almost midnight before Mother’s Day, 2016
Josie’s lock-picking skills were on point tonight. The door to the business office at her mother’s nursing home had a straightforward pin-and-tumbler setup, so a couple of bent hairpins were doing the trick. She listened for the clicks of the pins falling into place as she worked her second hairpin inside the barrel. Amazing what a person could learn on the internet.
Her stealth, however, needed work—the sudden warble of her cell phone seized up her heart for a second or two. Shut up. Shut up. Worst timing ever—it was wrecking all her wannabe ninja delusions. As she dug in her pocket for her phone, the door to the office swung open, and she silenced her ringer the quickest way she knew how, which was to answer it. Steve Jobs, she was not. Then again, she was alive, so she had one up on him.
“Did I call too late?” The voice on the other end was Tala, the night attendant at the nursing home, who knew Josie was frequently up at this time of night. Odd jobs, insomnia, and indigestion often took its toll on her sleep. If she saw one more ad about restoring her circadian rhythm, she was going to go postal…but she wasn’t violent or crazy. At least, nothing a solid nap couldn’t solve.
“No—it’s fine. Is my mother okay?”
“Mami’s fine, but the mystery florist was here again.”
“Is that so.” Josie entered the office and did a quick 360-turnaround before she found what she was looking for. File cabinet. Unlocked, thank goodness. Her thievery skills had limits, after all. She’d been able to break in only because this place had next to no security, other than a geriatric night guard named Larry with whom she’d chatted in the past—retired Navy, addicted to cable news, liked cats. She rifled through the papers in the metal drawers, looking for confirmation as to who had been paying off her account.
“It’s a bouquet of fresh rosemary. Hand-delivered a couple hours ago. It smells like an Italian garden. Rosemary signifies remembrance, just so you know.” Though Tala was modern, sassy, and from the Philippines, she was also a big reader of old-timey books. She enjoyed the Victorian language of flowers—floriography—so Josie was inclined to take her word for it about rosemary. Over the past few months, the mystery flowers had appeared weekly. Campanula, or purple bell flower, for gratitude. Pink carnations for a mother’s love. Lavender for devotion or loyalty. Yellow roses for friendship. Sweetpea for gratitude again.
“That’s just mean.” Sending rosemary to a dementia patient like Josie’s mother seemed a little cruel. Then again, Josie’s mother didn’t care.
“Why are you whispering?”
“I’m in a weird place.” And wasn’t that the truth. Her mother had been getting worse. Josie felt guilty for not feeling more upset about it, but her mother hadn’t recognized her in months.
Larry strolled by the office window, jangling his keys, and Josie froze. He didn’t check the door handle, thank goodness, and within a minute or so, had passed out of hearing range. She waited a minute more, just in case, allowing a minute extra. For a geezer with his physical limitations, he wasn’t a dummy, and she didn’t want to disappoint him with her delinquent behavior.
Just then, Josie found the documents she sought—the signature on them wasn’t much of a surprise, just a major irritation. The anonymous donor who’d begun paying for Josie’s mother’s care was Greta Williams, Josie’s some-time employer for not just odd jobs, but strange ones, too.
“Do you mind if I stop in?” Josie asked Tala.
“Right now? It’s later than usual for you.”
“I’m close by.” In fact, Josie was in the next building over. “I won’t wake her up.” Though her mother slept more and more during the day, Josie’s nighttime visits often consisted of watching her mother sleep. A child watching over her mother instead of a mother watching over her child. Josie was aware of the role reversal, the painful juxtaposition the universe had handed her.
“I’ll buzz you in when you get here. You’re coming tomorrow, too?”
Of course Josie was. She wouldn’t miss Mother’s Day. And she could bring her own damn flowers. She hung up, and then she grabbed the proof of payment and slipped out, locking the door behind her.
“That was fast,” Tala said, hustling down the hallway when Josie got to the check-in window. Though it was past midnight, the petite woman with the silky brown hair moved like a power-walker hot-footing it through Boston Common, her neon pink athletic shoes squeaking on the linoleum. They were of similar height and build, but Josie walked a lot slower, dragging her feet in her Chucks.
