My Mother’s Chamomile
by Susie FinkbeinerDesperate for the rains of mercy… Middle Main, Michigan has one stop light, one bakery, one hair salon…and one funeral home. The Eliot Family has assisted the grieving people in their town for over fifty years. After all those years of comforting others, they are the ones in need of mercy. Olga, the matriarch who fixes everything, is unable to cure what ails her precious daughter. She is forced to face her worse fears. How can she possibly trust God with Gretchen’s life? A third generation mortician, Evelyn is tired of the isolation that comes with the territory of her unconventional occupation. Just when it seems she’s met a man who understands her, she must deal with her mother’s heart-breaking news. Always able to calm others and say just the right thing, she is now overwhelmed with helplessness as she watches her mother slip away. They are tasting only the drought of tragedy…where is the deluge of comfort God promises?
Curly, carrot red hair bobbed up and down among the green and purple, yellow and pink of the garden. Such a small bundle of a girl and every inch bounding with energy. That little thing moved from the moment I said, “Good morning” to the time I scolded, “No more getting out of that bed” at night.
Next to the garden stood a big, brown brick building. Out the open windows, funeral music poured. Quivering tones of the electric organ melted together to form a hymn so full of sorrow, I tried to keep its fingers from working their way into my heart.
Inside the brown brick building, out of my sight, mourning people held down wooden folding chairs. They’d wrap their hands around damp hankies and tissues. When their eyes flicked over to the casket at the very front of the room, a hurt would jab in that place between their lungs. They’d breathe in quick and sharp when the big old rock collected in their throats. No matter how hard they swallowed, the grief wouldn’t go down. That casket cradled the empty body of a person they loved. The mourning filled the space between the walls. No doubt their cries reached all the way through the vents and floorboards and into the apartment my family called home.
It didn’t even take one peek through the window to know what happened in that building. Married to the mortician, I’d seen my share of funerals. More than I would have liked, if I was to be honest.
On funeral days like that one, I had two choices. Either stay inside, cooped up in our apartment and contain my full-of-life four-year-old, listening to the weeping downstairs. Or stand in the sunshine, letting my girl skip and wander and sing to the song of the birds. An easy choice, as far as I was concerned.
That spring, I’d planted my first garden. All I’d put in it were flowers. Every kind that caught my fancy. I never cared too much for growing vegetables. Not after all the years I spent on Uncle Alfred and Aunt Gertie’s farm. No endless rows of soybeans for me. I preferred the dotting of color from a flower garden. And nothing so dainty an exploring child couldn’t tromp through.
My Gretchen loved nothing more than that garden. We’d put in a tire swing hanging on a thick branch of our old oak tree. And my husband Clive had built her a nice sandbox with a wide umbrella for shade. Still, even with all those choices, she wanted to be in with the flowers.
My eyes moved from here to there as she darted all about, up one path and down the next. When she made her way to the very center, she stopped. Turning her head one way and the other, she lifted her little hands, palms down with arms held straight as yard sticks. Like wings. For just a moment, I worried that she intended to fly away from me. A silly thought, I knew it. Most just-for-a-moment worries of mine turned out to be nothing but silly. Still, I couldn’t keep them banished.
Oh, how I fretted over losing her. I’d never had such strong terror in all my life. I’d seen too many tiny caskets in my time living above the funeral home. I prayed, begging to be spared that loss. I didn’t know of a parent who hadn’t prayed that same thing.
Death never made sense at all. No reason. No rhyme. Willy nilly.
Blinking away the fear, I let my eyes focus back on her. My child. The only one I ever got to have. The only baby my body didn’t reject. I fought off the mourning of those little, nameless ones. In those days, we didn’t talk about miscarriages. We didn’t allow the sadness. It just sat in our hearts as secret shame.
“Be thankful for the one we got,” my husband, Clive, would say, rubbing calloused thumbs against my cheeks, pushing away round tears. “If God wants us to have more, He’ll give them to us.”
I swatted the thoughts and the doubts, shooing them like a sweat-bee. Trying to be thankful for the one I got, I kept my eyes on the carrot red, curly headed girl.
Her tiny fingertips skimmed the tops of tall flowers. Spinning, she hung her head back, the hair brushing the spot between her shoulders. The faster she went round and round, the tighter she held her eyes shut. Fair skinned face covered with ginger colored freckles. Big old baby-toothed smile from ear to ear.
