Bernadette's stomach churned every time she hugged her dad. She was revolted by the sticky suction of his sweaty arms on her skin. She despised the nose-scrunching sour stench of his morning work in the hot delta earth. More than anything, she hated being so close to the man who killed her mother.
Standing at the edge of the garage she'd just entered, Bernadette watched as a strange woman carried her mother's unfinished sewing projects and knick-knacks to an unfamiliar car.
"I really can't thank ya enough, Owen, for donating these," the woman said with a social smile. "I know we only knew Joyce for a few Sundays before…everything, but I bet she'd have loved our congregation. Only preaching God's truth, you know."
"Joyce was a real believer," Owen responded. "And I know she'd be thrilled to know this raffle would help bring more to Christ." He paused and looked toward his daughter. "Aint that right, Bernie?"
Fuck you and your church, she thought. "Sure is, Dad," she said, forcing a smile.
As the woman walked back to the garage, Bernie noticed a picture frame sitting atop a box. She snatched it as the woman picked it up, nearly startling the box out of her hands.
"Not this one," she said. "This was mom's favorite." Bernie held up a framed piece of yellowed embroidery. The glass had long since been removed. She rubbed her fingers over the faded silk threads as she remembered the first time she saw this. It was the summer her mama started the garden out back.
Owen looked over his daughter's shoulder. "'Other seed fell on good soil and bore fruit.' Matthew 13:8," he read aloud. "Your mother loved that one, didn't she?"
"Ah, the Parable of the sower," the stranger said. "Plant your seed in the rocky dirt, and grow nothing. Plant your seed in fertile soil, grow crops forever," she recalled. "Christ's story of how to grow the church. How appropriate for the fundraiser to build our mission. The more we bring to God, the more he can save."
Every word made Bernie's skin crawl.
"Too bad it doesn't have real tips on planting seeds," Bernadette interrupted. "We've got a busy afternoon, ain't that right, Dad?" She pulled the embroidery close to her and stepped back toward the door to the house.
He forced a chuckle. "Absolutely, Bernie. And good call on the embroidery. Your mama would've wanted you to have it." He turned back to the stranger with a sheepish grin. "I'm sure I can find a few other things to take its place."
The stranger smiled. "Of course. And right you are. On my way, I go. I'll see you later, Owen. Thanks again."
The garage door grumbled over the stranger's final words as Bernie's fingertip turned white from the pressure on the button.
"I'm cooking tonight and need to be home by five. You got everything ready?" Bernie asked as they entered the still air of the lifeless house. She placed the framed needlepoint down gently on the counter.
Owen walked directly to the back door. "Of course, honey. But don't you–"
"I'm just here to plant the summer rows, dad. Like mom asked."
He nodded. "Of course."
As he opened the back door and walked through it, Bernie followed him through the blinding white rectangle of heat.
After the first few rows, Bernie got reacquainted with the muggy, hot air. The sappy film of sweat on her skin had collected its first layer of fine dust and dirt, especially in her elbow crevices. Nature's Sunblock, her mom had called it. Bernie smiled.
Her mother, Joyce, cared for the garden like she cared for Bernie. She made a point to water early before the high sun and never let a young seedling get strangled by weeds. Whether it was from the fresh produce or the steady kindness, Bernie's childhood was never without the nourishing touch of her mother. She knew she'd have to say goodbye–all children do–but not this soon, not at 52, not from a virus.
But like so many others, one day she was fine, the next a cough, a few days later, the vent.
Bernie stabbed through the soil with her shovel, digging a hole far too deep for the squash seeds she had.
"You digging down to China?" he asked with a forced chuckle.
She hated how he said "China" Just like that orange bastard. She snarled her nose before relaxing every muscle in her face and taking a breath to respond. "Just a little focused, I guess."
"On your mama?" he asked.
She turned back from him and started stabbing again.
"Well, I just want–"
"I said don't, damn it."
Owen took a deep breath. "I know you blame me for what happened to her."
Bernie straightened her spine and sat back on her heels, her knees tucked in the dirt in front of her. She rubbed her thighs slowly as if trying to discharge excess energy.
