Fiction by Kimberly Long Cockroft
You must deserve them. Most people have something more pressing waiting:
a pot left to simmer, a dying spouse, a church meeting, a dog giving birth, a child at
soccer practice. Maybe other things are more important to you, like a piece of
cheese you have waited a long time to eat or a bottle you would like to uncork.
But you stopped, which means that either you are not in a hurry or you really want
them. I hope it’s both. (Do you speak English? I cannot translate any of this. I
hope you can read what I am writing.)
Finding the right pot is vital. Plastic is ugly, no matter what they do with it
these days to make it look like stone or ceramic. Plastic is plastic, period. It never
changes, like terracotta that absorbs water like spreading sadness and evidences
time passing. Plastic feels cheap under your fingers, and when you overwinter your
geraniums, the soil will not hold moisture.
There is poetry to a good terracotta pot. Do not paint it. Do not paste silly
things to it or allow your grandchildren to place ink-covered hands on it. If you are
young do not do idiotic things like stick picks with gnomes or smiling fairies in the
soil. This is insulting. Never, never buy a pot without a drainage hole. The roots
of your geranium will rot.
I met my husband in church. It was an old church in one of those Illinois
towns, just out of Chicago, that seems clean until you really start talking to people.
Then you realize that inside, nobody is well-filed. A person usually has their files
pulled out. Their papers spill across the floor. Sometimes they are looking for a file
they never had or one they will never find again. When I was young I thought I
would organize myself, but now that I am old I have let that go. Mainly I want to
be able to love, and love is not a clean thing.
That church was an old brick building with high ceilings and heaters that
groaned in the winter. My grandparents attended that church (my mother was
something of a black sheep but she had let me go on Sundays). People knew the
sight of me well, but they were reserved in the way of Midwest Presbyterians.
They felt I was there because I was destined to be there; but why I was there or
who I really was inside was not of high concern. When I was a young adult, still
unmarried but responsible, my jellos set and my yeast rolls were tender and perfect
funeral fare, so they called me regularly to bring things up to the church. “Poor Evie
passed on,” an elder’s wife might tell me over the phone, “and I was wondering if
you’d bring some of your yeast rolls to the funeral meal? Evie always did love
your yeast rolls.” They did not hesitate to call me because I did not yet have a
husband and children to cook for.
It was after service that I met him. One hand holding his Bible and the other
hand extended to me, this man said, “I told the good Lord that the next woman I
laid eyes on would be the one predestined for me.” My head felt heavy as the
dark wood of the pews, as serious as the footsteps of the elders. I was suddenly
aware more than ever of my bad perm (poodle hair tight on my scalp), of my big
feet in plain Mary Janes, the run in my stocking just above my skirt line. I looked
at the man with his hand extended. “My name is Jasper,” he said. “What’s yours?”
Jasper was muscular, with round glasses and thick black hair. I wanted to jump
into his thick soled shoes. I wanted to rest my feet on his knees.
My mother was a pagan, like I said, the black sheep of her Presbyterian
family. One night when I was young and she was drunk she turned to me from
the couch and laughed. “Three things, no two,” my mother said, cigarette
hanging from her lips. “Listen child. When you find a man jump him fast, vice
him tight with your knees, then screw the hell out of the man. Don’t let him stray,”
she said (that was number two); “Wash his socks and fold them neat, slide them
away in his drawer by the lint roller. Don’t mind if he leaves the toilet seat up, like
an eye watching you, wide open. Flexibility is virtuous, so are round cartons of
cold cream, unfiltered cigarettes.” When I was thirteen she offered me one,
thrusting the pack at me, shaking it like a blind man begging. No thanks, ma, I
said. “Children are for the birds,” she said. Yes, that was the third.
Even though I went to church with my grandparents my mother, with her face
that looked more and more like the Illinois plains—stripped and bare—began to
get to me. I had been with her for too long. But then I got saved, more or less,
when she died. That was the first terrible, sad saving. The second saving happened
when Jasper smiled. His cheek dimpled. I loosened my grip on my purse and
extended my hand. His fingers were strong. Who was I to argue with the good
Lord? Two months later I dressed in pink and squeezed my feet into little white
high heels, the first I had ever worn. Jasper was right on time and he shook the
hands of the whole congregation.
You must give good thought to your potting soil. Some consider the
geranium plebian fare, but I am a common gardener and a good geranium brings
me great secret happiness. Do you really think an orchid will complete you? Fool.
