Sister Paris’s roses smelled like poison. My nose was just inches away from an orange Tropicana as big as Kenny Royal’s fist, and all I could smell were chemicals. Not even a whiff of tea rose. Nana’s roses had always smelled like roses-all luscious and sweet, almost ticklish. They’d grown in curved rows along the south side of the house, where the sunshine warmed away the dew and dried up the black spot that ate away at Sister Paris’s roses. I stripped off a whole stem of spotty yellow and black leaves. It dropped into my basket along with all the rest.
“Rose on a stick, that’s what she grows,” Nana had said in April when I told her I’d be working at Sister Paris’s three afternoons a week. “Be sure to wear gloves, Lorena. And throw your work clothes down the laundry chute the minute you’re finished. Heaven knows, she smothers those bushes of hers with rose dust.”
Nana hadn’t known then that our new house wouldn’t have a laundry chute, but she was right about the rose dust.
“Are you finished yet, Lorena?” Sister Paris tottered out through the garage and into the north shade, where most of her roses grew. Tropicanas, Mr. Lincolns, Elizabeth Ardens, and a whole bunch I didn’t recognize by name. They were lined up in rows alongside the driveway.
“Yes, ma’am,” I said, dropping one last handful of sickly stems into the basket.
She shook her head and frowned. “Have you ever seen such a pathetic sight?”
Well, at least she was honest.
Orange, red, pink, yellow, and white puffs of color burst into flower at the end of dozens of bare branches. She sighed and folded her skinny, old-lady arms across her chest. “Manure. That was your grandmother’s secret. She’d have your dad pile up a seasoned supply in April, and by June, her roses were the marvel of all the ladies at both churches-the Bolivar and Bona congregations combined. Never did have to spray a single leaf.”
Which was true, of course.
The manure helped, but so did all that hot, south, summer sunshine. Of an August afternoon like this one, Nana’s roses would be blooming like the sparkles on a rhinestone bracelet. Our white lace curtains at the dining-room windows would stir in the breeze. A cardinal might call from the dogwoods down toward the kitchen, and the smell of fresh-mown hay would come drifting up from the pasture.
But home was gone-or all that truly made it home.
“Did your folks save your grandmother’s lilacs?” Sister Paris asked, taking the basket of sick leaves from my hands. “To my way of thinking, they were even more precious than the roses.”
I took off my gloves, working my hands out carefully to keep from touching too much poison. All the while, I was thinking about the lilacs, how they’d looked that first week in May-seven great, towering columns of deep, dark purple; soft, airy lavender; and lacy white. They’d bloomed like heaven, as if they knew the end was near-the Royals’ big jack coming to wrench the house from its foundation and rip their roots right out of the ground. And then water. Tons and tons of water. Unimaginable water, which would cover everything by this time next year….
“The lilacs, Lorena,” said Sister Paris, clearing her throat. “Did your folks save the lilac bushes?”
I shook my head, remembering the heaps of flowering branches Nana and I had gathered during those final weeks-lilacs for the dining-room table, the piano in the living room, the oak cupboard in the kitchen. “The pure smell of springtime,” Nana had said. Finally all alone, I’d picked one last bouquet-for Nana’s bedside.
“They’re all gone, then?”
I stared up at the sky, not wanting to look Sister Paris in the face for fear I’d start to cry. At last I said, “Kenny Royal and his brothers ripped most of them out when they moved the house. All that’s left are the two white ones by the front porch.”
Sister Paris shook her head and mumbled, “The whole country’s gone dam crazy.”
Dam-as in Stockton Dam. For Sister Paris would never utter a true swear word, nor would any of my parents’ friends at either church-the one at Bona or the one in Bolivar. But even the ladies used that phrase now.
I’d probably heard it every day for the last four years, starting with the first time-in Humbert’s Store after Sunday services at the Bona church. I’d walked across the highway to get my little sisters some cherry-flavored Life Savers. Kenny Royal was buying a pack of Camels, which he always smoked privately in his pickup truck after church.
