Southern Journal: The Roses of Fairhope

On her last trip, she came for the Gulf but fell in love with a garden.
Rick Bragg

I made the trip with three old women, in a good time for roses. We had threatened to do it for years. We would pack a car with cold chicken and flip-flops and drive south like we used to, till the Alabama foothills faded into souvenir shops, shrimp shacks, and that first ragged palm. They had taken me there, when men still whistled at them and WALLACE stickers papered the bumpers of cars. How could I not take them now?

But we never got out of the driveway, somehow. My Aunt Edna's heart was failing, Aunt Juanita had to care for my homebound uncle, and my mother, Margaret, did not leave home unless blown from it by tornadoes or TNT. So I was stunned, two years ago, when my 72-year-old mother told me to come get them. I found the three oldest sisters in the yard, suitcases in their hands. Aunt Jo, the youngest sister, stayed home to watch the livestock.

Edna barbecued 250 some-odd chicken thighs and made 2 gallons of potato salad, for the two-day trip. They packed pork and beans, raw onions, cornbread, a jar of iced tea, a hard-frozen Clorox jug of water, and not one cell phone.

As we drove they talked of childhood, dirt roads where the dark closed in like a lid on a box, and a daddy who chased the bad things away the second he walked in. By the time we hit Montgomery, they had ridden a horse named Bob, poked a dead chicken named Mrs. Rearden, and fished beside a little man named Jessie Clines. They were remembering their mama, and a groundhog who lived under the floorboards, as we drove across Mobile Bay.

I wanted them to see the sunset from the Fairhope pier, and as we rolled down the bluff, I heard them go quiet. But the sunset was just a light to see by. It was the roses. They were blooming in a circle the size of a baseball infield, more than 2,000 of them, with names like Derby horses or unrealized dreams--Mr. Lincoln, Strike It Rich, Touch of Class, Crimson Glory, Lasting Love. My mother, who never even liked roses much, said, "Oh, Lord." Juanita, tough and tiny, made of whalebone and hell, looked about to cry.

Their big sister stepped form the car as if in a trance. I had not known how sick Edna was. Her steps were unsure, halting, as she moved into the garden. The sisters moved close, in case she fell.

Aunt Edna had sewed soldiers' clothes at the Army base, raised five girls, buried a husband, worked a red-clay garden, pieced a thousand quilts, loved on great-grandchildren, and caught more crappie than any man I have ever known. I believed she was eternal, like the red-clay bank where she built her solid, redbrick house.

"So purty," she said, again and again. She lingered in the rose garden a long time, till the sun vanished over the western shore. She saw the Fairhope roses six times on this trip. The last time, because she was tired, we sat in the car.

A year later, I spoke at her funeral. I surprised myself, blubbered like an old fool. For the first time in a long time it mattered what came out of my head, but the words crashed together inside my skull and I lost the fine things I wanted to say, and stood stupidly in front of people who loved her.

Her daughters just hugged me, one by one, and thanked me for the roses.