Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal

Storyteller

Sally O'Quinn


The sun was just balancing on the horizon’s 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?

Mama always hurried by the children’s 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.

“That there’s Miss Adell Springer who used to teach me geography in fourth grade…” she’d 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 she’d start the time clock running.

“I had my first labor pain at 5:00 in the morning, but I didn’t tell your daddy because he was just leaving for work. I knew it was gonna be awhile and I didn’t 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 car’s 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 squirrel’s nest. It was in this direction that Liz steered the car, as more of Mama’s 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 Liz’s father got home from work.

“I was all set to tell him I was in labor, but darned if he didn’t 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 Mama’s face as she described her self-sacrificial torment. It was embarrassing and she wasn’t 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 weren’t breathing at first and they were giving me gas to knock me out, but I held my breath till I heard you cry."

Okay, okay, Liz would always think. Just get to the end of the story.

“By 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.”

And so it went every year on Liz’s 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 mother’s life. She was as proud of Liz’s 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 cloudy.

In 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 Liz’s choices.

“I stayed home with you when you were a baby,” she had scolded. “You need to quit workin’ so much and stay home with yours.”

But Liz lived in a different time, when the cost of living dictated that both parents work.

Mama just didn’t understand. Times change. Traditions change.

People change.

As she made her way to Mama’s 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…familiar?

The 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 didn’t have much time.

After 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.

“It’s my birthday, Mama, and I’m forty years old today.”

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 Mama’s story on her birthday, and the immediate sadness which followed that realization surprised her. Times change. Traditions change.

People change.

Across the fiery red western sky, a pair of sandhill cranes were heading for their evening roost, two younglings close behind, in formation.

Maybe the world needs storytellers, she thought. A link in the unbroken chain of humanity. A legacy old as hearth fires. A family gift.

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.

***

Sally 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.

© Sally O'Quinn

Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal ISSN 1554-8449, Copyright © 2004-2012