Against constant warnings from the women at Monday night seniors’ Bible study at church, Eleanor did not wear gloves when she picked blackberries from the bushes in her backyard. Although decades of practice almost made avoiding thorns when sifting through leaves and clusters of tiny black beads a part of muscle memory, Eleanor still scraped her nimble fingers on a spike every now and then, and when she did, she bled a lot more than she used to. Fragile skin was just a part of aging, her doctor had said after her visits became more frequent when she entered her mid-sixties.
However, if the thorns didn’t get Eleanor, the knots that formed in her back if she stayed bent over the blackberry bushes too long would. So Eleanor made sure to pick her blackberries swiftly, filling her jar with enough to make a cobbler. Once finished, she made the hike back to her house, passing the shed whose paint was badly chipped and whose wood had rotted during the past twenty-five years. Eleanor’s pastor had volunteered a group of young men to go over and rebuild her shed, but she had declined. Her husband, God bless his now deceased soul, had built that shed as a coping mechanism after their seven-year-old Isabella died from pneumonia decades ago. If it was anyone’s job to put in the work on that shed, it should be someone with Robert’s blood in them. It should be Eleanor’s own son.
Back in the kitchen, Eleanor couldn’t get over how loud her new air conditioning window unit sounded. She had saved up three paychecks from working part-time at the church to buy the new thing. They were all the rage for battling Texas heat in August. She washed off the blackberries with great care and a splash of 7-Up. This was an important cobbler. She mixed together melted butter, self-rising flour, sugar (tons of sugar), milk and the blackberries into a baking dish. She waited until the phone rang—her son saying his plane had landed at Dallas Love Field Airport—before she put the cobbler in the oven. It was strategy, her plan to have her whole house smell like sweet blackberries when her son came home. Blackberries that weren’t for him. She washed her mixing bowls out and dried off the dishes before putting them back in the chestnut cabinets.
She did one last thorough walk through of the house with a duster and meticulously double-checked that each rug and carpeted bedroom was vacuumed and every spot of linoleum flooring mopped before sitting and waiting at the kitchen table with a cup full of homemade ice cream.
Eleanor listened closely to hear the creaking on the front porch followed by the clattering of her wind chime. That thing had always hung too low for her full-grown Jimmy. She also heard a woman giggle. It was an awful giggle, Eleanor thought, one that sounded like a mouse choking on cheese, probably some of that fancy foreign cheese.
There was a quick knock, followed by the heavy front door squeaking open. “Mom?” Eleanor heard Jimmy’s voice but remained quiet. “We can just set our stuff down right here. She’s probably in the kitchen.” Eleanor listened closely.
“Right here?” a female voice said from the living room, the accent so heavy that it rolled the “r” in “right” and weighed down the “h” in “here.” Eleanor had hoped right up to that very moment that maybe something had happened and her son’s new girlfriend wouldn’t actually have come. They could have gotten in a fight at the Vienna airport and broken up right then and there. Or maybe Jimmy could have realized he was breaking his mother’s heart and just left the floozy at the airport once they’d landed. Eleanor knew these thoughts were un-Christ like, but she couldn’t help it. It was bad enough that Jimmy had abandoned her, left her all alone and moved thousands of miles away after his divorce, God forgive his soul. She was the only one in Bible study to have no grandkids to brag about. And now he was dating a foreigner, really? What foreigner could be a Baptist? Could she speak English besides the two words “right here?” Eleanor took a huge bite of her ice cream, hoping it would help cool her off.
She heard footsteps, heavy footsteps from a man the house was no longer used to. Eleanor had nowhere near the weight to make the old carpeted living room floor rattle, causing an almost imperceptible ripple in her Hummel figurine collection that lined the built-in shelves by the dining room archway. “Mom!” Jimmy appeared next to the shelves. He looked so handsome Eleanor couldn’t help but perk up a little. Although she told herself she was going to give Jimmy the cold shoulder, she got right on up and gave him a big hug, a mother’s hug. “It’s good to see you. You look great,” Jimmy said, not yet able to pull away from the tight grip Eleanor held on his neck as she buried her face in his chest. She was surprised to feel that he had rounded out a bit. She’d heard all sorts of stories that Vienna didn’t have Dr. Pepper, peanut butter, or a handful of Jimmy’s other favorites. To be quite honest, she was convinced that he would starve the first year he’d moved. But none of that seemed to matter now as she hugged him close. Maybe he would see her new window unit, see her shed that needed fixing and decide to move on back to Fort Worth from that country full of Catholic-practicing nonbelievers.