“The whole country’s gone dam crazy,” he was saying to Mr. Humbert. “The Clarks, Tedricks, and Whites are gonna lose their farms. Saw it yesterday on a Corps of Engineers map over in Stockton. I hear the Wildman place will be under water, too.”
Our house-the Wildman place.
I’d hurried out the swinging glass door and completely forgot to pay for those Life Savers. But I have a feeling Mr. Humbert wouldn’t have charged me anyway, not then, not when he knew such news would plain cut through my heart.
“Well, it’s a mercy your grandmother didn’t live to see the day,” Sister Paris was saying. “Sometimes I wish I hadn’t lived to see this day myself, folks feeling so unsettled, losing their farms.” Her eyes squinted up into wrinkles. “It don’t matter one bit that the government finally paid y’all for the land. You had no choice in the matter. Nobody did.”
“That’s what everybody says,” I replied, remembering the handshakes at the funeral, the notes scribbled across the bottom of sympathy cards. I wished Sister Paris would stop all this talk and let me go home.
Finally she dropped four quarters in my hand and sighed. “You do good work, Lorena,” she said. “Your grandmother would have been proud.”
I nodded and slipped the quarters, three days’ pay, into my pocket and started down the driveway. But Sister Paris called me back.
“Are you and your folks driving over to the Bona house tonight?” she asked.
“Yes, ma’am. One last trip before school starts back up again.” I thought of the bare, empty house waiting for us tonight, just sitting there on what the Corps of Engineers called “high ground.” Why did we have to go back? The house looked so sad and lonely, perched there in the middle of a torn-up alfalfa field.
Sister Paris touched my shoulder. “Take some of these along with you.” She snipped off three Tropicanas-on-a-stick, blew on the flowers to get some of the rose dust off, then held them out for me. “Your grandmother always kept a bouquet of flowers on her dining-room table.”
“That’s very kind of you.” I took the roses but didn’t tell her that Nana’s dining-room table had been sold at auction. It was too big for the house in Bolivar we’d moved into last month.
Just as I reached the street, Sister Paris’s quavery voice called out, “Think about those lilac bushes, Lorena. They’re worth saving.”
* * *
A gospel-meeting sign was taped to the window of Dad’s barbershop, and I bent close to read it:
BONA GOSPEL MEETING
With Brother Eddie Stanton
Minister of the Church of Christ, Bolivar, Missouri
Gather to hear the soul-stirring Word of God at
BONA COMMUNITY CHURCH
SEPTEMBER 26-OCTOBER 2, 1969
“Go ye into all the world and preach the Gospel”
Strange that the preacher from our new church would soon be preaching at our old one. But then Nana had once said that the folks at the Bolivar congregation were almost like family. That’s why Mom and Dad had decided to move here once they were sure that Stockton Lake would flood all but fourteen acres of the farm. That and the fac
t that Dad’s barbershop had been in Bolivar ever since I could remember.
“Hi, Lorena,” he called through the open door. “How did things go over at Sister Paris’s?” His scissors skimmed over the top of Dr. Buzard’s thinning hair.
“Just fine,” I said, taking in the clean, spicy smell of shampoo and aftershave. For a moment, I could almost forget the stink of poison rising off those roses.
“When’s Sister Paris gonna learn that you can’t grow roses along the north side of a house?” Dad asked, nodding at my sickly bouquet.
“Careful there, Loren.” Dr. Buzard grinned at Dad. “Sickly as those things are, they’re Elmira Paris’s pride and joy.”
“She wants us to take them with us tonight-to Bona, I mean.” I paused, not knowing what else to say, not wanting to remind Dad of the glorious summertime bouquets that used to fill every room when Nana was alive. It was like the house had died with her-those bare windows and nothing inside but sleeping cots, an old card table, a camp stove, and boxes of junk that hadn’t sold at auction. The house didn’t even have electricity or real plumbing anymore.
Dad set his shears aside and reached for the clippers. “That’s mighty kind of Sister Paris. Why don’t you set those roses in some water until I’m finished here.”
