A Flower For Bettie
I took a deep breath before I got out of the car. Fighting the urge to cry, I climbed the few steps to the flower shop with a resolve I had not felt in a long time.
Good thing I brought Pat with me. With her waiting in the car, I would make my choice sooner. I was only going to buy one flower, not a bouquet. Inside the shop, I found another reason my choice should be quicker: there were few choices of single flowers.
I stood back, eyeing my three choices. Roses were not appropriate for the mother of my lover. Orchids were not right, either. Too exotic a choice. Both were more than I wanted to pay.
Carnations were a disappointing third choice. A common one -- what did I expect? For $1.50, the flowers looked fresh and were the right price. My starvation budget did not allow for generosity. The quality of the flowers was good. What I did not like was the choice of colors. With Valentine's Day 14 days away, the florist was well stocked on everything red and white.
"I guess it's carnations," I decided. That part was not a hard decision.
I loved carnations. They were one of my top three favorite flowers. Not fond of white as a color for flowers, I looked around to see if they had purple or blue-tinged white carnations. At my wedding, blue and white was our color scheme. Blue-tinged carnations were in the bouquets, including the one I carried. Red was a good flower color, but with Valentine's Day so close, I did not want a red flower for Bettie.
"Damn those holidays -- everything is red or white -- and overstocked on the red!"
Even a red-tinged white flower would have been better. The idea of "red is for lovers" made me self-conscious about buying a red flower for a woman I hardly knew. I began to convince myself white was the best choice.
"White is the symbol of purity. That is appropriate for Allen's mother. He always told me stories about what a wonderful, pure-hearted human being she was."
"No, I don't like white. Look around." I countermanded myself, playing devil's advocate and taking both sides against myself.
"What for? You do not want to give her blue-tinged flowers like you had at your wedding."
After all, it was not her son I had married; blue-tinged flowers would not feel right to leave by Bettie's grave.
I looked one more time for dyed carnations before I reached for a white one. I might have missed a bucket of blue, red, or even purple-tinged white carnations, I told myself. Pat must be getting restless, I thought while my eyes roved. It was taking me too long to decide on my choice of color.
When I was satisfied that white or red carnations were my only choices, I informed myself: white. White for the purity of Bettie's soul.
"Thank Gawd!" My inner voice mimicked Allen's mocking expression. I opened the glass door to pick a white carnation.
"No! Pick red."
I heard it as if someone spoke aloud to me. It was not the sound of my inner voice, either. It sounded like someone behind me answered my internal verbal volley -- but who could have heard my thoughts? I turned to look around the florist shop and the receiving foyer beyond the partition. There were three people in the area, none of them near me. Certainly, no one was behind me.
Dumbly, I stood staring at the white and red carnations. I wondered how long I was keeping Pat waiting in the car with my indecision.
"Don't want red. Red is the color of love. Valentine's Day stuff. I do not love Bettie. My choice is white. White, for a pure soul."
"Yes, red IS the color of love. The reason you are here. If symbols are to pick your color, choose the symbols of love. You can't go wrong when you pick the symbols of love."
I had to think about that one for a minute. Lately, I had not been as wise in my perceptions as what I just heard in my mind. Must be the guardian of the florist's shop, I mused.
White was not my favorite color, anyway. In my youth, red was my favorite color. So a red carnation it is, I told myself. I slid back the glass door to the refrigerated display case and picked a young flower with the most tightly woven petals. It would last the longest, I hoped.
Store help was not immediately visible. The customer service in the foyer told me where to find someone, in the back store offices. Finally, my red carnation was picked, paid for, and placed inside paper. Back at the car, Pat told me I had been gone about 20 or 30 minutes. It felt like I had visited someone instead of going to buy a flower.
It was time to find Bettie. The guard at the gate gave me directions and a small map, but it did not make any sense to me. Confused, I wondered how to find the number 873.
First, I drove too far. I had to turn around and come back. Then I could not find the different sections and drove in a circle. I decided to pick a landmark, the statue near the entrance, and park my car. I would search on foot starting at the statue, looking for the numbers.
