Growing up I spent summers with my grandmother. She was young, for a grandmother anyway. I was allowed to call her Nan but only if I consented that it was short for Nanette not Nana. Nan lived in this old farmhouse miles away from our city and while I adored the space as a kid, as I got older it became harder and harder to convince friends to pick me up for day trips to the mall and I grew to resent the retreats.
I remember, one of the early summers, before my father left, that Nan and I sat in her garden and she had me sit for a painting. It was stifling hot, but the shade under the willow tree made it more bearable. I loved this garden in the summertime. Everything was in full bloom and the garden seemed to be alive with the thrum of insects and the leaves dancing on the summer breeze. I could nearly smell the sunlight, it smelled like soil and lilacs.
That’s where I was sitting today, in front of the lilacs. Nan liked to tell me that those are my namesake. That my mother named me Lila after the flower, but I then again I’m not sure she spent enough time with my mother to know anything about her. That’s where I was sitting today, under the willow tree, between the lilac bushes.
Nana was really quiet and I could barely see her behind her easel. I was probably ten or eleven at the time so that could have been why. Nan usually just painted the garden, but this morning after breakfast she said she was looking for more beautiful inspiration. She hummed quietly and I closed my eyes trying to make out the tune.
After a while I grew restless and began to squirm.
“Lila my dear sit still, flowers only sway in the breeze, and so should you” she said without taking her eyes off of the easel. She was always saying these one liners, things that didn’t make sense but I remember them all anyway.
“Nan, do you believe in marriage?” I asked her. She stopped mid brush stroke and peered at me through her glasses.
“Marriage? Of course, I was married four times.”
“Four times? That’s a lot of wedding dresses”
She laughed at me before pausing to consider. “Well dear, I only wore three dresses. The first time I was just a kid, a few years older than you really, and I had a brilliant white dress, the cupcake kind. The second time, I was a little bit older, but not much wiser, and I wore a lace thing that was tight and beautiful, but I could hardly breathe. The third time, I just wore a white pantsuit and went down to city hall. Then the last time, well the last time I got married I was too old for anything beautiful so we just signed the papers and I wore a white sundress.”
I created myself a mental picture of Nan in each one, I could see her in the cupcake dress, the tight lace one, the pantsuit, even the sundress. In every picture of her I had seen she was radiant, young and full of live, even now, wrinkled and sagging her eyes were still beautiful and full of life.
“Which one was your favorite?” I asked her.
“Oh the lace one for sure, I felt like such a gem in that dress, you should have seen me, I was as beautiful as all of these flowers I’ve planted. That was when I married your grandfather.”
“What happened to him?”
“He was sick, died a few years after we were married. He was the only one that died though. The rest of them left, or I left them,” she waved her paintbrush like she was waving away a distant memory, “anyway, they’re gone now and I’ve got you.”
She went back to painting and I stayed quiet. For a little while at least.
“Why do you think my mom and dad got married?”
“Because they love each other, that’s what you do when you love someone, you get married” she said it like it was a fact, like there was a set path, meet someone, fall in love, get married.
“Does that mean they don’t love each other anymore?”
“I think it means that they loved each other very much, that they didn’t know how to be in love anymore and that’s why they had to stop. But I promise you darling, they love you more than anything in the whole world.”
I knew she was telling the truth, I knew that they loved me. That’s why when I think about the last time I saw my father I think about this conversation. That’s why every time I see my mother crying after she breaks up with a boyfriend, I remember what Nan told me. And somehow that makes it hurt a little less. That makes it a little easier to bare, knowing that somewhere, sometime they loved each other and they loved me.