I walked to the back of the shop, found an empty glass, and filled it with water. Dad and Dr. Buzard were talking politics. Dad supported President Nixon’s policies in Vietnam; Dr. Buzard, who taught English at the Baptist Bible College, did not. I didn’t know what to believe.
I set the glass of roses in the back-room windowsill, then rinsed the rose dust from my hands. Rex Heatherly from the Bona church had been killed in Vietnam; nobody was sure just how-and maybe we didn’t really want to know. Nana, Mom, and I had served cake in the church basement for his funeral. A year before that, the three of us had stood in exactly the same spot, serving up wedding cake when he’d married Arlene Martin.
“Such a tragedy,” Nana had said, glancing over at Arlene, all dressed in black for the funeral. “A young man shot down before he’s had a chance to live, to know what’s important in this life and what isn’t. Me, on the other hand, I’ve had a good long life-and enjoyed nearly every minute of it. I want you both to remember that, come what may.”
Then my eyes had filled with sudden tears. Not for Rex or Arlene Heatherly-but for Nana. We’d all just learned that her cancer had come back and the doctors said there was nothing more they could do for her.
“Lorena,” Dad called, “you can walk on home if you want to. I’m going to be here a while longer.”
I dried my hands and leaned against the doorway. Dr. Buzard held a mirror in his hand and was scowling at his reflection. Despite the fact that he didn’t have a full head of hair, he had always been one of Dad’s most demanding customers.
“Or,” Dad said, smiling, “you could run over to the Rexall for a cherry Coke and we could walk home together.” He fished a dime out of his pocket. “I’ll buy.”
I drifted over to the soda fountain counter, which was empty, and waited to order my cherry Coke. Nana, of course, would have walked right across the store to the cosmetics department, where a girl not much older than me was reading a Seventeen magazine. “I need some help at the soda fountain, please,” Nana would have said. But I couldn’t imagine myself ever doing that. Finally, the girl looked up.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” she said. She tucked the Seventeen under her arm and walked across the store, past the Ace bandages and flashlight batteries. “Have you seen these new maxi skirts?” she asked, opening the magazine to pictures of girls wearing old-fashioned-looking skirts that went all the way to their ankles. “I can’t believe my luck,” she went on. “I finally get my mom used to miniskirts and now this!”
I just nodded. Who cared, really? Maxiskirts, miniskirts. It just didn’t interest me.
She closed the magazine and smiled. “What’ll you have?”
I was almost embarrassed to order. It seemed kind of immature to ask for a cherry Coke, but I’d never ordered anything else at the Rexall fountain. Then, just when I’d decided on a Dr Pepper, the girl said, “I’m going to make myself a cherry Coke. Mr. Lowry lets me have one a day-on the house.”
I smiled back. “I’ll have the same.”
Nobody but the pharmacist was in the store, so we took our cherry Cokes back across to the cosmetic counter, where a whole row of glass shelves was filled with bright boxes of perfume and powder. Revolving racks held Revlon lipsticks, Maybelline mascaras, and Max Factor eye shadows. I recognized one of Nana’s favorites-Charles of the Ritz loose powder, in a round, gold-trimmed box. Mom didn’t approve of makeup. But Nana did.
“Lorena’s old enough for a little lipstick and powder, don’t you think, Lillian?” Nana had said. “She’ll be driving before you know it.”
Mom shook her head. “She won’t need lipstick to drive a car.”
It was one of the few things they’d quarreled about.
A display of clear, rosy containers caught my eye-Bloom rouge. Nana used to dab a little on her index and middle fingers, then lightly tap it onto her cheeks.
“Oh, you don’t want that,” the girl said, tossing her hair, which was long and blond and perfectly straight. “Look at this.” She pointed to a bright display on top of the counter. “Bonne Bell lip gloss. Real natural. Want to try some?” She held out a sample, along with a mirror.
I dipped my finger into a little pot of goo and wiped it across my lips. Just a tint of pink, which looked surprisingly nice. I checked the price-ninety-nine cents, a week of work at Sister Paris’s. I looked back at my reflection and smiled. It might be worth it.