Grass hid the numbers from me. I sent Pat off in the opposite direction to look for the address 873, with Bettie's name and dates in case she saw those first. When I looked up from my own search, I saw Pat walking up and down the rows, slowly reading for Bettie's name.
It was getting late. I wanted time to sit down and visit, but if I found her too late, they might kick us out at closing time. It was already around 3 p.m. when we got there. I was angry with myself for taking so long to pick one stupid flower, and not even an expensive one. Tears grew hot beneath my eyelashes and burst through against my will. I had been crying too much, lately. I was what I call terminally depressed for several months after moving from Allen's home. I had enough of crying. Thought I had no more tears to shed. And here I was crying again, looking for the grave of my boyfriend's mother. What better place to cry? Ironically, I told myself, this is the one time that you are crying in the appropriate place!
Round and round in circles I went, tears blurring what I tried to read. Seeing the same names over and over again gave me a feeling of familiarity, as if I had gone to visit these people.
Here it was, again. The family with the Latin name and the three wilted bouquets. Almost identical, the white faded to the same off-white shade. The three bouquets nodded at me in the breeze. This was the third time I had passed by them. As I looked at them, I had the instinct to continue straight, slowly. I felt I was near Bettie. Perhaps it was just the shadow of the tree.
"Go straight ahead, in the same row. About three feet past the tree. You'll see."
That voice again. I shook my head to clear it. Helter-skelter mentality, Allen calls it. I already went that far, I told myself, so I resisted the impulse to go straight three feet. I turned around in a circle and faced the opposite way.
"Ok. Calm down!" I commanded myself. "Now, think. How would Allen find it?"
I instinctively looked at the tree. It was not talking. I felt like making an ever-widening circle around the tree. As if that would make it talk! I looked around for landmarks, although I would not recognize any, since I had never been there before. Perhaps I looked to give Allen proof that I really went as I said I did, by describing the place.
The statue of a mother and young child was the center for my search circle. Beyond the statue, there was a small mound with a tree. I instinctively felt that was not the right direction to search. The tree near me was set off from the statue by a grassy area. I would look between the statue and the tree, I decided.
I continued to look around, as if the trees and the grass could tell me where to look. Most trees on the property lined the encircling walls. Water spigots with a "reclaimed water -- do not drink" tag around them were painted yellow. The road continued straight where I first got lost. To the far left was the chapel. The main road veered in a circle around a center section in front of the mausoleum. To the right was a small, private garden, enclosed with a low brick wall and heavy brushes. Directly in front of us, the mausoleum's colorful mosaic face shined brightly in the sun. Angel images glistened through my tears. I forgot where I was, for a moment.
I shook myself so I would not cry. Pat was still methodically walking up and down, looking down at the names. She had not found Bettie, either, but was getting closer to my area.
Ok, I thought. Allen would find Bettie using the numbers. If Allen did not have a landmark, he would use the marker numbers. Of course, someone had explained those numbers to him beforehand.
I fell down to my knees, determined to solve the numbers riddle. There were other numbers, not only the plot number, and they were part of the formula: Space, Lot, Garden. "Tender Promise" was Bettie's garden area. We make so many promises in our life. How many of them do we keep before we die?
Finally, the numbers came into focus. I found the markers! There was a line of round concrete markers impressed with a big "X" dividing the faces into four sections. At least now, I had a way to read the numbers. The largest number was the plot. I was at five hundred-something. Which way did the numbers go? I went north. The numbers changed some way I did not understand. Then I went west. The numbers got smaller. So it is east I want to go, toward the wilting, now off-white bouquets of the Latin family.
After so long, the numbers began to make sense. Kneeling by the markers, I read each one excitedly as the numbers got higher and higher. Long since past seven hundred, I inched toward the 750s. I walked slowly, analyzing each marker before going on. I did not want to go in the wrong direction again.
I read each plaque for the names. Back at the Latin family's graves, I paused. Their plots were around 865 or so. I had walked around them several times. A mother, a father and one child. Someone survived the three to place flowers at their graves. Love and streams of tears were written in the gentle stirring of the wilted flowers.
