|Tar Beach, Faith Ringgold, 1988, acrylic on canvas.|
“Pass the macaroni salad, would you please,” asked Rosemary. She smiled to Gary as she smoothed out her wedding dress that was puffing up in her lap.
“Of course, Mrs. Dixon.” Gary gave his new wife a big, teeth-exposed smile. He had been waiting to call her by that name for three years now.
“Are you two being good?” Olivia turned to her right to ask her children, two beautiful beings sprawled out on Nana’s quilt.
“I’m showing Bert the big dipper,” called Jolene. She turned her head towards her brother and said, “Start with that bright star and move your finger down.” Bert was trying his best to follow his older sister’s directions. His little attention span was obviously all over the place because his finger was doing small loops in the air. “And, you know what?” Jolene ignored his playfulness and went on. “The light the stars are shining now, the lights that we’re seeing, they’re really from billions of year ago.” Jolene puffed up her chest, proud of her astronomical knowledge. “Isn’t that cool?”
Bert traced a five-point star in the air above him.
Olivia turned back to her family at the small foldable picnic table. “You know Nana would be proud, Rosie,” said Olivia. She squeezed her sister’s hand. “Her youngest granddaughter. Grown up. A married woman.”
Rosemary eyes swelled up a bit and she tried not to let her voice break. “I know.”
“And somewhere up there she’s looking down on us,” said William. Rosemary looked at her brother-in-law. He could be so superstitious sometimes. She both enjoyed it and was frustrated with it. Always the realist, Rosemary just wanted to know the truth. Just wanted the facts.
When Olivia and William were first married, William gave Rosemary, just ten years old, a silk primrose hair barrette, a gift for being the flower girl in their small ceremony. When William explained the wearer of this barrette would someday find eternal love, Rosemary gave him a sly smile, with “As if,” scrawled on her face. She could have sworn the silk flower was a marigold. And she could have sworn she saw this barrette on sale at Macy’s when she was window shopping the week before.
“And I bet she’s wishing she could have some of these shrimp shish kabobs,” said Gary, enjoying the food so much he looked more like a ravenous beast than a groom. The checkered shirt was the only thing making him look like he had just been married earlier that night.
It was a small and short ceremony. Rosemary was adamant that it be small – no friends, no co-workers. She only told her sister and her husband, who were more than happy to be the witnesses. Since most of the family left New York after Nana died (many of them considered her the glue of the family), there wasn’t anyone around anymore who was more than a “let’s get a beer at the pub” acquaintance. Olivia, William and their two kids were the only family that Rosemary and Gary had. And they appreciated their relationship with them very much.
“You all are so silly with this stuff… ‘angels,’” Rosemary began, emphasizing the last word.
“Should I get your soapbox ready?” William laughed at his own joke. “Oh, oh, here it is,” William jokingly pretended to look for it under the table and pull it out.
“No soapbox needed, just some logic.” Rosemary set down her fork. “Do you think when flowers die, that they go to flower heaven? They’re living things too.”
“It’s a coping mechanism,” Olivia looked at her sister, whose ears were turning red. She knew her younger sister was starting to get flustered.
“It’s wishful thinking.” Rosemary stared hard at her sister. She looked to the men, who were dutifully pawing at their food, pretending not to notice that the two ladies were about to have this discussion again. “I think it’s a hard concept to understand – that when you die everything just stops. But I think it’s true. The universe is too big to care about little things like human beings. Once we’re gone, we are just,” Rosemary shrugged her shoulders, “gone.”
Rosemary looked around and then back down at her food. Maybe she went too far this time.
“You’re a biology major, right?” Olivia set her elbows on the table.
“Yes,” said Rosemary, half-way shaking her head. She knew Olivia was setting her up to make some point, but she didn’t yet know what it was.
“Scholar of science. Master of the natural. Queen of Darwinism!” Everyone laughed, the tension slightly breaking. “I just think Charles would have wanted you for his queen,” Olivia explained, giggling at herself.
“He actually wasn’t a king,” Rosemary started and then stopped herself. Olivia thought any famous British person had to be royalty somehow. Rosemary told herself that she’ll have to give her sister the history of Darwin later, maybe after the honeymoon.
