sun was just balancing on the horizons edge as Liz turned
her car into the iron gates of the cemetery, and its long, slanting
rays caused the granite headstones to sparkle as she passed. Spanish
moss swayed in the oak trees as a late April breeze brought the
scent of orange blossoms from a nearby grove.
Liz had always enjoyed this place, even as a knobby-kneed girl
walking hand in hand with her mother. They would always start
at the family plot on the east side of the cemetery, placing flowers
on each grave and cleaning away sand from the etched names in
the flat polished headstones. Then the two of them would wander
up and down the roads of clay and gravel which divided up the
place like a city map. Mama would point out various spots of interest,
like the oldest part of the cemetery, where the names on the moss
covered markers were all but wiped clean by time.
Try to find the oldest one, she would challenge, and
Liz would search carefully until she discovered the earliest date
of birth and death. Looking at those faint numbers and letters
seemed like looking at history, at time itself. She would imagine
what the place had looked like then, when the oaks were saplings
and there were no rows of ranch style houses across the street.
What had the mourners felt and how did they grieve in their long
skirts and frock coats?
always hurried by the childrens graves, dropping her head
and muttering Bless their little hearts. But Liz was
fascinated by the tiny crosses, angels, and lambs carved from
marble and the toys and trinkets left behind by the bereaved parents.
They had been little boys and girls her age and they were never
going to get any older. The magnitude of that had registered heavily
with Liz, despite her tender years.
Sometimes Mama would see a name that sparked her to tell a story.
theres Miss Adell Springer who used to teach me geography
in fourth grade
shed begin and Liz would settle
in to hear her relive those days in vivid detail. Mama had a keen
memory, kept sharp by the telling and retelling of stories.
One of her favorites was the long and dramatic saga of her pregnancy
and delivery, which Liz had the opportunity to hear every year
on her birthday.
I spent the last few weeks in bed, packed in ice bags to
keep me from having a miscarriage, was the usual opening,
followed by a watering of the eyes. I wanted to have a healthy
baby so bad. Then shed start the time clock running.
had my first labor pain at 5:00 in the morning, but I didnt
tell your daddy because he was just leaving for work. I knew it
was gonna be awhile and I didnt want him to worry. He was
on the route with the gas company then.
Liz was roused from her memories by a fat grey squirrel darting
across the cars path. The clay and gravel had been replaced
by asphalt more than twenty years ago and the cemetery had expanded
westward. The newer sections were sparsely landscaped and the
trees not yet big enough for a squirrels nest. It was in
this direction that Liz steered the car, as more of Mamas
story came to mind.
By 9:00 I had gone down to the garden to crop some collard
greens, and while I was down there I had my second labor pain.
The story meandered on through the events of the morning and afternoon
and reached a high point when she got to the part where Lizs
father got home from work.
was all set to tell him I was in labor, but darned if he didnt
come home with a bushel of fresh oysters and started shucking
them. I hated to stop him, cause he loved his oysters so
much, but by the time he finished I was hopping on one foot and
then the other.
As exciting as this saga was, by the time Liz reached her teen
years she had tired of hearing it. She began to hate the watering
eyes and the martyred look on Mamas face as she described
her self-sacrificial torment. It was embarrassing and she wasnt
sure just how to respond. Was she supposed to thank Mama for suffering
so to bring her into the world?
Doctor Myers said he was as proud as me when you finally
got here. You werent breathing at first and they were giving
me gas to knock me out, but I held my breath till I heard you
Okay, okay, Liz would always think. Just get to the end of the
the time you got here it was 2:30 in the morning and I had been
in labor for almost twenty-four hours. But it was all worth it
because I had me a baby girl.
so it went every year on Lizs birthday, through her teens
and twenties and thirties. The story had been repeated so many
times Liz could recite it in her sleep. But Mama never tired of
telling it, and eventually Liz came to understand that this was
the accomplishment of her mothers life. She was as proud
of Lizs birth as a baseball player making the winning run
in the World Series, or a CEO delegating a major business merger.
Mama had led a simple life.
Liz stopped the car in front of a pale marble headstone with praying
hands engraved below the name. She waved to the caretaker, who
was just putting away his lawnmower. The sweet fragrance of fresh
cut grass was everywhere, and it reminded her of summers from
the past, when she splashed in her wading pool while Mama and
Daddy barbecued pork ribs on the grill.
It had been summertime when Mama found out about the cancer, but
by then Liz had teenagers of her own. She had driven her mother
to the hospital and visited her every day, sitting quietly while
the nurses went in and out of the room. Mama was addled,
as she put it, from all the medication, and her memory became
less than two months Mama was gone and Liz felt a guilty sense
of relief when the funeral was over and life resumed a type of
normalcy again. She had her own family and her own way of life
now and Mama had always been critical of Lizs choices.
stayed home with you when you were a baby, she had scolded.
You need to quit workin so much and stay home with
But Liz lived in a different time, when the cost of living dictated
that both parents work.
Mama just didnt understand. Times change. Traditions change.
As she made her way to Mamas grave, Liz pulled a new bouquet
of silk flowers from her shopping bag. They looked so much more
lifelike than the plastic ones she and Mama used to buy. The delicate
tiger lilies and chrysanthemums bobbed in the breeze, so much
like the real thing a butterfly sailed close, its antennae wiggling,
and then fluttered away. Liz carefully swept away sand from the
base of the headstone and straightened the porcelain angel which
she had left on her last visit. Its sightless eyes were cast downward
and the anguished look on its face seemed
sun had begun to slide below the edge of the distant horizon and
Liz watched the caretaker lock up his shed and make his way to
a nearby pickup truck. The cemetery was only open during daylight
hours, so she didnt have much time.
giving the flowers one final adjustment, she stood and surveyed
the area. There was a new pile of dirt just a few feet away, carefully
packed with a shovel and smoothed nearly flat. No marker yet.
Hey, Mama, Liz said quietly. I see you have
a new neighbor.
She took a deep breath and continued.
Its my birthday, Mama, and Im forty years old
The breeze died suddenly and there was complete silence, as though
the world around her was waiting. And listening.
For the first time in her life Liz would not hear Mamas
story on her birthday, and the immediate sadness which followed
that realization surprised her. Times change. Traditions change.
Across the fiery red western sky, a pair of sandhill cranes were
heading for their evening roost, two younglings close behind,
Maybe the world needs storytellers, she thought. A link in the
unbroken chain of humanity. A legacy old as hearth fires. A family
Liz cleared her throat and her eyes watered as she began.
You spent the last few weeks packed in ice bags to keep
from having a miscarriage, because you wanted a baby so bad.
A whippoorwill called in the distance, its notes clear and strong.
You had your first labor pain at 5:00 in the morning.
The ancient cloak on her shoulders was not visible to the caretaker
as he passed, but he waved in her direction.
O'Quinn is a native Floridian whose family has lived in Central
Florida since the 1880's, so she has a particular fondness for
works that capture the language and background of the state and
its people. (Lois Lenski's "Strawberry Girl" was a childhood
favorite.) She returns to writing after a twenty year absence,
during which time she raised a daughter and several dogs. A lifelong
fan of Southern writers, Sally lives with her husband, Kelly,
in Haines City, Florida.