Then all of a sudden the girl sprayed me with perfume. It gave off the vague scent of lilacs, sweet and clean, like springtime itself. And somehow, it was like I was back at the farm, clipping lilacs with Nana, filling our baskets with pale lavender, white, and deep purple spikes of flowers. We were walking slow around the house, talking about the future.
“You mustn’t be afraid of what’s ahead, Lorena,” she was saying. “High school, college. Follow in your mother’s footsteps. Get all the education you can.”
By then, we’d stopped by the front porch and she was clipping whole branches of heavy white lilacs. “I’m proud of your dad, proud of what he and your Fafa did with this farm-not to mention that your dad’s the best barber in southwest Missouri. But times are changing. Don’t dwell on things done and gone.”
The girl sprayed me again, then sprayed herself. “Rub your wrists together like this,” she said. “See? To make the perfume last.”
* * *
Dad was locking up, Sister Paris’s Tropicanas in one hand, his keys in the other. “You smell real good, Lorena,” he said. “Better than the poison on these roses, that’s for sure.”
We walked past the Tastee Freeze, where a line was already beginning to form, then farther down-past the Pitts Funeral Chapel, the Good Samaritan Old Folks Home, and the Butler Funeral Home. A steady stream of Saturday night traffic cruised by, cars filled mostly with students from the Baptist Bible College; they’d go down to the end of Hartford Street, then turn around and start the whole circle all over again. A couple of cars honked and Dad waved back. It took us all of five minutes to get home.
But it didn’t feel like home-a low, squat, stucco house in town with a wide front porch stretching from one end to the other; the TV news pouring out of the screen door onto the porch; Mom’s lesson plans for next week spread across the ugly new dining-room table.
Our old table, the one sold at auction, had been graceful and wide-wide enough to spread out all those Corps of Engineers maps the government man brought with him when he visited us that first time. Dad’s hands had trembled when the man had pointed to the big blue patch right in
the center-the lake that would swallow everything up so folks in Springfield could turn on a light switch or run their air conditioners.
“You have no choice, son,” Nana had said then, steadying Dad’s hands. “But the house. Seems to me you could move it there-to the east and south.” She’d pointed to that little scrap of property the lake wouldn’t take.
But that hadn’t really saved the house for us.
Not for us.
Because this time next year, somebody else would be living there. Mom and Dad had decided to rent out the house and start a college fund for me and my sisters with the rent money.
“It’s the right thing to do, Lorena,” Nana had said when I took her that last bunch of lilacs. “Taking the government money for the farm and buying a house in Bolivar-you’ll get a better education there. It’s a college town.” This last she’d said in that no-nonsense voice of hers. When she talked like that, even Mom couldn’t argue with her.
So there we were, in a house that wasn’t home-my little sisters, Lenna and Laura, arguing about which one would be Miss Scarlet in a game of Clue, and Mom in the kitchen making bologna sandwiches. “Lorena,” she called, “would you take that pile of dirty clothes down to the basement for me?”
A house with no laundry chute.
A house without rose bushes. Without lilacs. Without Nana.
We ate our bologna sandwiches, folded up the laundry, and packed up our pajamas and Sunday clothes. Finally, around seven o’clock we all piled into the car and headed toward Bona. Mom and Dad still called it home. But nothing felt like home to me anymore.
After services at the Bona church that next morning, we ate lunch at Brother and Sister Young’s. They were old newlyweds, married not a year ago. What I mean is that they both had grown children, gray hair, and faces lined with wrinkles. But everybody I knew loved to talk about their courtship. She had been widowed for ever so long, and so had he. Finally, they’d met about two years ago at a gospel meeting, while she was visiting a cousin who lived by the Royals. Brother Young asked her over for pie and ice cream after every service. He baked the pie himself. Finally he popped the question and she said yes. Now they lived in his big white house, just below the Bona Church. The Stockton Lake wouldn’t swallow up any of their property.
“Imogene Young is living life the right way,” Nana had said after she heard about the match. “But I wouldn’t trade places with her for all the world-not after living life with your Fafa. I had him for fifty years, but that wasn’t long enough.”
