Covington, Georgia

January 1977

I’ve heard it told a person knows when it’s their time to die. I accept this, although I’m not sure why. It seems futile to fight this inner knowing. Perhaps when I pass, I will better understand things that haunt me. Troubling questions answered. Losses made whole. Mysteries opened like an autumn leaf too withered to remain attached to the only branch it’s ever known.

If anyone had revealed how my life would unravel, I’d have laughed in their face. Yet, at this juncture, I’d owe them a sincere apology.

If offered one granted wish, it would be clarity. Perhaps my situation could have been avoided. Instead of carrying grudges, anger and jealousy, those hurts could’ve been set aside like bygone relics. Instead, I caused decades of heartaches. I only blame myself.

Given a second chance, I’d worry less and grow more flower gardens. My mother gave me a lifelong passion for nature. When I turned six in 1904, she taught me how to crochet. Cotton thread wove between my nimble fingers – one loop . . . two . . . three. I miss the rhythm of the hook as dainty shapes formed. With practice, I learned how to create lilies, roses and chrysanthemums by studying blooms in my parents’ Roswell garden. Thirty years later, I passed my love for crochet on to my son, Mack. We spent hours creating doilies and such to decorate our home in Norcross.

I long to make paper roses again. I pinched and curled crepe streamers into delicate blossoms, making the Great Depression a little more tolerable. This desire makes me miss my husband, Jim. Oh, how he loved red roses. My hands fidgeted with a boutonniere I made and pinned to his lapel, fussing until his casket was closed. Despite my best efforts, it remained a little crooked. Although I’ve laid many bouquets on his grave, it’s taken a lifetime to realize I was just trying to fix losing him.

The man I remember was kind and compassionate. He never spoke ill of anyone. He had a taste for moonshine and that was the root of many arguments. But he had a charm that kept me from being angry too long. When me and Mack fell sick with chicken pox, Jim draped quilts over the windows so a darkened room could help us heal quicker. Without hesitation, he became the cook, house-cleaner and wash maid. He fretted over us day and night until we both mended.

A few months later in June 1929, his tractor backfired, and the crank swung around in a split second and struck his chest. He was bleeding heavily but, being stubborn, insisted he was fine. I pleaded with him to go to Emory until reaching my wit’s end.

He finally said, “You call an ambulance, I promise I’ll die on the way there just to prove I ain’t going.” And, like a fool, I didn’t go against him. I wasn’t raised that way. I’ll always regret not rushing him to the hospital. Even so, some things just can’t be undone.

My world fell apart. My son and I lived with my mother as I struggled to piece my life together. Four months later, the Stock Market crashed. Then the rest of the world fell apart, too.

I view my world through a narrow bedside window as my place in this nursing home draws near a close. Oh, I ain’t knocking on the pearly gates just yet. But I feel my day on the calendar approaching, settling into my tired bones. Still, I have time to consider the life I was granted while observing folks busying themselves on the sidewalks. No obligations keep me alive though I feel a bittersweet tug when I realize my stay may be overextended. Moving on is the hardest part of living. Dying doesn’t make it any easier. Could this be my heart’s way of not letting go of all I’ve loved?

A soft tap on my door startles me. My son peers inside my room and smiles. “Hello, Mama.” His three-piece suit makes him look handsome. The familiar aroma of Old Spice wafts through my stale room. He favors his daddy – tall and lean, southern charm, pressed suit and tie. Jim wore fine suits and a wide-brimmed hat.

He walks closer and stands beside my bed. He hands me a bouquet of red roses in a blue Mason jar. The brilliant glass reminds me of skies just beyond sunset when stars begin to shimmer. A white lace ribbon is tied in a draping bow beneath the rim. Mesmerized by their beauty, I grasp it and press my face against the petals. I inhale. Their sweet perfume sweeps me to a kinder place and time. Days of sunshine and promises when Jim still slipped his strong arms around me and stole kisses under shady pines. My mind will be forever steeped in a lost world.

“I just came by to see you for a minute.” Rather than acknowledge my boy-turned-man, I admire the fragrant blossoms. I can’t bring myself to speak or glance his way.

Every time Mack visits, I can’t help remembering that horrible day in November 1937. My boy was only 10. Gwinnett County Social Services showed up with the police and an officer tried to pull him from my arms. Mack’s fists gripped my flour sack dress. My fingers bore so deep into his thin arms, I felt sure I’d leave bruises. But like everything else in my life, he was taken. I slipped into a dark dwelling place I couldn’t escape. Hard depression years had worn me frazzled. I prayed for death. Hours earlier, I begged my sister-in-law, Feelie, to let us live with her. She had plenty of room – a two-story house on a 100-acre farm just down the road. But she’d always hated me. She told me I wasn’t good enough to be part of her family.

