A PENCHANT FOR ROSES
He used to walk down the dirt road past our farm every Sunday afternoon, back in the early 30's. He'd wave as he passed our mailbox. After Sunday dinner, my parents liked to sit out on the porch in their rocking chairs...counting their blessings.
Mama would have her long hair freshly washed with rain water, and rolled up in a bun with her side combs in place. Papa would be wearing his white Sunday shirt, and he'd have a fresh dip of Garrett snuff in his lip.
Papa would just ‘harrumph' when the feller passed by and waved, but Mama always had something nice to say. He lived about nine miles away, and worked in the oil fields over there. But every Sunday he'd walk past our place...(going ‘sparking', as Papa called it; Mama said ‘paying court')...to visit a young woman named Rose who lived a mile or two down the road from us.
The man was in his early twenties back then. Every time he passed our place, he'd be carrying a bunch of long-stemmed roses. Mama always commented about how nice the man was, and how tickled that Rose girl must be, having flowers brought to her every Sunday.
Me and my brothers would just point at the feller and snigger, because he'd be grinning like a pure-dee goof every time he passed.
I was eight years old. When you are eight, you know all there is to know about being goofy.
Papa hitched up the wagon one Saturday morning and we all climbed in, wearing our church clothes and carrying our musical instruments. Frequently, my family played music at someone's house when it was our turn to make the music. Everybody in our farming community would come to that farm on Saturday night, to visit and square-dance.
But this was Saturday morning...me and my brothers had our lips pooched way out, not liking it one bit. We had to play music at a dad-gum wedding! We'd rather be at the swimming hole, or fishing, or doing something decent like that. That goofy feller sparking Miss Rose and carrying them silly roses for so long...I guess he'd finally smooth-talked her into marrying him. Me and my brothers didn't want nothing to do with no silly wedding.
I was fourteen years old. When you're fourteen, you know all there is to know about silly!
Mama was busy as a stirred up hornet's nest one particular Wednesday morning. She was all over the place, snapping orders to everybody, boxing up a fresh-baked cake and having us load her cleaning stuff into the wagon. We all piled into the wagon, in spite of Papa grumbling about ‘having a crop to make'. We headed for that feller's house...the one that carried them roses every Sunday, and smiled so goofy.
Mama said Miz Rose was at the County hospital having a baby, and: "...when she gits home with that baby, that house is gon' be clean and smellin' good; so every'body hush your mouth, and do as you told!". The responding chorus of "yes'ms" caused Mama to nod her head judiciously, just once; that was the response she expected...and got.
We about turned that house inside out. We toted all the furniture out in the yard, and whilst Papa and big brother scalded the bed springs and bed-steads, I turned the mattresses in the sun and beat ‘em with a brush broom, while little brother shined up that six-eye wood-burning stove with stove blackin'. Mama and big sister scrubbed every inch of floors in the house, washed the windows, all the sheets and pillow cases...everything.
I kept the wash-pot full of boiling water, and was mighty careful to stay out of Mama's sight. She could spot an idle boy quicker than a chicken-hawk could eye-ball a pullet! When them women took a notion to scrub floors, it was a deep well that didn't go plumb dry during the process. Little brother had asked Mama, on the way over there, how come we were doing all this stuff for that Rose lady...Mama said: "bein' neighborly" and nodded once; that was the end of that.
I was eighteen years old. When you're eighteen and raised on a farm, you know all there is to know about being neighborly.
Papa couldn't stand to see women-folks cry; and there was a heap of that going on in our community. The lady---Miz Rose---she never came home from the County hospital. She had some sort of complications, and couldn't live through ‘em. The baby was all right, though. The man named the baby girl ‘Rose'. Just him and little Rose came home.
Before they got home, Mama and big sister had went to his house, and took away the cake and other stuff that had gone rancid whilst the feller was hovering by his wife's side at the County hospital. Papa and us boys hung around the hospital until Miz Rose passed, waiting for somebody to tell us what to do...but they never did.
The whole community turned out for the funeral, you bet. Miz Rose was a well-respected lady. There don't seem to be a whole lot you can do for somebody in a situation like that. Papa and us boys stood around again at the funeral; feeling useless. We stayed close enough that, if the feller needed anything, we'd be right handy...but he never did.
I had turned nineteen the day before. When you're nineteen, you know all there is to know about standing around feeling useless.
The man took to stopping off at our house after church on Sunday...and bringing little Rose along for Mama and the sisters to fuss over. She was such a thing as you never seen in your life; getting into everything there was to get into, now that she could walk and talk. It tickled me and my brothers to watch that little scamp climbing all over Papa in his rocking chair...and him trying to lean around her so he could skeet his snuff into Mama's petunias. Papa never complained. Awww, he'd grit his teeth once in a while...but he never made a fuss; even when she ran him slap crazy asking silly questions.
