Marcus was new to the city, and since his years in New York taught him to be a walker, he figured that was the best way to learn Georgetown as well.
So after a couple weeks of adjusting at his new firm and too many single-serve microwave meals, he woke up early on a Saturday, popped a couple reusable grocery bags in his backpack, and determined to find a local market of some sort.
It didn’t take long. The kind barista at Espresso Yourself was happy to tell a new resident about the farmers’ market, as well as the small butcher shop, and the produce mart down on Yarn St. run by a quiet Japanese woman that would hunt down any rare ingredient you could ask for.
Marcus was not disappointed. Arms laden with successful shopping, he struggled back to his apartment. He made a quick omelet from some of his findings before heading back out for more exploration. This time, sans backpack, full stomach, and a lighter step. With the markets identified, he already had a big win under his belt for the day, so everything else he discovered was just going to be icing.
There was a lot to see! The place was dotted with small monuments and modern art, a couple of little wine bars and clothes boutiques, several more little food shops. He stopped in a bakery because the smell wafting from the door was a siren’s call of fresh bread. A few minutes later, he was exiting again with a small paper bag of crispy sugared nuggets of goodness, half dipped in a hazelnut ganache.
He was so distracted by the baked goods and his luck of just one day’s touring that he let his feet lead him onward without attention. It wasn’t until the noticeable switch from poured sidewalk to grassy field that he looked up at all.
It appeared he’d landed in a small, but ornate, cemetery. The orientation at his new job had told him that many of the cemeteries in town held notable historic figures, and Marcus spotted a large plaque on a granite pillar a few yards off that most likely listed which ones resided in this particular graveyard. He thought to head towards it and read which ones, but stopped.
The small field felt serene, as if even in this busy city, he were interrupting a quiet conversation. At the same time, there was no forbidding unwelcome in the air, just a formalness. He understood somehow that stepping into the space would be alright, as long as he kept his manners and made friendly with the hosts.
The thought of all that seemed a little dreary for his spring day and warm sugared biscuits, so Marcus made a deliberate turn back towards sidewalk, city, and sound.
Sunday he spent happily cutting and prepping his fresh vegetables for the week, FaceTiming his mother to prove that there were indeed green things in his diet once again.
But the next weekend, after dropping off another round of finds from the farmers’ market, he let his feet return him to the small cemetery path they’d led him to the week before.
This day was sunny with clear skies. Marcus didn’t consider himself a suspicious person, but he figured if there was a safe day to enter a cemetery, it was this one. So over the threshold he crossed.
He recognized some of the names on the historical plaque: A few original Cabinet members, some other people he was pretty sure he should know, but had forgotten their acclaims sometime between AP History and that moment. At least he could tell his coworkers he looked.
He began to walk the grassy paths of the graveyard, the keepers of which were clearly tidy workers. The green paths were lined with rows of oyster white pebbles, dotted here and there with healthy rose bushes of every color from sunniest yellow to deep, solemn ruby. Each headstone, whether large and ornate or small and simple, was perfectly edged and kept from weeds. Some had been blurred by time, but Marcus supposed that was unavoidable.
Since his feet had led him here that first day, he allowed them again to turn him this way and that along the rows. He’d always had a fascination with names, and there were several interesting ones here: Irvington Mullen, Forrest Woods, Brogen Proudfoot. People came up with such strange sounds to call someone else. Whenever there was a newborn in his own family, they just plucked a name from somewhere random in the family tree and passed it down, sometimes rearranging a few syllables. But he was still impressed when he came across the column of James John Jacobston’s that went from the Ist all the way to the VIth!
He paused briefly under a cherry tree, admiring the different shades of white and dappled pink on its branches. He heard he’d just missed the peak bloom of the season, but this tree still seemed particularly pleased to show off plenty of blossoms. As he wondered if he should add some plants to his grocery list for his balcony, a large blossom set itself lose and began drifting away on the breeze. He watched until the petals landed on a granite tile, set just outside the shade of the tree. The name on it caught his eye.
