I walk by a photograph in our hallway and feel a warmth I have tried to describe for some time now; a picture of peace, and pain; of togetherness, and separation; of a bittersweet day so pungent to my memory that seeing it even brings back the fragrances of the day. I recall the pleasant aromas of good cooking, but I have no idea what we ate. I recall Mama’s Pleasures cologne that I associate with the sweater she was wearing on that particular day. I can see the small dishes of wild violets transplanted from the lawn of my mother’s cousin, to her welcoming tables, so sweetly set for our pleasure. So prominent in my mind are those violets that I can imagine I smell a faint earthy sweetness, like a fresh rain in summer. The photograph is of four cousins, each in her late 70’s or 80’s, sitting at one of those tables after a good lunch, posing to capture, and hold onto, what I knew would be their last time together. As close as their families were in their younger days, each had developed very different lives and two of them kept in touch with the others on, oh, I guess about yearly visits, and occasional phone calls. We, their children, knew our second cousins, or as some would say, first cousins-once removed, and that there were the third cousins, or second depending on how you called the first category, none of which matters at all. But it did matter that we did not grow up together and so we knew each others families primarily through the eyes of our mothers. I rather like the surprise of unique wonderful “kinfolk” found later in life; like discovering a hidden present years after it was supposed to have been placed under a Christmas tree.
The names of our four elderly cousins were typical southern double names. I love to remember how Mama said them and it was always with a great fondness that she did so. First, Hilda Mae, whose lovely home we visited that day was the daughter of my favorite great-aunt, Aunt Treva. Next, Fannie Sue, the only daughter of a great-uncle, (Uncle Dow who was about ten feet tall in my childhood memory) was the eldest of the cousins, and is still living and active today. Next, Johnny Bell, the Texas cousin, short and stout with a large personality so matter-of-fact, that it made me smile just to be around her as I never knew what she was going to say next. I grew to love her from Mama’s tales of Johnny Bell’s life story. And the youngest, at 77 years old that year, was Betty Lou, my Mama. As it happened, each of them had one daughter accompanying them on the day of the photograph. So, Barbara, Betty Ann, Paula and Patricia witnessed a sweet reunion, a house blend if you will, of four wild violets, nearing the end of long and strong lives.
Wild violets are one of the most fascinating pop-up plants of the Spring. They look so tender, almost fragile, but are so tough you can mow them, pull them, plant over them, or just enjoy them, and they survive and thrive! And summer weather doesn’t chase them away either! I thought how fitting that Hilda Mae used them to decorate on the day of her lunch. Typical of the way her generation used their resources, it was too early in the spring to have cultivated blooms to bring in, so she had dug up wild violets and planted in small dishes. She placed one on each card table, so thoughtfully set up in the ground level room as she knew Mama would not be able to climb the couple of steps into the kitchen. These women were not just any common variety, nor are the violets just any old garden weed. Beauty, stamina, endurance blended just right to give a lasting impression and enrich the lives they touched, might be said of the violets, but especially of each lady there that day. I felt more blessed to be in their presence that day than I can ever express. Knowing how hard parts of their lives had been, and seeing the way they each turned situations to bless others’ lives is so humbling.
I recall thinking how nice that the violets were purple, my mother’s favorite color to wear. At their ages, the cousins had seen better days as far as physical appearances go, and so they wore things they loved to look at; thus they wore the countenances of love, friendship, humility, and life accomplishments that gave them a glow unmatched by any Revlon or L’Oreal. Of course, just as wild violets can certainly be out shown by fabulous hydrangea, roses, and such, these women would be the first to admit they did not strive for worldly beauty, and the cares of life did take their toll. Bent shoulders, time lined faces, sun toughened skin, drawn eyes and mouths that smiled all the more sweetly, all told a story of hard work and pain. The shaking hands and weakened limbs seemed to clasp and hold onto each other with a constitution young muscles could never match. Still these marks of time were hardly noticed as the radiance of their joy at seeing and being with one another outshone it all.
