Tuesday, December 16, 2008
I remember my mother working in the garden, wearing a wide brim straw hat with silk flowers attached to a grosgrain ribbon wrapped around the band, as if it were a fancy belt worn on a party dress. She changed the ribbons and flowers to match the blouses she made; she was a great seamstress. I always thought it was peculiar how she primped before working in the yard, but she told me, “That’s when folks tend to stop by, when they see you out in the yard.” So, she fixed her makeup and hair like she was going to church, put on a cheerful button down and clean pressed jeans. She had an assortment of garden gloves, of course. They had to match her ensemble.
Every few days, she would dead-head: pinch the blooms off stems to encourage new growth. She’d toss the decapitated blossoms in a bucket. I looked down at them piled on the bottom like tiny hats old ladies wore to church. You know the kind; some are frilly and pink, others have feathers and toile, some even have sequins. These flowers were like that: each a little different from the other with an individual sense of style--symbols of formality, celebration, and praise. It seemed a shame to pluck them in all their glory.
Mama appreciated delicate things. She collected antique broaches and mourning pins, even the “dead-heads”, in her own way. She pressed the flowers between pages of poetry and chapters of the Bible. We always had a stack of Bibles and poetry books. She thought there was no greater gift to give than the word. If a person already had a Bible, then she’d give them a book of poems. Either way, they got the word.
I’d help mark her favorite poems and scripture with a painted-face pansy, sweet scented rose, or sometimes an amaranthine (a.k.a. - bleeding heart columbine, often used at funerals. The word amaranthine means everlasting beauty, unfading.) We’d place the flowers close to the spine, making sure the petals were flat, and we’d close the book slowly, the way Mama closed my door at night while listening to me say my bedside prayers. And like that thin stream of light from the crack she’d leave in the door, the bump the bloom left in the book--helped you find your way.
In winter, we’d make pictures with our dried pressed flowers, still as vibrant as the day they were picked. We arranged them on fabric backgrounds and framed them behind glass. I liked to make kaleidoscope style creations, but Mama always made portraits. She claimed people’s faces were like flowers and using flowers to create faces was a great way to show people how they should see themselves. Her pictures always sold out at craft shows and county fairs. I was proud of her and her flower heads and have several of her portraits hanging in my home this very day.
When Mama died, Daddy let me pick out her burial dress. I chose a formal lavender gown with beaded floral design; lavender was her favorite color. When the funeral home director fluffed the satin pillow behind her head, I thought she might wake up--she looked like she was sleeping in the white casket Daddy picked out, the one with the roses painted on the side. Mama’s best friend did her hair and make-up; she knew just how to fix it and I was glad she was dolled up for the wake, the way she would have done it herself, if she could have. A lot of people stopped by to see her. I placed a small Bible (filled with amaranthine and roses to mark her favorite scriptures) in her pretty stiff hands and said a special prayer. Being a child, I didn’t realize how young she truly was--plucked in all her glory at age thirty-one. I’ll always remember Mama young and beautiful--amaranthine.
When I turned thirty-one, I had a biopsy. The whole time I laid on the table while the doctor did what he needed to do, tears streamed down my face. The doctor asked if I wanted to do the procedure another day, but I said no. I knew it was necessary, but I couldn’t stop thinking about Mama and how cancer had taken her away. I was eight years old when she died; I thought I was over my grieving. The tears I shed on the examining table were different from the ones I had shed as a girl. These were tears of understanding for how she must have felt, having a young daughter to leave behind. I had not been blessed with a child of my own and for the first time; I was grateful and relieved to be barren.
Waiting for the results from the lab was torture. It took about a week. One fateful Friday afternoon, my husband brought in the mail and I opened the letter from pathology with trembling fingers. I sighed and whispered the most magical word ever created: benign, then fell face forward on the quilt Mama had made, fingering scraps from her garden blouses, remembering her smell, wearing one of her mourning pins, and wept. My husband laid his body over mine, pressing himself against me, until I was flat against the mattress--like a flower in a book, with head turned to the side. He poured words into my ear--words of love and scripture, poetry, and future. In the space between his face and mine, we said our prayers together and I learned what it feels like to become--amaranthine, in the eyes of someone who loves you.
Paula Ray is a musician from Wilmington, North Carolina. When she isn't teaching, performing, or composing music, she enjoys engaging in her new found passion: writing. Paula's poems and stories appear or are forthcoming in: Word Riot, Pequin, Mad Swirl, Up the Staircase, MicroHorror, and All Things Girl.