Names engraved upon the plaques are the last memory of an identity. Where Bettie was did not matter to me, except that is where she was last laid to rest, the grave of a woman I had never met.
By then, I had forgotten what the plot number was. I read Bettie's plaque as I had read all the others before I realized it was hers. I sighed relief when I saw her last name. Finally, I had found Bettie. I looked around to see where she was in relation to where I had been searching.
The statue was off to the left quite a ways. Definitely in the wrong area. The tree was nearby, to the left and down two rows. Had I followed my instincts and searched in an arc around the tree, I would have found Bettie sooner.
Then I looked down the row to the plaques near me. A chill spread from my crown all the way to my feet. It felt like waves of light pulsed through me. Less than three feet away, the Latin family's bouquets sat proudly as silent witnesses. Had I listened and walked three feet further, I would have found Bettie sooner. I was so near, and I did not want to believe that a voice in my head had correctly told me where to look.
"You'll see," she said.
Yes, I did see -- and it was barely three feet to her plot!
"This is important." I knew this time, I was speaking to myself; it was my own inner voice I heard. "I must remember this happened. I am not crazy. To hell with Allen and his fear of helter-skelter mentality. From now on, I will always listen to my inner voice. I always used to. What happened to me? I used to have faith in myself and in my own mind before I listened to others! I know I did hear Bettie tell me where she was. But I ignored her. This is real, even if others will not believe it!"
Never again will I doubt myself, I swore as the chills flooded my entire being.
"Pat, I found her. Pat come here!"
By this time, Pat was only a few rows away. It did not take her long to reach me.
"Finally!" She was tired of walking round in circles, looking at the gound. "I stopped looking for numbers and looked for her name," she said.
Pat and I plopped down on the grass with a sigh of relief. Then immediately, I began to cry again. I felt like a sibling running to mom, complaining that little brother is being mean. Pat and I sat on the grass for over an hour, talking to Bettie, the two of us alternately crying.
When I left, I stuck the red carnation between the wires of the sunken flower holder. I made sure the flower stood upright enough to be visible but low enough so it would not break easily. It seemed so sad to leave one single flower across the plaque, like others I saw. Instead of tokens of thought, they looked like discarded flowers. I wondered how long my flower would last. As I drove off, I checked to see whether it was visible from the road -- it was.
Weeks later, I told Allen of my visit to his mother. I told him about the one red carnation I left by the grave.
Allen's eyes lit up the way they do when he is about to tell a story. My choice of flower and color reminded him of when he was a young boy, walking to church with his mother past the florist's shop on Sundays. The shop owner set outside any flowers that did not sell that past week. Men dressed in their Sunday suits would place the flowers in their lapels for church.
Bettie took flowers for Allen's lapel, too. She was particular about proper dressing. The right accessories had to match. A flower on a man's lapel had to match his tie or bow tie.
One particular day, Allen remembers his mother asking him whether he knew what he was going to wear on Sunday for church. Yes, he did know. He wanted to wear a specific grey suit he liked. And did he know which bow tie he was going to wear with it, she asked. Yes, he did. His red bow tie.
Before Saturday, Allen recalled, his mother went to the flower shop and asked the shopkeeper whether he thought there might be any red flowers left over on Sunday. He replied that it all depended upon the next two days' sales.
That next Sunday, there was one red flower in the bin. One red carnation. Bettie beamed. Allen remembers his mother's eyes lit up as she placed the red carnation in his lapel. She was so happy to see a red flower on her handsome little boy's lapel, matching his red bow tie.
The light of love shined in Allen's eyes at the memory. He remembered the happiness that one red carnation brought to his mother long ago. When Allen told me his story, I realized it was one of his many stories I would never have heard had I not visited Bettie. It was a gift of love from someone gone beyond time, a greeting from a woman I never met while she was alive.
The signs of love are all around us. Allen and I ignored the signs that were there for us to find. In seeking what was right before us, we lost ourselves in the search.
I will remember the day I visited Bettie and what she taught me from beyond the grave: we can't go wrong when we pick the symbols of love as our landmarks. Then, we will not get lost in our search for love.