Meadow Flowers by Minni Herzing
Small clouds of insects darting in the sun, the sound of bees in the flowering trees, bees in the fragrant lavender that blooms all over town. The cool water of nearby creeks. Wonderful bird songs. Summer. A beautiful season. I am 81, and I’ve experienced many summers. Of course, this one could be the last. Or not.
I was lying on the loveseat looking out at the sky, and I was recalling three deaths that occurred during my childhood. Each of them resonated in me for years. Perhaps you had similar experiences when you were young. I wonder if you did.
My Uncle Steve was my godfather and I loved him more than any of my other relatives. But our time together was short; he died when I was 5 or 6. When my parents told me about his death, they seemed deeply uncomfortable, as if they were unsure of their footing. It felt as if we had suddenly become lost in the midst of a deep fog. What was wrong? Was it so bad or dangerous? Wasn’t he still nearby even if he was dead? I wanted to see my dear Uncle Steve again, to say goodbye. I begged my parents to take me to see him. They looked down, looked away, and told me no, that was not possible. I felt very alone. I don’t know what they felt. They believed that death was just too much for a child to view or navigate. Children had to be shielded from it. So, I endured my loss in a lonely way, feeling misunderstood and terribly deprived. Although I could not have articulated it then, it seemed wrong to keep me from saying goodbye, wrong to prevent me from expressing my grief near his body. Of course, I was not allowed to attend his funeral.
There was a tragedy in our neighborhood a few years later. Larry, a little boy who lived down the street, was hit by a car and died. I was playing in his backyard with several other children when it happened. Before being pushed away and ordered back to my house, I realized that my mother was the driver. Standing near her car, she sobbed hysterically. She was driving very slowly. Larry had run right out in front of the car. Of course, we were not allowed to see Larry. Later, I heard my parents talking. Larry’s parents were angry at my mother. Because of her, Larry was dead. They were acting as if she had done it purposely. I was stunned by Larry’s death. I had been playing with him moments before. But my mother’s torment is what I most remember.
Our house was closed in. The shades were pulled; the curtains shut. The priest visited every day. Crying continuously and praying her rosary, my mother stayed in bed in her dark room. The smell of the frankincense the priest offered filled the whole house. It was hard to bear my mother’s suffering. I wondered if light would ever enter our house again, if she would ever smile or laugh or if she would always have the stark, afflicted visage she showed us then. I was frightened. Eventually, the priest stopped visiting. My mother grimly, wearily rose up out of her bed. We raised the shades and opened the curtains. It slowly lightened. But it was grayish for a long time.
Then there was The Beauty Lady, who had a place of honor with the kids in our neighborhood. She was a petite woman who wore a jaunty hat, and carried her purse just so. She was not a classic beauty. The name we gave her was a tribute to her spirit. We loved greeting her as she walked down the street. She seemed genuinely interested in us children, smiling and paying attention to us in a way that few other adults did. It made us feel happy. The Beauty Lady had no children of her own. She lived with her husband in a little house at the end of the street.
One day, my friend Shirley gave me some awful news. She told me that The Beauty Lady was dead and that her body was lying in a coffin in her living room, awaiting burial. Of course, we quickly determined to go up to her house and say goodbye. We made our way up the woodsy driveway at the end of the block. Her husband, looking very sad indeed, opened the door and invited us in. Nobody else was there. There she was, The Beauty Lady, looking peaceful and still. Shirley and I cried as we sat by her body. Her husband sat quietly, tears streaming down his face. How meaningful and sacred that moment was to me. Having the opportunity to say goodbye to The Beauty Lady changed me. I had been invited in and given the time to be with her.
I never said anything about our visit to my parents. I had a different perspective than they did, it seemed.