My mother was given eighteen months to prepare, as if one could prepare for the loneliness of widowhood. For the thirty years between the time she had started painting and my father’s death, my mother would sit in her study at night—hours after he had fallen asleep—her tiny brushes making their slow, deliberate dances on canvas. She was alone, but not lonely. His breathing in the other room—not snoring, just deep, measured breaths—was a part of her night sounds. There were other things at night she still loved after his death: The breeze gliding in through the window, fragrant with honeysuckle that almost masked, but not quite, the odor of uncollected garbage. The mating cries of the cats in heat, and later, the inconsolable grief of the kittens the first night they were left in the back alley to fend for themselves. She liked the heady smell of turpentine. But not the dark, bearing-down weight of loneliness that now threw a blanket over it all.
Then she received a call from the arts council volunteer, a shriveled, retired educator with a cheerful voice, who informed her that he had reserved a spot for her on the invitation-only arts fair. The upcoming event gave her purpose. For weeks, once again, she was at awe while at her fresh canvas something was created out of nothing. At night again the radio pattered on with callers detailing human angst of unimaginable variety, and she painted their problems into the miniature faces in the flowers. Anemones, amaryllis, azalea. Luscious and lascivious. And tulips. Tulips were bliss, infinite possibility, and had no faces, only delicate bodies craving touch.
She missed my father’s steady breathing in the next room. The occasional roaring of a diesel bus on the main road echoed under the heavy skies that seemed to lower after midnight. She wondered where people went this late. Her widow friends retired to bed early, refusing to venture out in the dark even to the neighborhood movie theater. It wasn’t safe, they said, and maybe they were right, except that she didn’t feel danger in her bones. Nor did she feel a foreboding in the live tissues that still remembered wanting, that would not accept the unfamiliar face in the mirror. Last she looked, months ago, errant black hair, strong and demanding, had sprouted in the creases above her lips, like yuccas taking hold in cracked desert soil.
My mother couldn’t help but notice the man who circled her station as she claimed her territory at the arts fair. Her display faced the plaza with its fountain. The arts organizer had allocated her this choice spot, the first one to be glimpsed by pedestrians coming out of the mall. On my mother’s portable partitions, which, since the onset of my father’s illness, she had learned to lug and assemble by herself, hung a collection of her latest crop of paintings. Bright colored flowers—outwardly telling tales of spring and maidens before the inevitable pain would take hold—were the fruits of her nocturnal loneliness, hidden in the petals.
She smiled at the customer circling her display, although she knew that few men dared buy a painting without their wives’ approval. The man was about her age, but his muscular build was like no one she knew, of those male acquaintances of hers still alive, that is. He examined a painting with purple tulips. Purple like the ones Eddie had once picked for her in a field when they had been sixteen, a year before he was drafted and never returned. The man—a customer, she reminded herself—examined the petals. His finger traced the contours of the plucked one, the one lying on its side by the vase. He did not actually touch the painting, and she could feel the buzzing atoms swirling between the tip of his finger and the microscopic dollop of dry yellow paint that was the hungry pistil. A finger made of steel. He looked at her again, and his open smile, revealing straight, square teeth, made her forget that she was a seventy-year old widow.
A month later, he proposed. At our age, he said, no use in wasting time. And the commute from his farm to the city for the weekend interfered with his work schedule. I must get up at five, to smell the fields, he said. He still worked the land with his crew. Like you, he said to my mother, that is my art; I make something out of nothing.
“All my life I’ve wanted a little tulip garden, my mother said, my own, right outside my window. One I can fertilize and weed by myself. A garden where I’ll know each flower as I know the ones in my paintings.”
He wanted to give her a field of tulips, he said, not just a small garden. It’s the efficient way. He kissed her, and shamelessly, she crushed all of her against those square teeth, against the strong arms that could still lift and toss a bale of hay.
“I’ll get my laborers to work on the field,” he said. “We can build a new house if you’re uncomfortable in the one where my wife had lived and died.”
“No, your house is fine,” she said. “When I move in after we’re married, I’ll set my studio in the enclosed porch. It has wonderful light. All I would want is a small garden of tulips I could tend to myself.”
The flu took hold of her in the coming days. He called. He was sorry she wasn’t up to dinner out or to stroll along the new promenade. He’d see her when she was well. “We’ll settle the question of the size of your tulip garden,” he told her. His voice turned hoarse, and she shivered with the pleasure of hearing the passion. She closed her eyes in the delirium of her fever. She soared in rapture over a bed of tulips.
Her throat burned dry and parched when the arts council organizer telephoned. Cheerful as always; the educator forever infusing his students with vision, he was working on the next fair, he said, and had again reserved her a choice spot.
My mother’s temples throbbed. “I can’t talk,” she croaked. “I’ll get back to you next week.”
“Who’s taking care of you?” he asked.
She mumbled something about her daughter, who’d come after work. But in what seemed like five minutes later, her doorbell rang, or maybe it was her head, but the ding-dong was real, so she tied her robe, the one stained from years of all-night painting, and there he was, carrying a covered pot.
“Chicken soup,” he said. “The only thing you need to get better.”
“Just open the window, please,” she said. “I need fresh air.”
“The bus fumes are bad for you,” he replied, but finally complied.
She saw blotches of red. Her future tulip garden danced against her inner eye.
Six days later, under the arts council organizer’s coaxing, she put on a sweat suit, and, drooping like a sunflower in one of her paintings, took tentative steps outside. It had rained, and the air smelled of damp leaves. Her head was both light and heavy. The arts council organizer helped her back up the stairs and tucked her into bed.
“Tomorrow we’ll try again,” he said. He brought over a bowl of chicken soup, this time filled with vegetables, and stood guard over her as she floated a morsel into her mouth.
“I’ve never been so sick,” she said, “or so weak afterwards.”
“Just eat more soup,” he said, more cheerful than she could stomach at the moment.
Her farmer called. “Are you well enough to spend the weekend on my farm? I’ll send someone to get you; I’m working with a crew turning an alfalfa field into a tulips field.”
“I want a small garden outside my window,” she said for the tenth time. “Mine alone, bite size, not a converted alfalfa field that stretches to the horizon.”
The arts council organizer brought over yet another pot of chicken soup.
“Thanks, but I am not sick any more,” my mother told him. “I’ve had nothing but soup for a week.”
“This is to remind you that I am here for you,” he replied. “Always.”
And she thought of tulips, a whole field of them, which at her age would do her no good when she was sick and her farmer wouldn’t come to her until she was well. And she looked at the man in front of her and saw his eyes gleaming with devotion, and she knew that yes, chicken soup was better.
They’ve just turned eighty-six. For seventeen years now, every Friday, he’s brought her a bouquet of tulips.