These girls had all given birth, and given up family to death; collectively they’d taught school, worked in offices, harvested orchards, milked cows, raised crops and kids; they fed preachers and multitudes of family and friends with the best cooking I’ve ever tasted;they led 4-H, Girl Scouts, Sunday School classes; suffered heartbreaking divorce, and some widowed at much too young an age; they gardened to feed their families and for beauty of home and community; they mowed, weeded, wiped a billion tears and runny noses; spanked and scolded, sang to and soothed, prayed and praised, and met each new day with the resolution that was as Paul said “whatever state I am in, therewith to be content”. (Phil.4:11) They had grandparents in common, my maternal grandmother’s parents. I feel I can get a glimpse of what my great grandparents were like when I look into the basic structure of those Wild Violets. I see strong roots, long-suffering blooms, people who found joy in everyday life and counted their blessings, and who loved family in spite of differences and imperfections. I see tender hearts in tough working bodies, and persistent faith in the Creator.
I left Hilda Mae’s house that day with tears in my eyes for I knew Mama would never physically be with her beloved cousins again. About three months later as she lay in her last day on this earth, two of these sweet violets came to visit her in the hospital, and their names were the last names my mother ever spoke. As they walked into the room, she looked up, and with a sudden spurt of excitement she exclaimed, “Why! Fannie Sue and Hilda May!”. She smiled weakly, but with great satisfaction. Our cousins sat for a while and visited with me and we spoke fondly of our last visit early that Spring. At the ages of 89 and 87 those precious ladies were still out doing good for others, carrying out the work of their Father. How beautiful the feet of those who go! As grateful as I was then for their visit, that gratitude has grown even more over time, that God brought one of His sweetest bouquets in to Mama on her last day. And then Mama’s visit was over.
A short time before that day in the hospital, I wrote the following poem for those four cousins. After finally recovering the poem on an older flash drive, I am surprised how similar it is to this new post I was inspired to write five years later. My inspiration was from this spring’s plentiful wild violets.
A LITTLE GET-TOGETHER
Hilda Mae, Fannie Sue, Johnnie Bell and Betty Lou, All came together as kinfolk often do.
The privilege of presence is mine this day, As I am driving Betty Lou their way.
Cousins in the winter season of life, The same grandparents taught values through time,
Here on a gray mid-April day, With sunny hearts in the home of Hilda Mae.
Being forgetful, with no camera in hand, I’m taking snapshots with words where I stand.
The first picture I see at the door eagerly waiting, Are smiles and waves, our arrival anticipating.
Next I see deep purple of wild violet blooms, Taken in from her lawn, to cheer the room.
These remind me of Fannie Sue’s wide tender smile, Cheering and warming us all the while.
Here’s a picture of pure Southern hospitality: Hilda’s warm chicken casserole and cold iced tea.
Green beans, lima beans, potatoes and a roll, A dreamy fruit salad made with good old Jello.
Food for the body and food for the soul, With pictures, laughter, and memories of long ago.
We girls are here as the daughters, in part; But also as cousins and love in our hearts,
Due to the images and stories in mind, That our mothers have lovingly passed down over time.
We, dining in the kitchen and our moms in the sunroom, Serves to remind that one generation becomes another quite soon.
I want so much to hold onto this time, To seal these images secure in my mind.
I see ladies whose lives to love and work yield, In school rooms, offices, homes and fields.
Their work worn hands, now soft to touch, Have cuddled and spanked, taken in and given much!
The lines in their faces are beautiful strokes, Placed by the artist who best knows these folks.
Every line a story in their volumes of life, Tales of their roles as mothers, daughters, and wives.
I see a likeness of my Grandma – just a trace- In the round blue eyes of Johnnie Bell’s face.
Hilda shares pictures of trees that were torn, Damage left by a recent ice storm. And I can’t help thinking of these oak-strong women now looking too, a bit battle worn.
My own mother’s trembling hands and failing voice, Tell me the time is nearing – and we have no choice –
When the gathering of these people on a day like this one, In person will likely not again be done.
But the spirits of these ladies will live on forever, and for us today will be forgotten never.
I know the Master has a get-together planned, Where these good women and their mothers join hands; they’ll feast on love, will know as they are known, And rejoice in their journey that takes them home.