I remember one of those early days when I wore a red rose to church to celebrate Mother’s Day. I must have been around five.
My half-sister Billy (Wilma, but we called her Billy) took me to my mother’s flower garden, found a pretty red rose and pinned it on my starched, white shirt. She did the same for my younger brother, Charles, and for my older sister Sue. With the red rose on my shirt, I could bend my head a little and put my nose close to the sweet smell.
After Billy had found roses for the three of us, she walked about the garden until she found a bush of white roses. She cut one and pinned it on her Sunday dress. We wanted to know why her rose was different. Her mother was dead, she explained, and she wore the white rose in her honor, just as we wore the red rose in honor of our mother who was living. I froze in thoughts of life without my mother.
On the first Mother’s Day after my mother’s death, I stood in the graveyard across the street from my home before her grave, on which I had just placed a bouquet of white roses, and thought of that day in the flower garden long ago.
I also thought of all the things my mother meant to me, to my family, and to our community.
To the community, she was postmaster for 35 years. The first post office was at the back of the feed room of Jones and Sears hardware and grocery store. I remember walking between stacks of hog and chicken feed to see her and the sweet and dusty aroma coming from the 50-pound sacks.
She cared for Miss Betty, the widow across the street, until Miss Betty died. Mother paid the light bill until she discovered that Miss Betty was entitled to Social Security because of her work during World War II. She delivered the letter to Miss Betty one summer afternoon. The two sat on our front steps while Miss Betty’s trembling hands opened the envelope. Not only was she eligible for benefits, but she would receive several hundred dollars of back pay. “Lawd,” she declared, dancing around in the middle of the street on wobbly legs, “Lawd, Helen, now I can buy my burial.”
As a diligent representative of the federal government, she had the respect of most everyone because of her intellect. Many consulted her on business and personal matters. Some local citizens had never learned to read or write, so she would take time at the post office to read and explain business and personal letters they had received. And, if they asked her to do so, write responses.
Flowers in place before the tombstone, I walked across the street and sat, alone, in one of the rocking chairs that Mother and I used on Sundays. I had seen her overcome enormous obstacles, not the least of which was breast cancer at age 65. In her last days at Duke Hospital, I believed, not hoped, that she would recover.
She lived 88 years, and for nearly every Mother’s Day, I had worn a red rose.
This day, I sat and bent my head down to smell the sweet aroma of the white rose pinned to my shirt. I had cut that rose from a small bush in the side yard of our home, a remnant of one of Mother’s flower gardens.
Sidney T. Johnson lives in Cary.