“Mom, I have someone I want you to meet.” Jimmy finally pulled away. “This is Ludmilla.” He moved to his left to show the short woman who stood behind him, her hair a dark brown that matched the freckles blanketing a square nose and protruding cheek bones.
“It’s such a pleasure to finally meet you.” Ludmilla moved in for a hug that Eleanor stiffly gave. The warmth she felt from Jimmy instantly drained and the cold reality was back.
Jimmy nostrils flared slightly as he took in a deep breathe. “Blackberry cobbler, oh man, that’s my favorite.”
“Made it for the church,” Eleanor lied as she went back over to the table to grab the cup of now-melted ice cream. “They got this new family come down straight from Oklahoma. Handsome husband, lovely wife, good, God-fearing obedient son.”
“That’s very nice of you,” Ludmilla said with a smile. “Jimmy always tells me that you bake the best pies.”
“Cobblers,” Eleanor was quick to correct.
“Ludmilla is quite the cook herself, Mom.” Jimmy looked down at his dwarf of a girlfriend with a look that only contributed to Eleanor’s anger.
She let out a grunt, which even she immediately recognized as unladylike. But really, a cook? Did this Ludamail use fresh ingredients from her own garden? Was she asked to make the green bean casserole every Thanksgiving for the church? Eleanor couldn’t keep herself from being tacky. “What kind of food do you native Australians make?”
Jimmy tensed up, the same way he used to when he was a boy and Eleanor would go fetch him from the Lake Worth shore and make him come home from fishing. “It’s Austria, Mom, and actually Ludmilla is Ukrainian.”
“Ukrainian,” Ludmilla said in her thick accent.
“That a part of Russia?” Eleanor felt the same sensation she got when she pricked her finger on a thorn on the blackberry bush, except this prick was coursing through her entire body. For it wasn’t but a few years ago that that Khrushchev fellow went and unloaded those missiles in Cuba. Was Jimmy not aware that those evil men had built some wall in Germany trying to suppress people’s God-given freedom?
“We speak Russian,” Ludmilla said in a voice that sounded garbled to Eleanor, “but we’re southeast of Russia.”
“So how do you come to live in Austria?”
“Mom.” Jimmy looked embarrassed, like Eleanor had just poked at some sore subject.
“Well, if you don’t want to talk about it, why’d you bring it up?” Or really bring her here at all.
There was an awkward silence. Eleanor shifted her weight from one foot to the other.
“What lovely dolls you have,” Ludmilla said directing her eyes to Eleanor’s Goebel Hummel collection.
“They’re figurines,” Eleanor said.
“Figurines, yes,” Ludmilla repeated, putting emphasis on the consonants as if it was her first time to say the word. Figurines. “That one I like a lot.” She pointed to two little angels, one a boy and one a girl, both blonde, hugging one another.
“That one is supposed to represent the sanctity of marriage,” Eleanor said, making sure to keep her eyes forward with her next comment. “Did my son ever tell you about his divorce?” Eleanor could feel Jimmy giving her a look without moving her eyes. It was a cruel thing to say, she knew it, but it was only with Jimmy’s best interest in mind. He couldn’t be entering into some serious relationship with a Communist.
“Do you mind if Ludmilla goes ahead and showers? Twelve hours on a plane can be a bit rough.” The inflection Jimmy used in the word “rough” made Eleanor glance up at her son. She cringed at the idea of Loudvilla naked, showering in her house, but she nodded anyway. “I’ll help you unpack some of your clothes,” Jimmy said as the two walked back into the living room.
The conversation the three tried to have after Jimmy and Ludmilla had showered and changed was just as awkward, and the dinner conversation didn’t go any smoother. Eleanor had gone back out to her garden to pick fresh green beans for a casserole. She wanted to remind Jimmy what good food was. Good American food. Ludmilla tried to help Eleanor wash the dishes after dinner. “This kitchen is really only big enough for one woman,” Eleanor said.