Owen continued. "If I'd have known this thing was this bad–"
Bernie slammed her shovel to the ground with the rage of a million grieving families who lost their loved ones to lies. She'd love to slam it right into his forehead.
"Don't you dare," she bit back at him. "Don't you even goddamn dare it."
Bernie rubbed harder, breathed harder, hoped harder than anything that this feeling would pass and this moment would melt in the heat, never to come back. Of course, hard moments never melt. They stick. Like dirt on a sweaty arm.
"I have to know you know that we tried our best," he said. "It's just that no one knew how to stop this thing."
"We knew. We all knew."
"Well, you say that, but we really didn't. Remember when masks were bad before they were good? Or when surfaces carried it and then didn't?" He waited for a response. None came. "Maybe we should've known more; maybe we all could've done better. But that's all hindsight now. I can't take it back."
Here was the man she grew to abhor. This new man who shifted guilt to others; who refused responsibility. Bernie knew that a both-sides half-assed attempt at an apology was the best she'd get out of the disgusting man in front of her. Soon enough, he'd find a way to weasel out of even that admission.
"You haven't been open to new ideas in years," she said. "Communist plots, Fake News, the Deep State, you always had an excuse for not hearing the truth. And mom paid the price." She continued to ply through the hard dirt with increased fervor, not looking up once.
"Now, hold on. We did what we could. Your mother insisted on at least washing our hands, which we did when we remembered. But you know this heat and humidity here–wearing a mask is like duct-taping your mouth and nose shut."
Bingo. Not two minutes went by before this man placed the blame elsewhere again.
What had happened to the dad that raised her? That loved her. The man who worshipped his "two queens," as he always told anyone that would listen. Because she hadn't seen that man in years.
Whoever this man was, she couldn't stand to be near him another minute. In disgust, she picked up her shovel and moved a row down, away from him.
"Besides," he continued, preparing the coup-de-grace, "you know your mama insisted on going to church."
Bernie paused. Seriously. Do NOT.
"And even if we did wear a mask, that old church she went to was small and dark, she'd have gotten it one way or–" His nonsense was interrupted by a stainless steel hand shovel sailing a few inches past his head.
With wide eyes, and for the first time, Owen looked at his only daughter with fear. She looked at him for the millionth time with rage.
"Who told her not to worry about social distancing? Who told her not to mask? Who made her switch to a new Church in the middle of a Pandemic because they aligned more with your political beliefs? Who in the hell did that, Dad? Not me. Not the scientists. And not mama. She loved that old church, and they loved her."
"And they handed out and encouraged masks at every service. I may not go anymore, but I follow them on Facebook, asshole."
"You're just upset and being unfair; I understand that, Bernie. We'll get you calmed down."
Self-pity looked worse on this sorry excuse of a man than the pit-stained fruit of the loom T-shirts that clung to his bloated body. Bernie stared him down. I can't go through with this. Mama will just have to understand.
"I gotta go, Dad. I know you'll get this garden planted soon enough. I'll call ya next week."
"No, Bernie, I'll listen, please."
But she was already gone. The metal chainlink gate from the backyard to the front clattered back behind her.
Standing in his empty, barren garden, holding the shovel his only daughter just threw at his head in anger for the death of his only, cherished love, Owen Prentiss began to weep.
Bernie sat in her car in the driveway and fumbled with the spare pack of cigarettes she'd kept since she quit smoking four years ago. She pulled on the frayed plastic corners. Then she threw it in the glovebox, disgusted at both the thought of having one and the thought of not.
She turned the engine over and felt the AC surge through the vents. She leaned back in her seat, blocking the bright sun with her hands. As her mind drifted and her breathing slowed, she began to notice, then pursue, her final memories of Joyce Prentiss–mama. The moment she made her Garden Oath.
The nurses told Bernie her mama was quarantined and that she couldn't see her. But when the rounds nurse looked at the chart, she concealed a frown. Then she let Bernie in.
"The charge nurse gets back from her break in 10. I can't let you stay past then, you understand?"