“I was in the neighborhood.”
The scent of teak and sandalwood reached them just inside the room. Carved wooden ornaments and mirrors adorned the walls above an aromatherapy machine. Twelve crystals dangled from invisible fishing line in the window—one strand for each year of her mother’s residence.
A vase of fresh rosemary sat on the table next to the bed. Josie took a closer look. No card, as usual. She recognized the vase as belonging to the facility. A maroon colored ribbon held the stems of rosemary together in a prickly bouquet. The stems offered no other clue as to who had sent them. Remembrance.
For some time, she sat next to her mother’s bed, watching her sleep, listening to the hiss of the scent machine. After a while, Josie turned it off so she could smell the rosemary.
In the morning, Josie found Greta Williams sitting in her solarium which was probably the closest the woman had gotten to the great outdoors in the past fifty decades. Her employer sat alone in the sunlight, straight-backed as ever, dressed in a pale green sweater set—it seemed Greta had been trying a few new colors in her wardrobe since they’d met. The pile of canceled checks and payment stubs fanned out on the table where Josie had tossed them.
“You paid my bills. Why did you do it?” Josie asked her.
Greta looked at the papers but said nothing.
“I don’t need any help taking care of my mother. Making those payments was invasive, overreaching, and inappropriate of you.” There’d been a few times in the past when Josie’d had trouble paying her mother’s care bills. She’d skimped on groceries and been late paying rent on her apartment, but she’d gotten through it. She hadn’t needed anyone’s help then and she didn’t need it now.
Greta remained silent. Then she said, “I asked the director of the facility to keep that information private. I forbade them to disclose it.”
“Yeah, well, the next time you chat with them, you may want to suggest they upgrade their security system. Maybe install a camera or two. Those things are cheap.” She didn’t mention Larry—she liked the old guy. “Or maybe they should go electronic with all the payments.”
Josie realized she was lingering. She’d said her piece, but her feet weren’t letting her leave. The truth was, she’d much rather stand here and spar with her uptight, controlling employer than go back to the nursing home, where her mother might be awake and no longer compos mentis. Her mother wasn’t her mother anymore, just a relative who didn’t know her very well. Josie would pick anger and coherence over that any day of the week. Except, today wasn’t just any day. Her hand gripped the back of the unoccupied chair across from Greta.
At one time, Greta had had sons—two of them—but they’d died. She had been someone’s mama. This day couldn’t have been any better for her either.
Josie reached into the shoulder bag she’d brought and plunked down the pot she’d brought—aloe, its tight, bright green spines poking up toward the light in a rhythmic Fibonacci sequence that was both soothing and slightly ridiculous in its perfection. How could this prickly little thing symbolize grief? According to Tala, it did. Josie knew its jelly-filled leaves could soothe a burn, but deep, gut-wrenching grief? Whatever.
In the majesty of Greta’s glass-walled solarium with its vaulted ceiling and vast array of exotic tropical plants, the plant looked even more ridiculous in its three-inch brown plastic pot from the grocery store, crooked price tag still on it.
The French doors slid open and Greta’s housekeeping staff wheeled in a tray with several covers platters. Josie found herself seated, a napkin spread across her lap, helping herself to brunch. French toast made from challah bread went a long way toward soothing ruffled feelings. A carb-laden breakfast could simulate contentment like nothing else on earth—it was so good, it may have been feeding her soul.
“You might have asked first, you know,” Josie said, moving a doughy mouthful into her cheek.
“You wouldn’t have accepted the gift.” Which was true. She would have refused immediately, on principle. From a person who had more treasure than a dragon, it probably was a small gesture. But then Greta glanced at her, and Josie knew it wasn’t a simple gesture at all. “You could say thank you.”
“This is delicious,” Josie said, dousing her plate with syrup. When maple dripped off the gilded edge of the china, she wiped it with a damask napkin, which was maroon, Greta’s favorite color.
Happy Mother’s Day to my mom and mothers everywhere.