It was his grandmother’s name. He sidled over to read the details.
Penelope Smith 1921 – 2012 Brilliant and Beloved
Penelope Smith was even born the same year as his grandmother, but she had passed a year before his.
He smiled sympathetically at the plot, “Are all Penelopes brilliant and beloved by birthright, Mrs. Smith?” For his had been, as well.
Marcus saw the pewter vase by Penelope Smith’s marker stood empty. He wasn’t sure if this meant she was not visited often, or if they had simply wilted. Judging by the rest of the gardening, he doubted a brown flower would last long in this place before it was taken to be mulched. He stood a moment longer, feeling an odd connection to the unknown woman, and then he told his feet it was time for home, and off they went.
After another successful but relatively uneventful week of his new workplace, it was time for his weekend ritual, which Marcus was really loving. A caramel cappuccino to-go from Espresso Yourself, then a pass by the butcher shop (this time it was pork loin), and off to the farmers’ market.
He’d grabbed several vegetables, a homemade hummus, and a fresh loaf of bread, as well as a cheese danish he’d already half finished, when he stopped by the sweet couple at the herb stand. The wife was walking him through how to make a chimichurri with the cilantro when the bushels of flowers caught his eye. He thanked her, prayed he could remember that word long enough to google it, and made his way to the flowers still unsure if it was a good idea.
Was it a weird-person thing to do to buy flowers for a dead person you didn’t know?
But, he’d wandered around in her cemetery… and he couldn’t buy flowers for everyone in there. And it’s not like there was tip jar for the gardeners. He decided it was much weirder to stand in the way staring at flowers arguing with himself, so he bought a handful of purple flowers with little orange faces that looked happy to him. He figured if he talked himself out of it, they’d look nice on his counter.
But he didn’t talk himself out of it. In a few blocks, he found himself, still laden with his full bags, in front of Penelope Smith’s grave.
“Hello again,” he murmured, then glanced up to make sure no one heard him. But the other visitors were far out of hearing range. Then again, even if they weren’t, he figured most people would assume he knew her and people talk to their passed loved ones all the time.
“These um, these are for you,” he set down his bags so he could properly arrange the skinny stems into the vase. He wished he had some water to pour in with them. Next time, he thought.
And he did, next time, bring a little water bottle with him. It had been a hot week, so he wasn’t surprised to find the gardeners had removed his flowers, as they had probably succumbed to the weather. This time he brought dark blue flowers.
“The gentlemen who run the stand say these are del-somethings,” He told Penelope, “I have to admit, I’m not great with flower names. But I hope you like them.”
He sat down at the bottom of her plot. It was a sunny day, and he’d grabbed an extra cheese danish from the farmer’s market. Marcus had been told that the winters around here were feisty, so he was to spend every single pretty day outside while he could.
“All my coworkers have kids and stuff. They’re at little league games and soccer tournaments today. I haven’t quite found my crew yet, ya know? So I don’t have much to do. I hope you don’t mind if I hang out here a bit.”
If she did mind, she didn’t say so.
When he finished his danish, he looked around, saw that Penelope was next to a Leonard Smith who passed in 2010, but the other surrounding names were all McKinns.
“Is that your maiden name, maybe? Or are you two on your own?”
Penelope didn’t answer, but she was still a pretty good listener.
Her listening became part of the weekend ritual. Spring was turning into summer, and he was starting to see squash and tomatoes at the market. He took up more trekking around the city, and even up into the nearby mountains to work off the danishes and the recipes he was experimenting with, but he always made sure to drop by Mrs. Penelope’s plot and tell her how his week had been. It made him feel better, for some reason. He felt maybe she liked to listen. And a small part of him hoped she was passing it on to his own grandma that he was doing alright.
