I carefully stepped around the gravesites. The steady, warm, autumn drizzle made it difficult to navigate around the gray tombstones carved with the pitifully brief epitomes of the deceased. Mama had wanted to be buried next to Daddy, and Daddy had insisted he be buried next to his mama. In essence, there was a whole string of relatives buried in one area. The elder relatives had first pick of course. They had bought a plot of land in this cemetery when it was first developed back in the 1800’s, and chose to be buried at the top of the hill under the magnolia tree… I imagine they had foreseen the day when they would look down over all the family members that would be buried all the way down the hill.
Mama had loved Daddy with all her heart. Their marriage lasted 52 years until Daddy died of lung cancer. He had been a good provider for his wife and four children, and in my eyes, he could do no wrong.
My tennis shoes were soaked and the squishing sound coming from between my toes was loud enough to wake the dead. My tiny yellow and black designer umbrella that I had purchased in Atlanta was of little refuge from the now steady downpour. The rain made it even more difficult to maneuver between the maze of gravesites, and I suddenly realized I had taken the wrong path. “The wrong path….” What was it Mama had said?
I was fourteen at the time, and full of mischief, as Grandma used to say. I guess I marched to my own drummer. My parents’ restrictions on a budding southern teenage girl were more than I could bear, but I was clever enough to find my way around the rules. Daddy was easy… Mama, not so much. She had eyes in the back of her head, and I swear, she could read my mind sometimes.
It was in the spring of 1978, a Friday. I had just slammed the door to my bedroom after having endured a terrible day at school, ripped off my baggy shirt that I knew had enough cigarette smoke incased in the fibers for Mama to smell, and thrown myself across my unmade bed, when Mama knocked on my door. “Caroline, can I come in?”
I scrambled around my room, finally finding my oversized LSU t-shirt rolled up in a wad under my bed. “Just a minute, Mama, I’m getting dressed.”
Mama didn’t wait. As she entered my room, she stopped instantly, and her mouth dropped open as she caught me trying to wrestle the shirt over my head. “Mama?” I was stunned as she grabbed the shirt and threw it to the floor.
Although petite for my age, my breasts had blossomed early. But as I stood practically naked in front of my mother, I realized how swollen and huge they had become, and how much I had outgrown my bra. But Mama wasn’t looking at my breasts; she was staring at my abdomen.
The news hit Daddy like a punch to the face. He began pacing and screaming, “Caroline, Caroline… my baby, my baby…!” Then in the next instant he was in my face. The corners of his mouth turned down so far that his back teeth were visible, and I could feel the fine spray of spit as he spoke. There was darkness in his eyes that I had never seen before. “Who is he? Who is the son of a bitch?” He had grabbed me by my arms and nearly lifted me off the floor.
“Stop it!” Mama screamed as she pushed him away from me. “Stop it right now!” Tears streamed down her cheeks as she took me into the protection of her arms.
Daddy stared at both of us. “I’ll find out who he is, and I’ll kill him. You hear me; I’ll kill him.” He paced the room like a wild animal, and then turned to us. “You’ll get rid of it. I don’t care how far along you are, you’ll get rid of it, or you’ll leave my house!”
I could feel my mother’s body growing tense as she turned to face the man she loved. “No Eric, she’s not getting rid of it. ‘It’ is a baby, her baby, our grandchild, and she wants to keep her baby. If anyone leaves this house, it will be you.”
The past had invaded my mind without warning. The rain had not let up, and I could feel a chill in the air. A front is coming through, I thought. The change in the air made me shiver. If anyone were crazy enough to come to the cemetery in this weather, they would never know I was crying. Salty tears and cool rain, a wonderful catharsis for the soul.
My son and my father were inseparable from the time Daddy cut his cord. It had been a difficult time for our family, but we held our heads up high, and survived it in a time when such things were swept under the rug and never spoken about in polite company. Mama told me many times that she was sure my son had saved my life. “You were headed down a rough road… doing things I don’t even want to know about… and headed for….” She would stop and look out into space. “You’ve come back to us and that’s all that matters.”
If she only knew what I had done in my short lifetime, she might have never forgiven me. I remember asking Mama many years later how she ever forgave me. “There was nothing to forgive sweetheart,” she said, “you were just a baby yourself, and you just took the wrong path.”
“The wrong path, Mama,” I found myself talking out loud. “Thanks to you and Daddy, I’ve been on the right path ever since.” I looked around, trying to get my bearings. I began counting the rows of headstones starting from the top of the hill down. I could almost hear my mother’s voice, “Unconditional love, honey, don’t ever forget that,” then she laughed, “and flowers on Wednesday.”
I remember staring at my beautiful mother just before she died. Her hair was gray, her skin was wrinkled, but her eyes were as bright as diamonds as she laughed. “What do you mean Mama? What about flowers on Wednesday?”
“I never told you this Caroline. It was before you were born, and I guess I was still a silly young girl at heart.” Mama seemed to drift into the past. “Your daddy could never remember my birthday or our anniversary until the very day of the event. As I recall, he never remembered Valentine’s Day either. Well, on occasion he would remember and at the last minute before coming home, he’d stop and buy flowers. At first I didn’t mind so much, although I was very disappointed. Then after a few years, I realized that the flowers meant nothing to him and even less to me.” Mama stopped for a moment.
“But you love flowers Mama.” I said.
“Oh yes, I do love flowers, but as a gift they should come for no reason other than someone was thinking of you and loved you enough to stop and buy flowers. Otherwise, they are a lazy way, no, a thoughtless gift that takes no effort.”
I smiled as Mama’s voice took on an angry pretense. “Did you ever tell Daddy?”
“You bet I did. He came into the kitchen one day holding a dozen red roses. ‘Happy Birthday honey,’ he said. Not a clue, I’m telling you. The man did not have a clue. I took those roses and threw them out of the back door. Your father just stood there in the middle of the kitchen, his mouth wide open, and he couldn’t say a thing. Then, as I was crying like a mad woman, I told him just how I felt. Wednesdays! Wednesdays, for no reason at all, that’s when you can give me flowers!” Mama was grinning.
“What did he say?” I asked fully expecting some great speech having come from my father.
“Nothing, he said absolutely nothing. But, he never bought me flowers on my birthday again. He began to write important dates down and taping them on his mirror.”
“How about on Wednesdays, did he buy you flowers on Wednesdays?”
I suddenly realized the rain had stopped, and I was standing by my parents’ graves. “Hello you two, how have you been? I miss you. I love you.” It was the opening speech at each of my visits. I reached down and took the dead flowers off their graves. Then I slowly unwrapped the fall bouquet of flowers that I had carefully protected from the weather. I pulled a gold mum from the center and placed it on Daddy. Then I set the rest of the flowers in the metal vase I had bought for my mother’s grave shortly after her death. I could only imagine my mother’s face as she plunged her nose deep into the flowers enjoying the scent of life. “Happy Wednesday Mama.”