She stopped her spinning. Wobbling, she stood, the world tipping her from side to side. Her giggle was enough to keep me glad my whole life through. Big green eyes looked up at me, crossing each other and blinking hard.
“You get yourself dizzy, Gretchie?” The lavender plant tickled against my ankles as I stepped around it toward my daughter. “You sure were spinning fast.”
When she nodded, those red sausage curls bounced and bumped against her chubby cheeks. Those cheeks begged to be kissed. Never did a day go by without me covering her soft face with smooches a plenty. I had no idea how long she’d abide me loving on her like that. I determined to give all the kisses I could for as long as she’d allow them. Bending down, I smushed my lips into the chub. Putting her hands on either side of my face, she planted a big kiss right on my lips.
“Oh, thank you, sugar plum.”
I didn’t wipe that wet kiss off. I let it dry all of its own in the warm air. That way, I could feel it a little longer. I believed that kisses from my girl were strong evidence of God’s love for me.
“Mama, can you tell me about the flowers?” How her voice squeaked brought joy into my heart. “Please, Mama.”
“I like how you asked so nice.” My fingers smoothed the flyaway strands of her hair.
“What’s the pink one?”
“Well, honey, that’s the tea rose.” I picked the bloom and held it to her nose. “Go on. Give it a whiff. It smells good, doesn’t it?”
She sucked in through her nose so hard the petals stuck to her nostrils. Her giggle again. Oh, the Lord sure knew what He was doing when He designed a little girl’s laugh.
“Did it tickle?” Folding my skirt up under me, I sat on the ground in the middle of a path.
She nodded and rubbed her nose. I pulled her onto my lap, letting her sniff in the aroma of that rose until she’d finished with it. We sat in the garden, letting the sun cover us. Every once in a while, we’d look at each other and smile. So seldom did she sit still like that, I cherished the moments with her nestled in my arms.
She turned sideways. Reaching up one of those hands of hers, she touched my hair. “Your hair is orange.”
“Just like yours,” I said.
“I’m going to be big like you when I’m a mama.” She twisted a strand of my hair around her pointer finger.
“Yes, you are.”
“When am I going to have babies?”
“I don’t know.” My arms forming a circle around her little body felt like the most right thing in all the world. “Probably not for a good long time.”
“Am I going to be pretty like you?”
“You sure are pretty now, Gretchie.” Heat from the sun radiated off her hair as I kissed the top of her head and pulled her tighter to me. “But you know that pretty isn’t what matters, don’t you?”
“I know, Mama.” She rested against me, her head under my chin. “My heart is made of gold.”
“A golden heart, yes,” I said. “That’s what matters.”
“Mama, tell me about the fairy flower.” She yawned, drowsy from the sunshine. “Please.”
Out of the corner of my eye, a lanky chamomile flower danced in the wind. It grew up wild among the other flowers. Tall, green, spindly legs under heads of yellow and white.
“A long time ago, many years before you were even thought of, there was a little girl,” I began.
“Was she like me?” She sat up, turning to look into my face.
“A bit like you.” I stopped to make a sad face. “But, unlike you, she was a very sad little girl.”
Gretchen imitated my expression. Her lips turned down and her eyes went soft. “Why was she sad, Mama?”
“Well, honey, because she lost her mother.”
“Did she try to find her?” Even though she knew the story, she followed the ritual of the telling.
“No. See, her mama got real sick and went to be with Jesus.” My fingers brushed through her soft hair, pushing some of it behind her ears.
“She died?” Gretchen’s little face covered with a frown.
I nodded. “Sometimes that happens. Isn’t it just awful?”
That golden heart of hers showed in the tears which gathered in the corners of her eyes. As many times as I told her the story, she never got dull to it. The telling always broke her precious heart.
“Then what happened?” Her eyes grew large. “Something good happened, didn’t it?”
“Not yet,” I whispered before going on. “Well, the girl was very lonely. You see, she had to leave her home and go live with her aunt and uncle and all her boy cousins.”
“What about her daddy?”
“Oh, he wasn’t ready to care for her all by himself. He didn’t even know how to make piggy tails in her hair. He couldn’t raise her right.” A bird darted, a flash of red, over our heads. We both paused in our story to watch it pass.
