Forever Saffron

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Gold
Melynda Sylvestre


Saffy knew Grandpa would never have forgotten her birthday—no matter how many other parts of his life he may have forgotten before he died. Even at the end, he had still recognized her every time she visited. Even when he was unsure of his own name, he would greet her with hers—the one he chose for her when she was born.

“I’m just mad about Saffron…” he would croon at the sight of her. When he no longer had the breath left for singing, he would hum her song. If he sometimes called her Carolyn during her visits, she knew it didn’t mean he was unaware of who she was. He had always told Saffy that she was the spitting image of his wife, the only other girl he had ever loved. He’d been calling her Carolyn by accident for years, and it had always made her feel good.

Since Saffy and Grandpa had been so close, her whole family was surprised at how well she was taking his death. She heard them muttering about shock, watching her carefully as she spent her Sweet 16th at his funeral. They didn’t understand; she was sad, but Grandpa would never be gone, not for her. She was more upset by the adults insisting that Grandpa wouldn’t be playing the Birthday Game with her this year. He had started dropping hints about this year’s Game before they found out about the tumor, and Saffy knew that Grandpa lived his life the way he played chess—carefully planning for every move his opponent might make, ready to change strategy at a moment, always winning the games he considered important. Grandpa was the smartest person she knew and, with two professors for parents, she had met a lot of people who considered themselves quite intelligent. Grandpa wouldn’t have let death outmaneuver him.

But no one would listen to her. They had returned to Grandpa’s lovely old house from the cemetery and promptly started arguing. It appeared that Grandpa hadn’t left a will, and his children were so involved in dealing with his estate that no one was paying any attention to her. Her two aunts were claiming that everything would need to be sold, and the money divided up evenly between them and Dad. Saffy knew that Grandpa had wanted her to have the house when she grew up, and that he would’ve left it to Dad for her; he had told everyone—including his daughters—this many times over the years. Grandpa had always referred to them as scheming harpies, often to their faces, and insisted that he wasn’t leaving them anything.

Once, when Saffy asked him why he was so harsh, he had told her that he didn’t feel like they were his children at all. The girls had begged to be sent to a fancy boarding school when they were thirteen; overwhelmed with grief for his wife, who had just died, and not sure what to do with teenage twins, he had agreed. After that, he had hardly spent any time with them. They embraced the Me spirit of the eighties, were embarrassed by their father’s “hippie” ideals, and spent as much time with their preppy friends as they could. He admitted to Saffy that it was his own fault; he should’ve kept them home, raised them properly, been there for them. But he didn’t, and they turned into the kind of people he had been rebelling against in the sixties.

Aunt Evelyn lived closest to Grandpa, and had spent a lot of time at his house once he was sick. That is, once he got sick enough that he couldn’t protest. He never could stand having her around for any length of time, and had always worked hard at driving her crazy so she would leave quickly. Saffy knew that a number of Grandpa’s nicer things had disappeared while her aunt was around. Aunt Judy, with her prissy way of saying the nastiest thing possible and her awful lawyer-husband—the one Grandpa called a pompous bore who couldn’t find his own ass with both hands and a map—was telling everyone which laws said the estate had to go in equal shares between the three of them. The harpies were enjoying it all, very much.

Saffy tried to convince Dad that Grandpa must have hidden a will, or that one of the dastardly aunts could’ve stolen it, and he should do something. But he just looked sad and resigned, and told her there was nothing he could do. It made Saffy so frustrated and impatient with him, another thing she had in common with her grandfather. Grandpa had loved her father, but found him to be too meek and wishy-washy. Saffy felt much the same, but her love for her dad made her try not to walk right over him the way Grandpa had.

Saffy knew that Grandpa hadn’t been perfect; he was judgmental, impatient and occasionally self-absorbed. But she had loved him anyway, and he had found her to be the true child of his heart. He taught her to play chess; took her on camping trips where they would hike or paddle for days to get to some special spot; gardened and built with her, caring for the old house that he’d lived in ever since he had married her grandmother. The two of them loved that house, and he always told her that it would be hers forever.

But, to Saffy, the best thing they did together was the annual birthday treasure hunt. He would plan it months in advance, and it became more complex and challenging every year. Like chess, he would arrange the pieces to build a mystery that she had to use all her abilities to solve. He taught her to observe carefully, and to search for clues until she deduced where her gift was hidden. It was fun, but it was real; if Saffy couldn’t solve the riddle, she didn’t get her gift—she found her 10th birthday present three months late, when she finally understood a chess defense reference Grandpa had made.