That wasn’t long enough.
That’s what I was thinking about, standing all alone in the house-Nana’s house, our house, our shell of a house. Mom, Dad, Lenna, and Laura had gone down to the swimming hole for the afternoon, but I’d preferred to stay behind, roaming through every room, remembering.
Remembering Christmases and birthdays, falls and springs, Sunday afternoons-almost like this one, with Nana and Fafa napping upstairs, Mom grading papers, Dad and my sisters whooping it up outside somewhere. I’d be left to myself-to read a book, take a walk, or just sit in the porch swing, thinking.
Now the house was so bare and empty and sad. Blank, bright squares of color, where pictures had once hung, stared back at me from faded walls. Sister Paris’s Tropicanas drooped out of a mason jar on the floor. Then there were those great cracks, new cracks, which ran from floor to ceiling, formed when the Royal brothers had jacked up the house with their special machinery and lifted it whole onto a flatbed trailer. The Boliver Free Press and the Cedar County Republican had run pictures of our house on the front page with great big headlines:
WILDMAN HOMESTEAD SEEKS HIGHER GROUND
TWO-STORY FARMHOUSE CREEPS UP HIGHWAY 245
Mom had cut out the stories and pasted them into her scrapbook, alongside Nana’s obituary, which had appeared in both papers not two weeks earlier.
I wandered upstairs and stood looking out the window in Nana’s bedroom. Far away, I could almost make out the line of hills where the Sac River would soon be dammed, sending water out over thousands of acres. I thought of the abandoned farms, the hundreds of families who couldn’t afford to save their houses or didn’t have land nearby that could shelter them. I tried, tried, tried to feel lucky.
But I couldn’t.
I turned away-and that’s when I saw it. A cardboard box peeping out of Nana’s closet. I pulled the box out. It contained Nana’s gardening clothes-a pair of faded denim pants, two old denim shirts, canvas shoes without the shoestrings, her lopsided straw hat, and a pair of rhinestone earrings-and at the very bottom, her favorite pruning shears and a book-The Gardener’s Companion.
I clipped on the earrings, took the book downstairs, and sat crosslegged in front of Sister Paris’s Tropicanas. Sure enough, here were all the things Nana had always told me about roses:
- Plant them in direct sun, preferably in a south-facing bed.
- Water only in the morning on dry, sunny days.
- Fertilize rose beds with seasoned manure in the early spring.
- Pick off diseased leaves by hand and discard them away from your roses.
But there was more, a lot more-about planning out flowerbeds, choosing the right plants for a garden, and taking cuttings from hearty plants.
Did your folks save the lilacs?
Shadows began to creep across the living-room floor. Lenna and Laura’s voices called to me from the field just beyond the barbed wire fence. But I didn’t call back. I raced upstairs, squashed Nana’s hat on my head, grabbed up her pruning shears, then ran outside-through the Royals’ truck ruts, past the alfalfa field and across the highway. Sweat beaded up under my bangs, trickled down my chest, dampened the armholes under my blouse. Pickup trucks, sedans, and station wagons went roaring past. Finally, I reached the cutoff to our old road, where our house used to sit.
Just past the little dip in the road, I turned off and walked up our old driveway. A cool breeze rustled through the oaks and dogwoods, still there, spreading their leaves over the broken rubble of our old foundation. Deep ruts scarred the lawn. Dandelion puffs scattered in the wind. But there they were-Nana’s two white lilacs, robust and healthy, standing like guardians before what had once been the front porch.
I closed my eyes and remembered all that I’d known before-the house standing tall against the oaks and the dogwoods, its lace curtains fluttering in the breeze, Nana moving slow and sure among the lilacs, a basket of flowers on her arm. I ran my fingers over a branch of lilac and remembered their fragrance, the brilliance of their bright white against a cloudy day.
Then I reached for Nana’s pruning shears and took first one cutting and then another and another. If I tended them well, they just might take root in new soil, at a new home.
It was up to me.