Explore O:JA&L’s Buttonhook Press offerings on Amazon.
Become an O:JA&L Member through Patreon.

Ellen Brown

Better Times

Winter Landscape by László Mednyánszky

It is the third Tuesday in December, four days since she took her last breath. I am standing next to my mother’s open grave staring at the wreath of poinsettias adorning her urn; its vibrant red color seems almost garish against the backdrop. Winter storms have transformed the landscape into a wasteland of white. The skeletal branches of the cemetery’s sentinel oak trees, their last leaves stripped bare by lacerating winds, hang low under the burden of snow.

The air is bitter, but I don’t feel anything. My father and brother are standing to my right as we wait for the handful of mourners willing to brave the wind chill to fill the space around us. Inside my left mitten, I squeeze my fist until I feel the smooth metal of my mother’s wedding band on my pinky. Where are you? Her death has been looming for three years, but I am not ready. I will never be ready.

In front of me, the pastor’s mouth is moving, but I don’t hear anything. Winter’s icy grasp has squeezed everything to death, and my mind drifts to thoughts of spring flowers. On the grave closest to my mother’s, entombed under a blanket of snow, is a sleeping peony bush. I try to imagine her standing here on a summer’s day fifty-five years ago when as a fifteen-year-old girl, she looked on as her father planted it.

The peony bush on my grandmother’s grave is not well cared for. It is not mulched or fertilized or watered or offered a wire hoop to support the weight of its massive, bowl-shaped flowers. No one bothers to pinch the spent stalks at summer’s end. Instead, as soon as the last bloom dies each spring, the church sexton erases it with his lawn mower.

Despite the neglect, the peony bush perseveres, its roots firmly anchored in the cemetery’s stony soil. Introduced in 1941 during World War II, I have been told it is the heirloom variety “Better Times”—dependable, stalwart, and unlike my mother and grandmother, long-lived. Still, I make a mental note to transplant cuttings to my flower garden in the spring—just in case.


About the writer:
Ellen Brown is a graduate of the MA in Science Writing Program at Johns Hopkins University and the Nonfiction Editor for Delmarva Review. She is a Midwest native living in Duluth, Minnesota, where she writes about nature and explores the Northwoods with her husband and dogs.

Image: Winter Landscape by László Mednyánszky (1852-1919). Oil on canvas. 200 x 136 cm. Before 1896. Public domain.

OJAL Art Incorporated, publishing since 2017 as OPEN: Journal of Arts & Letters (O:JA&L) and its imprint Buttonhook Press, is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation supporting writers and artists worldwide.

Become an O:JA&L Member through Patreon.