Today was her 16th birthday. Grandpa had made a big deal about it, told her he had started planning it years ago. She knew what the prize was this year; as long as she could remember, Grandpa had told her that when she was sixteen he would give her Grandma’s jewelry. Saffy suspected that it was almost as much a way of upsetting his daughters as it was a sign of his love for her. When Aunt Judy announced earlier today that she couldn’t find the jewelry, Dad—with a rare show of backbone—accused his sisters of stealing it when Grandpa was in the hospital. They retaliated by saying that Saffy had likely taken it. Things quickly degenerated from wake to rumble.

But while Saffy could believe her aunts would have wanted to destroy the will, and that they would’ve stolen the jewelry if they’d had the chance, she still felt that Grandpa had out-foxed them. Somehow. And it made her angry at herself that she hadn’t figured out how. Because this was the ultimate birthday hunt, and she was letting Grandpa down. He would’ve expected her to work it out. He would’ve planned everything.

She tried to explain this to her father one more time.

“Honey, I know Grandpa would never have ignored your birthday if he had a choice. But the tumor removed all of his choices; he was in the hospital for the last two months. He didn’t have time to hide your present.”

She knew she was missing something, but she couldn’t put her finger on it. She kept asking her father questions until he started to lose his customary easy temper.

“For crying out loud, Saffy, give it a rest! I have too much to take care of as it is, without you acting like a little child over a birthday treat. Your grandfather left things a mess, dying without a will. He didn’t give us any warning, even though his doctors told him what was happening back in early autumn. It wasn’t until he started blacking out around Christmas that we knew what was going on. And he was incoherent and into the hospital two months later. I know it wasn’t like him to leave things undone, but he must have been affected much earlier than we realized, and just wasn’t able to take care of things. He couldn’t have done anything for your birthday this year; you know he always arranged it so you couldn’t figure it out beforehand. And he just couldn’t hold on until April 11th. I’m sure he wanted to, honey.”

Grandpa knew he was dying? Back in the fall? No one had told her that part before. She wasn’t sure how, but it changed everything. He was still normal back then; they had worked together harvesting and putting the garden to bed. He had been sharp and funny and teasing her about her birthday even then. If he had known he had an inoperable brain tumor then, he would’ve known that he wasn’t going to be around in the spring for the Game. He would’ve planned his moves right away.

Leaving the squabbling relatives in the house, Saffy pulled on her sweater and strolled out to the familiar driveway, where the arching redbud trees were just starting to flower. Behind the house the early spring garden, in all its barren loveliness, brought the first tears to her eyes, with its reminder of growing seasons spent working beside her grandfather. Early daffodils sprouted in clumps along the edge of the woods and throughout the sleeping garden beds. She imagined she could hear Grandpa’s wonderful off-key voice singing her song as she wandered around the house perimeter.

“I’m just mad about Saffron; hmmmhmmm; and Saffron is mad about me…”

Saffy relaxed and just tried to observe. Looked for anything that was different. Anything that could’ve been changed in the fall. There. Under the big apple tree. A patch of purple crocuses. She was certain there hadn’t been any there last spring; she and Grandpa had preferred Snowdrops and Siberian Squill for spots like this.

They had bloomed early this year and were already starting to drop their petals, leaving the saffron-gold stamens standing alone on the stem; another few days and it would be almost impossible to tell where they had been, the newly green grass would grow higher and hide the delicate leaves.

Ignoring her black skirt, she climbed up the old tree to her favorite branch. When she looked down, the crocuses below appeared to be forming a lopsided heart. Tears began to course down her cheeks, and she laughed through them. Grandpa might have been a genius in some ways, but he drew about as well as he sang.

She hated to disturb the patch, but she knew that if she dug carefully most of the bulbs would survive to bloom again for her every year. Grandpa was no fool; she’d be willing to bet her every memory of him that there was a very sturdy waterproof box down there. And that there would be a will inside of it; as well as the sparkling treasure he had saved from the first girl he had loved. The jewelry was special, and to live in this house would be a joy for her, but she knew that this was his final and greatest gift to her—his absolute faith that her love and trust for him would lead her to play their game, even after he was gone.
pencil

“I have intended to be a writer since I was 8 years old, but my powers of procrastination are well nigh invincible and it has taken 30 years to write this story. My favorite way to avoid writing is reading, and that will probably never change. But with the help of remedial discipline, nagging teenagers and contest deadlines I hope to someday achieve my lifelong goal of being able to answer the question ‘What do you do?’ with ‘I’m a writer.'” E-mail: info[at]vermontait.com

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