“Anyway, I just want to make the point that even in science, all those professors or scientists or whoever they are, they can’t even explain where energy goes when it dies. So why can’t there be the possibility that our energy, our souls, whatever you want to call it, all go to one collective place?”
“Because then we’d be stuck with Uncle Jack, Aunt Barb and all those other fools for an eternity!” William laughed out loud. Gary looked at his new brother-in-law while bellowing. He was glad to have married into a family with such a charismatic guy. “And who wants to listen to Barb’s stories forever?” Everyone half laughed and half shook their heads. That was one thing every person at that tabled agreed on.
“What if souls, or energy,” Gary looked at his wife and then down to his plate, “Didn’t have to go to one collective place?”
Everyone quietly turned to Gary. Oh, he was already starting in on the family discussions. One hour and forty minutes after being legally married and he was already acting like he had been there for years. Gary felt the judgmental glares.
“What if they’re all right here with us?”
The table was quiet. Just then Rosemary realized the kids on the quilt were quiet, too. Jolene had halted her stars lesson that she was giving Bert and the two were dangerously silent. Rosemary noticed two sets of big brown eyes, inconspicuously looking toward the table from the quilt they were cuddled up on. She wondered how long they had been listening.
“Geez, Gar.” Olivia was the first to pipe up. “Where have you been hiding this insight?”
Everyone at the table laughed and William gave his new brother-in-law a big slap on the shoulder. Gary wanted to wince, but he fought against it.
“I was just thinking,” Gary looked up to the sky above them, above their small picnic table on the roof. “Wouldn’t it make you feel good if you knew Nana, or anyone who you loved and you lost, was just up there, floating around and looking down on us. Listening to you gals bicker. Overhearing William’s obnoxious jokes.”
William gave his new brother a furred brow look.
“I think you’re hilarious, Will!” Gary put his hands on this chest.
“Then I bet Barb is swooping in on my now!” William chuckled. Everyone laughed along with him as he pretended to swat at an imaginary angry aunt above his head. Gary, again, felt lucky to be in a family that laughed so often. He rested his fists on the table.
“You’re right, Gary.” Olivia put her hand on his. “I bet they all just stay here. I mean, where else in the universe would they go?”
Olivia looked longingly at her sister’s husband. She was so thankful that her sister decided to marry someone with some sort of sense. Someone like herself, she thought.
“You all are so silly,” Rosemary huffed. “Angels. Floating around. What nonsense.”
Just then, as if someone were listening, someone far away yet so familiar, a swift breeze blew over the family. It was a breeze that made people hold onto their hats, if any of them were wearing one. The laundry blew rapidly on the line. The plants wiggled in their pots. The quilt the kids were laying on lifted at the corners. Rosemary went to clasp her hands on her head to protect her floral crown headpiece, but it was too late. The breeze swept through their rooftop picnic, their tar beach, picked up the small flowers, quickly one by one, off her head and threw them up in the air and out over the ledge. There was no use trying to stand up and stop it.
The small yellow and orange flowers floated up over the city lights. The wind picked them up so high that the whole family’s eyes darted towards the stars way above them. The flowers danced in the air. And just like someone was listening, or like someone wanted them to hear, the floating flowers swooshed off to the side, leaving the brightest star in the sky, seemingly alone in the blackness. It twinkled just a bit, just enough for someone who was looking right at it to notice. It twinkled once more, then again. Then it sat still, as if to say its show was over and it was now just going to sit lazily in the sky.
The family members all looked at one another. Olivia to Rosemary. William to his kids. The kids to each other. Gary to his wife. He could have sworn he saw her eyes swell up and glisten.
“Your barrette,” Gary said to his wife. She reached her hand up to her hair, to feel if it might still be there. Worried for a moment when all she felt was hair, she felt a release of tension when her hand found the small flowered barrette.
“I told you what that would bring you,” said William, nodding his head toward the barrette. He lowered his voice, “You don’t need all that other stuff now.”
Rosemary looked to William, then Olivia and then rested her eyes on her husband.
“Superstitions,” and she smiled.