Little Rose's Pa would sit in a rocking chair alongside of Papa, and they'd talk real quiet and gentle. The feller had changed considerable since us boys had sniggered at him fast-footing it down that dirt road to see Miz Rose every Sunday, carrying them roses. He was actually a real handsome gent; but when Miz Rose passed, he seemed to age a lot...right quick.
I was twenty-three. When you're twenty-three, you know all there is to know about changing.
When I finally got back from the military, things were pretty much the same as before; except that little Rose was a beautiful young lady now. Her Pa seemed to have aged a lot more. He hardly every smiled like he used to, back when he was sparking Miz Rose...I mean when he was alone. But when that Rose girl was around, he'd have that ol' goofy smile on his face all the time. Strangely, that smile didn't seem so goofy to me any more.
One Wednesday night, I drove over from where me and my wife lived and got Mama and them in my old Studebaker. We all went to watch little Rose graduate from High School. There was a lot of crying going on when she was handed that rolled-up diploma. This time, it wasn't so hard for Papa to watch Mama and them crying; they were grinning and crying all at the same once. After the ceremony was over, little Rose and half-a-dozen other youngsters took off in her Pa's car...to go do whatever youngsters do after graduating.
I meandered over to where Rose's Pa was standing, off to the side. We talked a bit about nothing at all, then he asked me if I'd drive him somewhere. I said sure. That's how we ended up down there at the graveyard---in the moonlight.
I stood back a piece, whilst he took out a clean handkerchief and knelt down by Miz Rose's tombstone. He dusted and wiped that purplish marble ‘til it fairly gleamed. Then, I noticed a strange thing. He was tracing something on the tombstone with his finger. I turned my head away; it was just too private. After he was through, I drove him home.
I was thirty-seven. When you're thirty-seven, and have been in a war or two, you know all there is to know about graveyards.
Rose's Pa called and asked me if I'd mind driving them to the airport. I called my boss and said I wouldn't be to work that day. At the airport, little Rose and her Pa walked along real slow; talking quiet-like on the way to the check-in place. I lagged back a piece. Every once in a while, she would lean her head against her Pa's shoulder.
Way too quick, they got to the place where he couldn't go no further with her. She flung her arms around his neck and hugged him real tight. When she got through hugging her Pa, she took a step back and looked square at me with them green eyes to make your heart bust. She said "thank you" and "look after my Pa"...without saying a word. All I could do was stand there like a stump.
She turned then, and went through that frame thing...stepping out right smartly down the hall; heading off to one of them fancy colleges back East. Me and her Pa stood and watched. Both of us knew she wouldn't look back. She wouldn't want us to see her crying...maybe it was the other way around.
The hall made a curve, down yonder a ways, and just before she went out of sight from us, little Rose flung her right arm up in the air...high as it'd go. Clutched in her right fist was one of them long-stemmed roses. Her Pa had brought her one to travel with. I heard him whisper "goodbye" under his breath. We didn't say a thing on the way back from the airport.
I was thirty-eight. When you're thirty-eight, you know all there is to know about goodbyes.
That airplane little Rose was on---it never got there. I heard about the plane crash that night on the late news. I jumped in the car and took off for my folk's house. They all piled into the car and, for the only time in my life, Mama was urging me to speed up. We got to the feller's house in record time.
That was as long a night as I ever been through...even when I was getting shot at in the war. But, it had to be got through somehow. Even when there ain't nothing to be done, there's things that need to be done. Somehow little Rose's Pa kept a grip on things. I wish I could say the same. All a body can do in a situation like that is abide. I had learnt how to do that.
When you're thirty-eight, and been in the military, you know all there is to know about abidin'.
These last few years, I've been spending time with the feller every chance I get. We mostly just sit there in his room at the old-folks' home, without saying much of anything. There's not much to be said, anyhow. Occasionally, we ride together down to the graveyard; when he feels up to it…and has some of his wits about him.
He goes through the same old routine...clean handkerchief, dusting, shining them headstones; tracing his finger over the outline of them roses carved in the marble. He's been doing it for so many years now, the one on Miz Rose's stone is wore plumb smooth almost. The one in little Rose's stone is still sharp and clear...but he's made a good start on that one, too. We both know little Rose ain't in that grave there, next to Miz Rose...but it don't matter none.
He needs help getting up and down now, after he's through dusting and shining. He's too old to do much of anything any more. But every time he's down here at the graveyard, polishing them headstones, he has that same old goofy grin on his face. I don't do my own dusting and shining whilst he's doing his...even though my own wife, and a son killed in Vietnam, are buried thirty feet away.
I don't get up and down as good as I used to, either...and I can't see to drive much any more. So, my grand-daughter (her name is Rose) drives me down here and drops me off. She comes back to fetch me when she thinks I've been here long enough.
I'm sixty-five now. When you are sixty-five...you know all there is to know about Roses.