by GILDA GRIFFITH BROWN
Everything had the gray, death-like look of mid-January: tree limbs bare and twisted, dreary sun-starved skies, and a lone sparrow huddled on a high wire. Like ragged orphans, the naked little houses with peeling paint lined the street, their sole redemption being the small warmth that each gave the other. The door of one opened, and two figures emerged. Holding hands, they crossed the pavement without even a glance around, except to check for traffic. Feeling a light squeeze on her hand, Meredith cocked her head and looked up at her mother. Ellen Clarkstonís dark hair framed an expression of calm, but had Meredith been older, she might have recognized the nervousness that lay just beyond the gentle surface.
Moments later, they climbed the wooden steps and knocked on the screen door frame. Not a full minute had passed before Vanella Armstead appeared in the inside doorway and pushed open the squeaky screen. She was small and dried up, reminding Ellen of pictures that she had seen of Dust Bowl refugees. As usual, she had neither a smile nor a frown to show anyone. Sadness may have been in her heart, but it wasnít there for the reading like it was for most folks.
Ellen was the first to speak. ďMerie and I wanted to tell you how sorry we are about what happened to Tim, Mrs. Armstead.Ē After an awkward hug between the two women, they turned inside, and Meredith followed.
The room was small and stark, even starker than the Clarkstonís small living room. The coffin, the first that Meredith had ever seen, was just inside the door against the north wall. Immediately, the two women turned and faced it while Meredith stood behind them staring at the back of her motherís familiar gold coat and straining to hear their grown-up whispers.
Without warning, the women moved and death filled Meridithís eyes. Her mind was flooded with the knowledge of it, and it wasnít like any that she had seen in the movies. Cold and gripping, it filled her with a great loneliness that she didnít understand. According to some, she was tall for six years old, but her eyes were only level with Tim Armsteadís folded hands. They were big, rawboned, freckled hands, so still and so very sad. She thought that she must have stared at them for hours, afraid to raise her eyes and see more.
A full five minutes passed before Meredith left Timís side and sat down on the small stool across the room. The sound of her motherís voice resonated softly as she stared down at the worn tracks of the linoleum rug and thought back briefly to the dayís beginning. It was a beginning that was wrapped in the cozy and safe cloak of routine.
Meredith scowled at her father before marching over to her chair with her bright red flannel gown sweeping the floor and her short curly brown hair bouncing about her head as each bare foot touched down on the worn wooden floor. ďIím not a granny, Papa!Ē
Unlike her parents and two older brothers, Meredith was a terrible grouch when she first awakened. It was a disposition that Jim Clarkston, a happy sad man, found endearing.
Still laughing, her father had set out to walk the short distance to the furniture factory where he kept the big machines operating. Before many minutes passed, he burst back through the door to give them the terrible and unexpected news: Tim Armstead, their neighborís fifteen-year-old son, had been involved in an accident. Tragically, while he and his cousin were riding double on a bike at dusk, a car struck them. They were both killed instantly!
Old Charlie Fogal from next door had been waiting at the curb to give Jim the report. With an expression that was mixed with sadness and anticipation, he had also passed the word that Timís body was to arrive at the Armstead home in a few hours.
Meredithís father, muttering that fifteen was too young to die, once more took his leave while her white-faced mother, wishing that it was already next week, announced that she and Meredith would pay their respects in the afternoon.
Thirty minutes later, after the shock had lessened some, and while her mother was clearing away the breakfast dishes, the postman delivered it! Meredith was expecting plain white cotton when she opened the brown wrapper, but instead her eyes beheld a beauty. Soft and silky to the touch, the white fabric was decorated with a small floral bouquet of pink and blue that was attached just above the top button hole.
Thankfully, her mother soon stood up and began her usual prolonged goodbye, giving Meredith the opportunity to take her own leave. She ran past her mother, Mrs. Armstead and Tim. She ran out the door, met Mr. Armstead coming in and ran past him! She even ran past Carline, Timís pretty girlfriend who was very much admired by Meredith and her friends. She ran until she closed the door to her own house, her own safe world, where death didnít live.
That night, she found a moment to slip into her parentís room and look at the blouse again. She held it up to her and then felt the smooth fabric caress her skin as she placed it against her cheek. Meredith was quite taken with things of beauty, so when the catalog company sent the wrong blouse, she thought that she might be allowed to keep it. Her mother, always practical, had explained that she would need the plain white cotton blouse to wear with the new gray jumper that she had sewn for her. The silky one, she said, was not suitable for everyday wear. Thinking how she would have preferred store bought clothes altogether, Meredith folded the blouse as well as a six year old could and eased it into its package. As she left the room, she vowed to herself that she would not give up hope. Her mother could always change her mind.
Jim Clarkston attended Timís funeral on Monday, a cold and sunny day. Withdrawn and quiet afterwards, his morose condition soon dissipated after a few trips out to his pick-up.
That night, Meredith looked into her parentís room to see if the brown wrapper was gone; it was.
Note to those readers too young to remember or unaware of the custom: Many times the deceased were brought back home for visitation by family and friends. I remember just such visitations here in the South as late as the 1960s.
Gilda Griffith Brown is a retired nurse living in Canton Mississippi. Besides writing for USADEEPSOUTH, Gilda has a story appearing in the September/October, 2005 issue of ďMuscadine Lines: A Southern Journal."
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