She slammed the door in my face. That’s when I realized all hope was lost. As if in a trance, I tramped through the muddy plowed earth until I reached the tater hill. I grabbed two for our last supper. I cradled them close to my chest as I made my way home. Mack watched as I lit the wood stove and placed them in the oven. With nothing left to lose – no more food and rent past due – I decided to lay down and die with my son. After eight hard years of living hand to mouth and picking cotton fields to survive, death was all I had left to give. Both potatoes continued baking as the police drove us to Lawrenceville to sort everything out.

Ironically, a court order made Feelie our legal guardian. So, Mack went to Feelie’s farm and I was sent to Milledgeville State Hospital. I could only hope he’d be treated alright being her nephew. Six weeks later, my doctor mailed Feelie a letter stating I could be released but would need to be watched. Being my legal guardian, she had no choice but to see after me. Either way, I was excited to finally live with my son again.

A week before Christmas, I was in the day room relaxing with other patients. A fir tree towered in the corner with red, green, and gold ornaments. A festive mood seemed to lift everyone’s spirits. Even the orderlies acted more jovial. Their usual stone-cold faces were replaced with smiles and easy laughter.

Then Feelie showed up. She pranced through the entrance with her head held high like she owned the place, dressed in her Sunday finest. Her store-bought navy outfit made my gray house dress pale even more in comparison. Despite our differences, I was impressed she’d traveled halfway across Georgia and got all gussied-up for the occasion. My mind spun like a whirligig in a hard breeze. The patients’ murmurings faded into the background until I felt my heartbeat pounding in my head as I drew closer to freedom.

“Feelie! You came to take me home!”  My high-pitched voice caused several folks to stare.

She smiled wide and stretched out her arms. “Ella! It’s so good to see you.”

But I stopped short, remembering she had never spoken a kind word to me. I couldn’t bring myself to hug her. I felt something heavy pressing the space between us. She squeezed my forearms and drew herself nearer as if to confide a delicious secret. Our faces were mere inches apart and her voice low enough to be a cricket in thick summer grass.

Feeling the weight of my world spinning, I couldn’t pull away. Her spell made me as docile as a scolded child, too scared to dare speak. Her steel-gray eyes squinted but refused to blink. Her narrow lips pinched tight before parting just enough to spill hate.

“You’re never getting out of this place. And you’ll never see your son alive again.”

Her lacy-gloved grip unclenched me. My knees buckled, and I crumpled to the white linoleum floor like a rag doll. My chest was tight like the air had been sucked out of the room. As much as I hated to admit it, that vile woman was all that had held me upright.

Finally, I heaved a deep gasp and screamed, “Stop her!  She’s going to kill my son!” I pointed at her so someone could catch her. Feelie’s shoes clicked the shiny floor as she walked away. Patients continued their conversations. Only the orderlies noticed me. They dragged me down the hall and sedated me.

After Feelie’s visit, I played jacks and hide-and-seek with my fair-haired boy in daydreams then stole him away to safety from night terrors. One morning, I woke with peace I hadn’t felt in several months. My mind felt at rest without a care in the world. Try as I might, I couldn’t find Mack in my thoughts anywhere. It’s as if he’d left to play with someone else. That’s when I faced my deepest fear – my son must be dead.

I carried his loss inside me like a heavy stone. As time wore on, shock treatments and insulin shots took their toll. I had no choice but to let him go. One night I dreamt of red crepe roses. It seemed as if someone else’s hands created each delicate blossom. I watched until there were too many flowers to count. Next thing I knew, I floated across a vast rolling field of soft emerald-hued grass. I stopped at a small tombstone and read his name – Mack Rodgers. I let the paper roses rest against the granite in the cool of the evening. I buried him in my mind to make peace within myself. Years bled together as I feared losing my mind like other lost souls who roamed the long hallways repeating questions: Where are my babies? Have you seen my shoes?

Then, one day, there he was.

I’ll never forget the excited look on his bright, young face. He had transformed into a gentleman with a sweet demeanor and dreams in his future. I swear his wide grin could have lit an entire room. “Hello, Mama. I’ve come to take you home.”

I was stunned speechless. All I could think was: Home? I am home. This place with white sheets. Barred windows. Orderlies shuttling patients to treatments no one dares mention. This is not the home I wanted. It’s the home I deserve.

I studied his soft blue eyes. With all the tenderness I could muster, I said, “You’re a fine-looking young man, but you’re not my son. My son is much younger and he’s dead.” His tears tore my heart into pieces. I was tempted to say more but what else could I add? Forgive me? How’s life been since we parted ways? What are you doing with yourself these days? Those are such mundane things to ask after a world has fallen apart. So, I walked away. I fought my demons until darkness engulfed me. I was too weak to resist. I’d hurt him plenty in his short life and living with him again would make me a burden.