The young men who ran the flower stand began to expect Marcus and finally introduced themselves, Dan and Lee. They never asked why he bought a bouquet each week, but when it became clear how hopeless Marcus was when it came to flowers, the lessons started.
“Now what is this?”
“No, hun, you’re impatient. Try again.”
“Ding ding ding!”
Marcus was very pleased with himself placing the fuchsia blossoms in Penelope’s vase that week. He told her he was taking Dan and Lee out for beers later as a thanks for the lessons thus far.
“Brews for blooms, is what Lee called it,” Marcus laughed. A breeze shifted a set of wind chimes hung on a nearby vault, and it sounded like laughter answering back.
Another week passed, and another. Soon, ears of corn and apple tarts were replacing the summer veggies at the market stalls. Dan demanded Marcus try the pumpkin butter from the bakery stand, and Marcus was glad he had relented. He grabbed an extra jar to send to his sister, as well as several pretzel rolls for his guests later that week. He’d been introduced to Dan and Lee’s group of friends and was immediately folded in as if he’d always been one of them. He was excited to finally host them all for a board game night and show off a few new hors d’oeuvre recipes.
A small drizzle was starting, so his usual stroll to the cemetery was instead a brisk walk, and he was glad he’d packed an umbrella with his bags that morning. He hoped it wouldn’t rain too hard that it would batter the petals.
He was placing a collection of different colored zinnias in her vase while telling Penelope Smith about the baked brie he was going to make for his guests, when there was a deliberate clearing of the throat behind him.
Feeling caught red handed, but then defensive, and then back to caught all in one second, he swiveled to see who the throat-clearer could be.
From his crouched position by the vase, the woman was both towering over him, and had quite the towering presence. His eyes filed up from her flats, to her dark jeans, past her sweatshirt announcing Georgetown Marathon 2017, to pursed pink lips on a mildly freckled face. But it was the arched amber eyebrows and deep brown eyes, like spilled cinnamon, Marcus thought, that made her so very imposing in the moment.
“Hello there,” Marcus managed.
It was a question, but Marcus was unsure what kind of answer the alluring woman wanted.
“May I help you?”
“I certainly hope so. Did you know my grandmother? The gardeners have said a gentleman has been coming all summer, and I assume that’s you.”
Marcus looked around. They appeared to be the only two in the cemetery that day. Not surprising, given the weather. But he’d actually never spotted the meticulous gardeners. He’d begun his own little inside joke that the cemetery kept itself this neat.
“Well, they’d be correct,” was all he managed.
“So you do know her?” The woman took a step closer. Her shoulders were calm, but the eyebrows remained questioning. It was clear she was suspicious, but didn’t want to insult a true fellow mourner.
“Um, sorta? I’ve, we’ve been… chatting.”
“She did like a good chat.”
“That’s good to know,” Marcus stood, feeling he’d gained a little ground in the conversation. When he did, he realized that although the woman was quite a bit shorter than he, the tall presence she gave off still very much remained.
“So you didn’t know her before she died.”
“No, not at all.”
The woman waited, glanced down at her grandmother’s name plate, and then back at Marcus, again arching an eyebrow as if to say, go on.
So he did. He hadn’t told anyone else, even as his friendship with Dan and Lee grew, even as Mrs. Garcia at the herb stand began to fuss over him like her own child, even as the baristas at Espresso Yourself learned his order and invited him to their happy hours, he had told no one about his little affair at the cemetery. It wasn’t that he was embarrassed at the oddness of it, alright maybe a bit, but it was also just a quiet little thing he had to himself.
But this was Penelope’s granddaughter. She actually had a right to Penelope Smith, and Marcus figured therefore a right to know why a strange man had been placing flowers at the grave for the past several months and talking to the stone like an old friend, just because he noticed a name.
The women listened, nodding occasionally. Marcus wasn’t sure if this was to agree or just to encourage him to continue. When he was finished, he waited for her answer. She stared at Penelope’s marker for another moment.