Eleanor tried to let the mindless action of rubbing soft soap bubbles over the china she’d gotten as a wedding gift 42 years earlier become a time of reflection. It wasn’t that she didn’t want her son to meet a woman and be happy. And it wasn’t that she blamed the divorce on Jimmy, either. He tried his absolute best with Susan, but she still divorced him and remarried only a few months afterwards. As much as Eleanor thought Susan was a hussy, at least she was from Fort Worth, lived in Fort Worth and would probably spend the rest of her life in Fort Worth. Sure, Eleanor was thrilled that Jimmy’d been invited to play in an orchestra in Vienna, but she’d also secretly hoped he would decline the job, just stay in his position with the Fort Worth Symphony. He had been the first chair of the cello section. He could still be doing that right now. And it was also a job he could easily reclaim. He always had an opportunity to come back home, but having a girlfriend in Vienna complicated things. Eleanor dried all the dishes with intensity as the thoughts materialized in her mind. She was grateful for the knock at the front door that caused a distraction.
She heard Jimmy get up from the living room and open the door. “Well look who it is!” Marcus’s voice was so distinctive. She heard back slapping and hurried to finish drying the dishes. “This must be the pretty new lady I’ve heard about.”
“Ludmilla, this is Marcus.”
“The handsome friend you’ve probably heard so much about,” Marcus added.
Ludmilla’s soft laugh was obnoxious.
Eleanor put up the last dish when Marcus greeted her in the kitchen. “Hey, hey, Ms. Eleanor.” Marcus put his arm around Eleanor’s shoulder and looked at the baking dish on the counter top. “Blackberry cobbler, looks great!”
“It’s for the church,” Eleanor said, a little less confident.
“You’re a saint.” Marcus leaned in and gave Eleanor a kiss on the cheek. He’d always been such a good friend to Jimmy.
All four went into the living room. Marcus sat at the bench of a worn out piano that was awfully out of tune, but that Jimmy’s daddy had bought used when Jimmy first started to take a liking to music. Ludmilla sat on the couch, with a small statue of praying hands on a coffee table to one side and Jimmy on the other. Eleanor had her chair next to the gas outlet in the faux fireplace.
“So how’d you score such a peach?” Marcus laughed. “She got any friends?”
“You can always move to Vienna and find out,” Jimmy said.
“Oh, I ain’t got the guts you got. Moving to a foreign country, not knowing anyone.”
“You’d know us.”
“I’ll visit.” Marcus sipped on the sweet tea Eleanor had made fresh that morning.
“Texas is home for you, ain’t it, Marcus?” Eleanor chimed in.
“I guess it is,” Marcus said with a smile.
Eleanor nodded and scooted back in her chair.
“But I’m really proud of Jimmy,” Marcus continued. “It’s just great, you playing the cello in Vienna, scoring a girl in the process.”
“Fiancée, actually,” Jimmy said with a huge smile that dropped as soon as he saw Eleanor’s stunned face.
“No kidding!” Marcus jumped up to give the two a hug. “Congratulations!”
Eleanor felt like something hit her chest and crushed her vocal chords. She couldn’t find her voice.
Marcus gave Ludmilla a kiss on the cheek.
“Thanks, man. We’re real happy,” Jimmy said.
Eleanor got up without saying a word. She walked outside to her garden and looked at the blackberry bush, slightly more barren after the morning’s pickings. She looked at the grass around the garden that, no matter how much she watered it, had died from the summer’s heat. And her tomato plants, whose days were numbered with the changing of the seasons.
“Mom.” Eleanor wasn’t startled by Jimmy’s voice behind her. She’d only picked from the blueberry bush twice that whole summer and the thing would be dead before she knew it. “Believe me, we had this whole nice plan to tell you during dinner.” Eleanor could hear Jimmy’s footsteps in the soil, but she didn’t turn to look at her son standing beside her. She just looked at her garden, making note of all the fruit and vegetables that would eventually expire. She wondered if she’d have the energy to garden next summer. Her back spasms could get worse over the winter. Her dried-out hands could become more fragile. “But really, Mom, could you be any meaner to Ludmilla? It’s hard to share good news when you’re being, so, well, you know.”
“Good news,” Eleanor repeated the words with complete disbelief.