An orchid completes nobody. An orchid is like a cat, impersonal and judgmental.
You cannot be intimate with an orchid or a lily or those new hybrid roses. They
are all funeral fare. Dead people do not want to hold a stinking lily for all of
eternity. Choose instead a geranium blossom. Better yet a dandelion, yellow and
fuzzy. After your loved one is buried the dandelion will go to seed. White seeds,
like tiny hot air balloons, will scatter over their face. Perhaps like a child they will
blow it. Perhaps they will cling to one and sail away on a breeze to the afterlife.
To Jasper, lying there in his coffin, I gave a lily. It was the only mean thing I ever
did to that man.
Please do not believe the promises of potting soil amended with growth
chemicals. The bags tell you the truth—the plants rooted in this mess will grow to
unbelievable sizes and shine with glorious colors. But the geranium grows on
borrowed energy. It bears false testimony. It is not real.
My husband, Jasper, beat me sometimes. Under his shirtsleeves his arms
were short and hairy and mapped with veins. He did not hit me over things like
cold dinners or unpressed shirts. He hit me because he was sad, because there
was this deep grief in him that he could not speak or sing or work away. I took
my grief and I poured it into my children. They were like clay pots into which I
scooped the dark soil of cold mornings and the seeds of my unhappiness. Too,
they were filled with my joy. When I touched them at night, when they were
sleeping, I felt love so deep I wanted to bite my own hand. I wanted to bury
myself with them under the maple tree out behind our house. Together we would
sense the shift in the earth, when the soil thickened and the earth was muffled
with layers of dead leaves, then when winter stilled us, and when spring
awakened us with vibrations and worms rubbing by our elbows. And summer
would pass slowly; we in our graves together would hear the footfalls of children
above us, the whir of the lawn mower, the earth shifting and giving way for
growth. But they dirtied dishes and toilets and beds and I cleaned behind them.
They did not think of me, but I thought of them constantly. Is motherhood like
this for every woman?
2 parts top-quality topsoil, 1 part peat moss, and ½ part well-rotted
compost. I mix the soil with my fingers until I feel a fine crumb. Sometimes I
feel like overdoing the peat moss. It feels so light, like flour or dusting powder.
It stirs when I breathe on it, floating in particles, settling on the hairs of my arm.
My children left home, but I never left Jasper. The house was quiet, but it
did not echo with children’s footsteps. I tried to outlive echoes. I had a dream
once where I saw God. He was a very short man, knee-high in fact. His arms
bulged comically, like Popeye after a can of spinach. He stood in the middle of
a field filled with sheep and goats. He was loading the goats into a red pickup
truck. This pickup, I assumed, would go down to hell, where the goats would
burn. I stood and watched him as he hefted the goats above his head into the
bed of the pickup truck. There was no sound in my dream. I knew when I
awakened that I would outlive Jasper, that I would outlive his echoes. Jasper
did not stop beating me, but I was never mean. I was never mean.
I waited. The children did not telephone or write home much. Jasper
watched TV or slept in his chair. A man who beats you is still your husband.
He often thanked me for dinner, I knew the smell of him, I expected his warmth
in our bed. His warmth was like a coat around my shoulders. This was true
I went to the garden after our few supper dishes were dry and after Jasper
went to work in the mornings. The planting season in Illinois is not long, but that
makes you love it all the more. The winters are cold enough to freeze your
blood and the summers are plenty hot enough to thaw it again.
I planted heirloom tomatoes, burpless cucumbers, and Cut and Come
Again zinnias with their bright petal wheels. Sometimes I sang out in the garden,
mostly hymns, sometimes a song my mother had taught me, one I never shared
with my own children. The zinnias seemed to like the bad words, though. They
grew quickly and brightly as I sang and I never told the neighbors when they
asked that the secret to my zinnias was a sailor song. Jasper’s voice was large,
and when he sang in the church choir I could hear him. I felt proud to be
married to a man with such a good voice.
I dreamed of traveling to other gardens. Sometimes I wondered, with a
twinge of guilt, what life would be like without a long, gray winter settling into the
soil. I learned the names of plants that could not grow in our climate, of trees
that grew over oceans and in famous arboretums. One day when the garden
was giving its best tomatoes of the season, Jasper fell down the basement stairs.
I touched the ripest tomatoes in the garden, imagining this man I had slept with
so long crippled. The tomatoes came away in my hand.