“Well… part of me is glad someone was keeping her company while I was gone. And part of me thinks you’re kinda weird.”
“I think that’s… that’s fine. Both seem reasonable.” Marcus paused, “back? So you do live around here?”
She gave him a warning look, “I do. Sometimes work takes me away for a while. I’m normally the one bringing her flowers,” she took off a string backpack and carefully pulled from it three yellow blooms wrapped in familiar paper. She moved to tuck them in alongside Marcus’s zinnias, and he shifted back to give her room. Doing so moved him out of the slight guard of the cherry tree and he realized the drizzle had turned to a steady soft rain, so he opened his umbrella.
“I couldn’t find sunflowers,” she said, Marcus wasn’t sure if she was still speaking to him, “but these looked like baby ones to me.”
“Sanvitalia,” Marcus said automatically.
She looked up at him, then back at the flowers, and gave an approving, “Huh.”
“That’s what they’re called. And uh, I am called Marcus.”
She stood back up and held out her hand, “Hi Marcus, I’m Olivia, Penelope and Leonard’s youngest grandkid.”
“It’s nice to meet you. I really didn’t mean to… insult by hanging out here with them.”
Finally, Olivia smiled, “You didn’t. Really, I think it’s sweet. Weird, a little odd, but sweet. I’ve probably watched too many crime shows.”
Marcus laughed, and he liked the way it made Olivia’s smile brighten a bit more.
“Well, this may make it even weirder… but I’d love to hear more about your grandparents. Could I buy you a drink?
“Well that’s a bit eerie, isn’t it?” She tilted her head, really seeming to ask him, “We introduce ourselves over my grandparents’ graves and then we go for a drink like we’ve had a meet-cute or something?”
“I suppose so, I apologize.”
He felt the red rising up his neck into his cheeks. Of course she wouldn’t want to make a new friend in this place. What had he been thinking? She came here to mourn her grandparents and he asks her to a drink like some sort of-
“Damn it, alright.” She paused. “Grandma always said I needed to be more spontaneous, that I was too calculating for so young. Come on, weirdo. I know a cute bar a few blocks away.” She looked him square in the eye, “But if you murder me, I will be absolutely furious.”
He smiled again, “Totally understandable.” He silently thanked Penelope, telling her he’d bring the entire flower cart if any part of meeting this gorgeous granddaughter was her doing.
Olivia was retying her sting backpack, “I’m texting my friends so they know if they don’t hear from me in a while to be suspicious.”
“Excellent, I’ll do the same. Never know what a pretty girl might have learned from all the crime shows she’s watched.”
She laughed, “I like that. I think my grandma would have liked you.”
Marcus felt this was the highest of compliments for their short time together, and it emboldened him to offer his arm to her.
She didn’t take it, but did place her hand over his on the handle of the umbrella.
He nodded at the compromise, “Lead the way.”
Kismet (noun): Destiny; fate. (or as my father defined it, “a purposeful coincidence”)
It’s a little odd, that we got the news Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg passed while I was working on this story about a passing grandmother. Because while the Notorious RBG was a household name for the fight for equality, she was also a grandmother. Maybe that’s a little bit of kismet too? I pray for ease of spirit for all of us mourning her loss, especially her family and grandkids.
There are some words I like so much that I wait until I’m sure I’ve gotten the right inspiration for them, that I’m doing them justice. This is one of them. Kismet is one of those revered words that means so much to me.
No matter your belief system, it’s simply mathematical truth that for every moment to occur, billions upon billions of seemingly unrelated ones have to happen before it. So when something special ‘random’ happens- that moment your eyes meet hers, you catch the heirloom he almost shattered, you and your soon-to-be new best friend reach for the same peanut butter jar- the universe has worked its ass off to get you there. I love that. Whether it’s true or not, I love the romance of every tiny movement trying to create those sunrise, heart race, crescendo twinkles of time for us.
(and personally, I do believe in it)
So go forth, lovely reader. And take flowers with you!