“Yes, Mom, it’s good news. Here.” Jimmy tried to hand Eleanor an envelope. She looked down at his hands. To others, it might not look like it, but Jimmy definitely had his father’s hands. The same thick fingers and coarse knuckles, although Jimmy’s hands weren’t calloused from years of carpentry.
Eleanor took the envelope without saying a word and opened it up. “A plane ticket?”
“To Vienna. For the wedding.”
There wasn’t a single breeze in the Texas heat, yet Eleanor felt some invisible force push her. It might as well have kicked her to the ground and stomped her.
“Mom, don’t get all nervous. It’s just that it’s easier to fly you to Vienna than fly all of Ludmilla’s family down here.”
All of Ludmilla’s family. Eleanor all alone. No living husband. No daughter, Isabella. No son.
“I think you’ll really like it. Vienna. It’s beautiful. You could watch me play at the Volksoper. Schönbrunn and Belvedere have lovely gardens.”
Eleanor’s face felt still, motionless, like she was being viewed in a coffin.
“We could even take a day trip to Salzburg. You could see where Mozart was born.”
She couldn’t respond.
“It’ll be great, Mom.”
After moments of silence passed, Jimmy walked back up to the house, leaving Eleanor next to her abandoned, rotting shed and half-dying garden.
Eleanor could not sleep that night. She listened for movement in the house. The sound of the AC unit was foreign to her. The creaks the house normally made sounded foreign to her. She needed to get a cold glass of iced tea, clear her mind, get to thinking straight, but even the refreshment could not refresh her. She walked past Jimmy’s old room where Ludmilla slept and tried to not imagine Ludmilla underneath the quilt she had sewn for Jimmy when he was a growing boy. She walked past the living room where Jimmy slept on the sofa and fought the urge to wake him and tell him how he’d broken her heart.
The activities of the next few days were just as miserable. The three took a trip to the brand new Kimball Art Museum. Ludmilla said she really enjoyed the emotion behind impressionistic paintings. Eleanor was quick to opine that it was simply obnoxious when painters just slopped something on a canvas with no rhyme or reason. She paid no mind to Ludmilla’s silly rebuttals about perception. The three went out to the movies one night. Eleanor returned every one of Jimmy’s comments about how beautiful Salzburg looked in The Sound of Music by pointing out the beautiful things Texas had to offer. She did not care what Ludmilla had to say about the Viennese Crocus Albiflorus that bloomed in the spring. The three went to see the Fort Worth Philharmonic play. Eleanor watched as a man not nearly as talented as Jimmy played in the first chair position of the cello section. She made sure Jimmy knew what a disservice he had done by leaving the orchestra while she ignored Ludmilla’s ramblings about how nicely Jimmy contributed to the orchestra pit in the Wiener Wolksoper.
Eleanor cooked feasts every night. Good, American, made-from-scratch meatloaf, fried chicken and homemade gravy, okra, double-baked potatoes, chopped brisket with her secret recipe for barbeque sauce. But none of that cooking made her feel any better. And by the seventh night she lost hope and the three went out to eat.
On that seventh sleepless night, Jimmy’s last night before he’d be returning to Vienna, Eleanor woke her son up from the couch. They went to the dining room where she had already scooped two bowls of homemade ice cream. The first year after Jimmy’s father had died from a heart attack when Jimmy was a freshman in college, the two often stayed up late and ate ice cream at the table—sometimes talking, sometimes crying, sometimes laughing. Eleanor could still see Jimmy as he was 15 years ago, when he had just started at Texas Christian University. She could see Jimmy as he was pre-divorce, pre-moving to Europe, pre-34-years-old-and-still-without-any-children.
Jimmy looked thoughtful as he scooped half a spoonful of strawberry ice cream and half a spoonful of vanilla ice cream into one bite. Eleanor hated seeing her son so lost in troublesome thoughts. She was well aware she hadn’t made this trip as fun as he had probably hoped.
“Jimmy.” She felt her voice crack and took a breath and another bite of ice cream, but Jimmy beat her to the next words.
“Mom, I’m going to marry Ludmilla.”
