!” The girls cheered as they trotted down the steps with dirt trailing behind them.
I stood by myself a few minutes with my heart expanding and tears falling watching the three of them holding hands as they opened the screen door, and I thought, this is her legacy, she is writing stories with them right now that they will always remember.
The cicadas finally exhausted themselves of their raucous shouting. The heat was finally too much for them as well. She would leave the stories of her past for me to unearth and write one day. But not yet. Now was the time to bake bread and enjoy it together.