Secondhand Memories

Her name was Dorothy, and she had two sisters, Louise and Wilma. I was born on her birthday, and she loved me without reservation. Her life was a tragic one, the stuff of Southern Noir. She married for love twice, and both husbands would die tragic, unexpected deaths, both of them would leave her with a young child she had to raise alone, and both of them left her scant few resources with which to do it.

My father was her youngest son, and she died when I was four, and I only have two memories of her. The house she lived in was my grandfather’s house – he had moved her into it when they were married, in search of second chances, both of them having lost spouses and raised children on their own.

The house was old and drafty. It had been moved from its original moorings at some point in its past, using donkeys and greased poles, and so the doors no longer shut properly, and the windows may or may not open, depending upon whim and humidity. It had propane space heaters for heat, and in this memory, it was very cold, and early in the morning.

I was up before my parents and was walking around in my pajamas, looking for a grownup. I found her, wearing her housecoat, squatting flat-footed in front of the space heater in the kitchen, smoking a cigarette.

It was the cigarettes that killed her, of course, but slowly. She smoked because it was the 70s and of course she did. We brought a hospital bed into her living room, in front of the window so she could see what was going on, and so she would know who was coming to the house. That was where she spent her last days – watching the driveway, looking for company.

In this memory, she and I are laying on that hospital bed in the living room, in front of the window, and she was reading a book to me. The blanket was an animal print – I remember the cheetah and the lion and the giraffe – and she would tell me stories about each of them in turn. The pillow we lay on had a corner that had unraveled, and bits of foam rubber were poking from it. I don’t remember the book, but I remember feeling loved, and I remember her laugh that would end up in racking coughs.

That is really all I remember about her on my own. I have lots of stories filed in my head about her, but they are second-hand stories – stories dad told me, or her sisters told me when I was older, or that mom has told me recently since Dad died. Like I know her favorite flower was the orange daylily, but that is only because every summer, Dad would tell me that when the orange ditchlilies would bloom.

And she loved the music of Roy Orbison – especially Pretty Woman. But again, I know this secondhand, from hearing that fact relayed to me my entire childhood whenever it would come on the radio.

I was born on her birthday as a gift to her. Because of my size (10 pounds, 11 ounces) and Mom being tiny, I had to be born by cesarean, and so Mom got to pick the date. They picked Dorothy’s birthday. I’m told she loved this and was elated. But that’s second-hand, too.

Since we moved back to Mississippi a few years ago, I have planted lots of flowers. Shasta Daisy, yarrow, Asiatic lily, columbine, flags, and roses. So many roses. And daylilies. Lots of daylilies.

Including orange ditchlilies at the end of my driveway.

In a few months, it will be my birthday again. I will turn 50 this year, and were she still with us, she would be 111. Renee asked what I wanted to do for my birthday, and I told her I don’t have much planned. I will sit in front of my living room window, and listen to Roy Orbison, and read a book that makes me feel loved, and every so often I will gaze out the window toward the end of the driveway, looking for company, but not without also seeing the ditchlillies that always bloom on our birthday.