“Why? Why, do you think she is right for you?” Eleanor set her spoon down. “Jimmy, I’ve known you all your life. I’m your mother and this seems like a mistake to me. She’s a different nationality. She’s of a different religion. There’d be a huge language barrier between her family and yours.”
“Mom, stop that.”
“Stop what? Making valid points?”
“She’s perfect for me. She’s intelligent, open-minded, a musician.”
“Susan was a musician and that one didn’t last.” Eleanor regretted the words the second she said them. She regretted coming off so hatefully; that was not her personality. Why was her son bringing the worst out of her?
“Mom, I know you’re lonely.” Jimmy pushed his bowl, which still had a little bit of ice cream in it, out of the way. “And I’m sorry about that. I really am. But this is my life.”
Eleanor felt a pressure behind her eyes. “It’s just that everyone I’ve ever loved is dead.”
Jimmy sat back in his chair and remained silent for a moment while Eleanor tried to keep from crying. “I’m not dead, Mom.” Eleanor noticed how Jimmy’s voice rose. “You’re still here talking to me. You still have someone next to you right now.” He was getting more and more upset.
“You’re making yourself this lonely.”
“You think this is a choice?”
“You’ve had a full house for a week. I bought you a plane ticket to Europe. I’m marrying into a big, loving family.”
“Who are probably Communists.”
“I can’t believe this.” Jimmy sounded exasperated.
“Well, that makes two of us. You move away. You meet some floozy and then totally forget that you have a lonely mother on the other side of the world.”
“So visit me, use your plane ticket, be a part of our wedding.”
“And leave the house your father built just to rot by itself? Have you seen the shed?”
“I’ll call someone from your church tomorrow and see if they can’t come fix the shed.”
“You should be the one to fix it.” Eleanor feared her loud voice would wake up the floozy sleeping in Jimmy’s bed, and that was the last person she would want to see right now.
“I’m leaving tomorrow.”
“That’s right. You’re leaving.”
“So why can’t you at least try to enjoy my last night here?”
“What’s the point?”
Jimmy looked down at the rest of his melted ice cream left in the bowl before leaving the table without another word.
Eleanor sat alone for at least an hour. She fought the urge to go into Jimmy’s old room and scream at Ludmilla. Eleanor recognized her overwhelming anger and knew that if she tried to speak another word she’d just end up making nonsensical loud noises. She eventually lay back down in her own room, alternating looking at her husband’s side of the bed and the window just above her head where she could view the garden she now felt unsuccessful in raising.
In the morning, she got up early and fixed scrambled eggs fried in bacon grease and homemade biscuits and gravy. Ludmilla was extra comforting to Jimmy—holding his hand, rubbing his shoulder—as the three sat around the table. Eleanor felt hollow. The airport shuttle came to the house just a little before noon to take Jimmy and Ludmilla back to Dallas Love Field.
“Mom, I’ll write soon,” Jimmy said with his hands full as he placed Ludmilla’s and his luggage on the porch.
“It was a pleasure meeting you.” Ludmilla attempted a sideways hug.
“Don’t lose your plane ticket. The wedding’s in five months,” Jimmy said.
“Your flight will arrive ten days before the wedding. Maybe you could help bake the cake. Your food really is delicious.” Ludmilla swung her purse over her shoulder.
“All right, I love you, Mom.” Jimmy gave Eleanor a kiss before grabbing the last of the luggage.
Eleanor felt the tears running down her face. She heard nothing but silence after the airport shuttle drove away. Even in the Texas heat her empty house felt cold, like it lacked a pulse.
Eleanor turned on her oven with an anemic hope that some baking would warm the place back up. She looked at the plane ticket left on the coffee table before sticking it in her pocket and heading out towards her garden with an empty jar in hand. She went to the blackberry bush but couldn’t find the motivation to begin picking, so instead she sat on the soil in between her tomato plants and green bean stocks.
She pulled the plane ticket back out of her pocket, instantly feeling her face flush with anger as she looked at it. Her son couldn’t go through with the wedding. If she was stubborn enough, maybe she would be able to save him from his own demise. Maybe she could remind him that thou shalt obey thy parents and that he would eventually have to move back to Texas. Eleanor tore up the plane ticket, her fingers moving faster than they had in the last five years of berry picking. She planted the shredded paper in the soil by her feet.
Photo by Andrew Wilkinson