My friend Dr. Teddy dropped by last night with the amazing news that her mother, who we thought would have been dead weeks ago, is not only still with us but serenely declared, in her new adult foster care home, "I'm happy." There is a message here -- about the depths of mercy and possibilities not just for a good death, but for a redemptive final chapter. We sat on the back porch sipping our frosty gin and tonics and puffing Sherman ovals (just two each -- we are very particular about our cigarettes, both in quantity and quality) and smiled at each other. It's enough to make us believe in religion.
And Teddy brought these roses, from her garden. They remind me, I told her, of Sunday nights back on Gibbs Avenue in Canton in the 50s, where after the evening service on a summer night like this, the whole small congregation would troop over to Flossie McLaughlin's tiny house on Sherlock Place to see her roses. They were much like these -- prolific and delicate and sweet smelling. These sit on my kitchen table, gently scenting the whole room with nostalgia.
There's one more thing about this photo. I put the roses in a vase given to me 40 years ago when we'd moved from Canton to Akron, a difficult parish my father served for just two bumpy years. As I noted in a blog post earlier this month, my maternal ancestors' homestead was there in Akron -- they had been a prominent family with a big house and a lot of land. We lived across the street from what had been my great-grandmother's house -- a place my mother had visited many times as a child. I went to a junior high school named for my great-great-grandfather, Samuel Thornton. My grandmother, Amy -- one of Sam Thornton's dozen of grandchildren, had married a man from Akron named Austin Vandersall. By the time we moved there, however, the Thornton house was long gone, replaced by a row of tawdry storefronts. The neighborhood was in deep decline and the reminders of my ancestors' prosperous days were fragmented and ambiguous. It particularly affected my mother to be there; I think the street was full of ghosts for her.
Anyway, back to the vase.
It was given to me by a woman named Sarah Russ, who at the time (1962) was nearly 100 but still sharp and engaged. I still have the note she included, rolled up in a drawer. It says, in a shaky script: "Long ago my sister Anna taught a class of little girls in our Sunday School. I think your grandma Amy Youtz, who later became Amy Vandersall, was a member of that class. My younger sister Nellie was about the same age but she was in another class. Here is a vase my older sister Anna gave to her at Christmas. It was just like the ones she gave to the girls in her class. We thought they were pretty. I would like to give this one to you. Rev. A. Vandersall was our minister when I was a little girl. He gave me the nickname of Sadie. I liked him and I liked the name, so I used it for many years. I seldom use it now. But, in memory of him and your grandma, and in memory of my sisters Nellie and Anna, I will sign this...Sadie Russ."
I've always appreciated this small act of kindness from an old woman to a young girl struggling with a depressed mother at a time we were haunted by history.