As Bernie entered the cold, dark room, she saw what was once her mama, now emitting beeps and tubes like a monstrous creature from Revelations. She walked over to her side, pushing her arm through the plastic, and clasped the weak hand lying there. Through the beeps, she heard the faint voice of the woman that gave her life. Bernie steeled herself for what was most likely her mother's final words to her.
"Help your father."
Even at death's door, this saintly woman thought of others.
"I will, mama," Bernie said between tears.
The final words, though, the ones Bernie would cling to all her life, were of the garden.
"I tried to plant the seeds. You have to water them."
"Mama, don't worry about the garden. We'll take real good care of it.," Bernie responded.
Her mother weakly moved her head from left to right. No, "You have to water the seeds. He needs it. You need it."
Like all grieving sons and daughters, Bernie had never lost her mother before. What do you say in a moment like that? You want to say so many things, to feel so many things, one more time. But you can't. Time is out. The choices are no longers yours. So you agree to the silliest thing, like planting a garden.
Sitting back in the sun-baked, air-conditioned car, Bernie wiped the tears from her eyes. Why the hell did she make her agree to that? Was she afraid of not being remembered? How could she think that? Bernie loved her mama, so did the town, and believe it or not, so did Owen. How could she believe that the only way to be remembered was to plant this goddamned piece of shit garden?
As she thought about her mama, the heat, that horticultural hell in the backyard, those final moments, the subtleties began to click into place. Her face contorted as she processed these new thoughts. Her heart pounded as tears welled, then poured from her eyes. As the feelings and memories flooded, the pain began to sink. And sink. And sink. Until she felt calm again. As the calmness took over, a smile crossed her face.
"You win, mama." She turned the key off and stepped back out into the blazing sun.
Owen was startled by the sound of his back door opening. He turned to see Bernie coming from the house. She must've come back in through the front. As she got closer, he could see she held something–a portrait-sized picture frame.
"I thought you left," he said, guarded.
"I did. I mean, I wanted to. But mama wanted me here. I didn't know why. Why would this woman want me to help you with this," she said, fanning her arms toward the sunbaked dirt.
"She loved her garden. You know that."
"She did. But I don't think this was her garden," Bernie said before lifting the picture frame up and turning it to her dad. "I think this was her garden."
Bernie watched as Owen read the familiar bible verse. When he paused, she waited for him to speak.
"Now, honey, you don't think this old embroidery is gonna help plant actual seeds, do you?"
"What's this parable about, dad?"
"You were talking about it earlier. What's it about?"
"It's just an old story that churches tell on how to evangelize. It's just a story."
"No, dad. Not originally. Before there were churches, before there even was a church of any kind, hell, before there was a religion called Christianity, there was a man named Christ. And he told this parable."
"I don't understand."
"He didn't tell this parable to help churches grow. He told this parable to help people grow. He told them that if they plant their seeds of action in the fertile soil of care and love, care and love will spring forth. Only devastation will grow if they plant their seeds in the salty earth of hatred and anger."
Owen said nothing.
"I hate you. I hate that part of you that chose being in a cult over your wife's life. I hate that part of you that wanted easy solutions instead of real ones. I hate the parts that can't admit mistakes. I hate the parts that shut others out. I want nothing more than to destroy those parts and bury them here under the tomatoes while I chain smoke pall malls and sob to high heaven."
She reached out and touched his shoulder, looking him in the eyes.
"But I love you, Dad. I love the real "you" that isn't driven by those parts. I love the "you" that thinks freely and wisely. The "you" that protected us both and wouldn't let a bad thing in the world happen to us. I love that "you"'.
"But I hate those other parts. And I can't kill them any more than I can kill you because they're a part of you. But you know what I can do? I can love them to death. I can love the "you" that I know so much that it has no choice but to bloom and grow and fill all of you, leaving no room for those other parts. I can grow those seeds; I can water that plant. We can do it together."
Owen Prentiss sobbing in front of her, Bernie did what she hadn't done in years: she chose to give her father a hug. As she wrapped her arms around this sweating, sobbing, sticking mess of a man, she felt nothing but love and care. Nothing but hope for what that love can bring and what fruits can be born.