He visited me over the next 30 years at Milledgeville State Hospital, then here in Covington. Each time he made small talk, telling me about his job, wife and six children. With every visit, I reminded myself how fine he’s managed without me. I didn’t expect him to forgive me. It’s best that I continue not acknowledging him. But I’ll never know if I made the right decision. How can he love me when I thought it best for us to lay down and die?  Social Services saved his life – not me.

Here he stands – a man in his fifties who never gave up on me. He fumbles in his coat pocket, removing a folded white handkerchief. He dabs a few tears. My eyes are drawn to an embroidered lavender rose sewn at the cloth’s pressed corner. He seems like a stranger to me. I can’t cry yet but feel sorrow like a thousand hands pressing upon my spirit. So, I remain still, like something fallen, forever broken – a hollow limb resting beside a mighty oak.

Silence deafens me deeper into my mental room. I no longer know how to cast a gentle smile or utter a polite greeting. Those simple things died inside me decades ago when no one seemed to care.

I want to rise from this bed and hug his neck. I want to hold him and not let go. I want to say I’m sorry for telling him he wasn’t my son. Yet, I don’t know how to apologize for the pain I’ve caused. It’s hard to believe it’s been 40 years since I’ve called my son by name. Why did I not tell him sooner? My mind races to find words to mend the silent years between us.

Before I can speak, he leans forward and kisses my cheek. “I love you, Mama.”

His words feel like a soothing balm upon my heart. Tears spill down my cheeks. I look at my son. My words escape before I can stop them. “I love you, too, Mack.”

I hide behind the roses again. How can I be so foolish? I let him go for his own good. I’m certain he has had a better life without me. I have nothing to give him. The last thing I want is to hurt him again. He’s been a loyal son but deserves a better mother.

He sobs into his handkerchief. Just stare at the pretty roses. Don’t cry. Don’t look him in the eyes again. Then he wipes his face, clenching the damp cloth, yet manages to smile again.

“Mama, I ain’t ever told anyone this. I ran away from Feelie’s farm to visit you that first time in Milledgeville. She never let me say your name. She wouldn’t even let me bring your things inside her house. So, one day, I dug through Daddy’s steamer chest out in the barn and found a picture of you. It was the one Daddy took of you sitting in the backyard after church. I kept it tucked under my mattress and looked at it every night before turning down the oil lamp.

“One day after doing the wash, she set the iron pot aside and piled everything we had left on the fire – your quilts, Daddy’s suits, your Bible. I dropped the mule reins and raced towards the house. I reached into the flames trying to grab anything I could. But it was no use. I just cried and watched everything go up in smoke. Feelie just stood back and grinned. That one picture was all I had left to remember you, so I took good care of it.

“She treated me like a farmhand but still wanted me to call her Mama. When I refused, she whipped me. After a few whippings, I still refused. So, she just gave up on that. I’m your boy and I ain’t ever gonna stop loving you.” He tucks the handkerchief back in his pocket and with a cracking voice, “I’ll come back in a couple of weeks and see you again. Alright?”

I can’t let myself break down. I’m sorry, Mack. I’m so sorry. Please don’t go. I stare at the roses as he walks away. I exhale deep, savoring the remnants of Old Spice. That’s when a knowing deep inside me whispers – hug him next time. Yes, I will.

One week later, I wake at sunrise to watch snow flurries twirl in the January air. Snowfall is a surprising treat and I wish to be eight again so I can twirl and catch flakes on my tongue. As I admire white clumps collecting in the holly bush outside my window, my chest tightens. Sharp pain shoots down my arm. Before I can yell for help, my body goes limp and I feel my burdens lift away. In an instant, there’s no more pain. I feel forgiven. Lighter than air. After a lifetime of heartaches, I realize death comes from a strange country. Its dialect barely recognized; its boundaries feared to be crossed. Yet, I am not afraid.

I want to hug Mack, but I hope he’ll understand. Leaving him behind is harder than having lived my life. I will miss our visits and his easy smile.

My room encloses me. I see a tall, handsome man standing in my doorway. He’s wearing the charcoal gray coat I gave him for our first anniversary. A silver pocket watch dangles from a black vest. He removes his wide-brimmed hat and combs his fingers through wavy auburn hair. His charming grin makes my heart leap with joy.

Oh, Jim, how I’ve missed you. Take me home.

Jalane Rolader writes poetry, creative non-fiction and short stories. She is a Georgia native who juggles work as an admin alongside writing, being a wife and mother, and an otherwise busy life. She has placed multiple times in The Atlanta Writers Club contests including The Rick Bragg Award for Nonfiction in 2020 as well as The Salvation Army’s national writing contest in 2010. Jalane is studying the art of writing with author Ann Hite, and is currently working on a novel about her grandmother’s life as a Great Depression widow who spent three decades in Milledgeville State Hospital.
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