You will not spend a lot of money on a geranium. On the contrary, a
modest potting geranium will cost you less than a package of butter or a gallon
of gas. On a blank winter day the spicy smell of the geranium leaf between your
fingers, the way the sturdy stems arch and curl, the soft petals of its flowers—all
these will remind you to wait, to be brave.
The children seemed unhappy when Jasper moved into the nursing home,
but it was their decision. Not once did I ask for this to happen. I fed this man,
wiping his chin with a paper napkin. I muddled over his medicines and I brushed
his teeth and wiped him after he defecated. I held his hand, which had once
struck my cheek, bruised my arm, and pulled my hair. I held this hand belonging
to this man. He was my husband. I put him in bed and pulled the covers
around his shoulders, but I did not linger beside him. While he slept I slipped
into the garden, to stand under the maple tree at the end of the day and watch
the sun set.
From a well-established geranium you may take cuttings. Geraniums are
hearty and do not tremble and pale when you trim them back. Some may use
pruning shears but I grasp a stem at an intersection of stems and simply break it
off. You may place the cutting in water and watch the roots, like fine threads,
fill the water, drinking and drinking to nurture the new ruffled leaves and the tight
Though I did not know it then, Jasper’s death was the third saving: first my
mother’s death, then my marriage, and now the death of my husband. Why must
salvation look this way for me?
At the funeral, grandchildren touched all my things. My sons tidied up the
yard. One of them mowed over my daylilies, thinking they were weeds. Another
sawed off branches of the maple, claiming they had died and would fall on the
shed. My daughters often patted my hands, and I saw that their fingers were lithe
and light and that mine were speckled and wrinkled, the skin loose around the
bones. I let my sons take Jasper’s clothes to the Salvation Army, all except one
pair of boots that my sons argued over. The youngest finally tried them on and he
left wearing them. He looked like his father striding out the door.
I have heard that some people put their geraniums out with the autumn trash,
along with the molding jack-o’-lanterns and wet bags of leaves. Others bag their
geraniums’ bare roots and store them in their basements until the following spring,
like dahlia bulbs. It is silly that people will put animals in their houses but they will
not put a pot of geraniums in a sunny window. Their leaves, instead of bleaching
indoors, grow more and more deeply green.
The summer after Jasper’s death, I shut the house and I dumped most of
my houseplants on the compost heap. Their roots poked through their black soil
and their leaf crowns mingled with potato peels and egg shells. But I could not
dump the geraniums.
I watered them well and tucked a sign and a few instructions in each of the
pots. The geraniums line the curb like children waiting for a school bus. I could
have given them to the neighbors or my daughters, but I did not want to heft
them to unfamiliar and perhaps unwelcoming houses. I hope they understand.
In my suitcase, I packed maps and brochures from gardens around the
world. I do not know how many I will see, or when I will see them. Perhaps I
will see one and that will be enough.
I would like to see a kumquat tree and touch the petals of flowers I have
never seen. My children do not expect this from me. They think I should be
happy with my tomatoes and my maple tree, with the old house smelling of so
many familiar things: crock pot dinners, my husband’s shaving lotion, laundry
soap. But nothing stays the same, not even smells.
Do you have my geraniums? Take them home to your brownstone, where
you will set them in a windowsill, or to your split-level with its double garage and
a basement that floods every spring. Then water, tend, and wait.
Kimberly Long Cockroft grew up in Bangladesh and Kenya. Since her return
to the United States, she has lived in five different states and taught high school and
college English. In 2009, Cockroft was awarded an Artist’s Fellowship from the
Pennsylvania Council on the Arts. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in
Louisville Review, Cold Mountain Review, and The Christian Century, and she
was a finalist in Glimmer Train’s contest for new writers. She can be found daily
On “If You Stopped”:
After growing up overseas in dappled sunlight, Pennsylvania winters are a
yearly trial for me. Geraniums are the only flowering plant I can keep
blooming in the endless gray. As I get to know older people, especially
women (and as I age myself), I’m impressed again and again at how they
find grace in the midst of often difficult, apparently tedious lives. That
ability—to see beyond ordinariness to joy—is like finding a white crown of
geranium petals on a February morning.
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Apple Valley Review:
A Journal of
Volume 5, Number 2
Copyright © 2010
by Leah Browning, Editor.
All future rights to
in the Apple Valley
Review are retained by
the individual authors