Stephen is particularly quiet this evening.
I know it’s not just because he’s enjoying dinner – I raised the boy, I know his too-hungry-to-talk stance, and this isn’t it. He isn’t a boy anymore, either, but a mother is allowed her delusions, even when her son is pushing 50.
“How are the girls?” I ask as I push mashed potatoes around my plate.
“Great,” Stephen answers around a mouthful of roast beef. He wipes his mouth, an apologetic smile haunting his lips. “They’ve been really busy with homework – it’s a tough semester for both of them.”
I can see the regret hiding in the wrinkles by his eyes. He knows he should encourage the girls to visit more. I don’t pressure him. If I were two teenage girls, I wouldn’t want to spend much time in this old farmhouse either.
My eyes drift out the window. The snow is dirty, ugly. The last, stubborn throes of winter are clinging to the earth, slow to yield despite the days of sunshine and southerly wind. I can empathize. I know I’m nearing my winter’s end. Unlike the fields around me, I have no spring plowing and planting to look forward to. Humans only get one turn through the seasons, a reality I used to decry when I was in my summer and early fall days. Now that the end is closing in, I find myself relieved that I needn’t try to rally for another round, just gather the strength to hang on till the end. Matthew would scold me for my attitude – but he’s not here to do that anymore.
“DeAnn said she’ll bring one of her blackberry pies by sometime this week,” Stephen volunteers, now intent on making up for his earlier silence. “I think I’ve got her talked into going blackberry picking again this summer, so I’m willing to part with one.”
“Well, I do feel special,” I say.
We share a quiet, emotionless chuckle. Both of us are pointedly ignoring the empty chair across from Stephen. Over the last few months, I’ve developed a tolerance to seeing it empty. Stephen hasn’t come by much since Christmas, so the visual reminder is sharper.
53 years. Over 40,000 meals I’d cooked and served with Matthew sitting in that chair – grinning, stealing a taste or a kiss before prayer. I know because two weeks after the funeral I forced myself to sit down and do the math rather than cry. This end-of-winter meal had been a tradition between father and son to discuss irrigation and what crops to rotate. Stephen continued it out of courtesy when Matthew officially gave him the reins of the farm eight years ago. God Himself only knew why he’d decided to come this year.
Stephen clears his throat, and I realize a heartbeat too late that I’ve been staring at his father’s empty chair. I shift my gaze back out to the snow. A muddy bank nearly obliterates the flower bed – not that there’s anything but a few dead sticks to see anyway. I’ve decided I’m not going to bother planting anything this year.
“Jeff wants to come home for spring break and help with some planting.”
I nod. “He called and placed an order for peanut butter balls and cooked carrots with extra brown sugar.”
Jeff, the very image of his grandfather. Jeff, the only one who still seems to care that Grandma is around, now that I’m not part of a set. He calls about twice a month – quite the respectable average for a junior in college.
Stephen raises a forkful of the carrots on his plate, eyeing them as if he’s measuring the brown sugar in this batch. “He, uh, said he might bring his girlfriend with him.”
“Apparently Gina’s pretty special, and he wants her to see the farm.”
Another grandchild married. Well, it was about time Jeff got on the ball. His cousins had beaten him to it by a good three years. The smile spreading across my face felt almost foreign, partially because it was the first one in weeks that I hadn’t had to prompt.
“So, will we be having a family get together that week?” I ask, rising to take my plate to the sink.
“Of course,” Stephen says, coming to put his arm around my shoulders. “A visit to the farm isn’t complete without one of your dinners.”
Another unbidden smile. I look out the window at the snowbank. Maybe I’ll do some planting this year after all.
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