“Go on, Mama.”
“Well, her aunt and uncle had a farm. She had an awful hard time getting to sleep. See, she’d lived in the city all her life. A farm has all kinds of different smells and sounds. And it got real dark at night.”
“Did she get scared?”
“Oh, did she ever.” My fingers twisted the chamomile, snapping it loose and letting it fall into my palm. “But she remembered her mother making tea that helped her sleep. She used flowers to make it.”
“Like that one?” She took the chamomile from me.
“Just like that one.” I found a few other flowers, picking them and adding them to my hand. “The girl found some of them in her aunt’s garden. Can you tell me the colors?”
“Purple, pink, and green.” She pointed to each one.
“Very good, honey. You’re doing real good with your colors.”
She sat up straight and grinned, proud as could be.
“Now,” I continued. “This one here, the one with the white petals and the yellow middle, that one’s chamomile.”
“The fairy flower,” she said, her voice a whisper full of awe.
“That’s right. And its friends lavender and tea rose and mint.” I folded her hand over the flowers. “The girl gathered a little of each of them.”
“Did she make some tea?” Sly smile crinkled into the corners of her eyes.
“Pretty soon, you’re going to tell this story better than me.” I winked at her. “The girl did make some tea from the flowers. A smooth, magic tea. Just a tiny bit sweet. The tea helped her rest.”
“Did it make her happy?” She touched the flowers, poking at them with her fingertips.
“No, honey. Tea can’t make anybody happy. Even if it is made from fairy flowers. Not a tea in the whole wide world has that kind of magic.” A ringlet of her hair fluttered in the breeze. “But it did help her feel a little peaceful. And quiet.”
“What happened next?” Chubby cheeks rose, making room for a wide smile. “She got happy again?”
“She sure did get happy.” I stood, putting my hands under her arms and lifting her up. “But not because of the tea. She got a bundle of joy out of life.”
“How?” She nuzzled her face into my neck.
“God let her be loved.” Pushing my nose into her hair, I breathed her in. She smelled like sunshine itself. “Are you hungry, Gretchen?”
She nodded. “May I please have a peanut butter and banana sandwich?”
“Oh, those sweet manners. I’d love to make you a sandwich.” I carried her to the house. “Now, Daddy’s not done yet. They should be through real soon, though.”
“Will Daddy come upstairs for lunch?”
“Not right away. They have to go over to the cemetery first.” I pulled the door open to the back way into our apartment. “Remember, we must be hushed until they all leave, okay?”
She nodded her little head again.
I carried her, climbing the stairs, thankful for the way in and out that didn’t take us through the mourners. I hated the thought of my little girl, so full of life, seeing something so empty of it. Not that young, at least.
“Mama,” she whispered, her mouth so close to my ear, I felt her moist breath. “What’s the little girl’s name? The girl who drank the fairy tea?”
“Hush, honey.” I pushed her head against my shoulder as I took the last few steps.
“But who is she?”
“How about I get your crayons out?” I asked. “You can color a picture of the flowers while I make your sandwich. I bet Daddy would love to see it when he’s done with work.”
“Okay,” she said against my cheek.
Her little hand dangled over the back of my shoulder, clinging to the chamomile as tight as her fingers could.
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The widow sat in front of the casket. Her wide backside filled the seat of a metal folding chair, overflowing it by an inch or so. I wished we could have found something more comfortable for her. Something with a little more padding. She didn’t seem to mind so much, though. Her big, corn-fed sons sat on either side of her, both with an arm around her shoulders.
Sunshine blazed on the mourners. They pulled at tight collars and wiped trickles of sweat from foreheads and napes of necks. A glaring gleam reflected off the shiny, gray casket that hung, suspended by thick straps, over an open hole in the ground. Flowers draped across the closed lid, wilting in the heat. Red, white, and blue carnations with an American flag ribbon running through the blooms.
My brother Cal and I ushered the people under the canopy, hoping to keep them out of the sun. Silently, they followed our direction, uncomfortable in the tight space. Thick, humid August air hung from the sky, unmoving.
We stepped back, behind everyone. Out of the way, trying to blend into the silence of the cemetery. Granddad’s rules. We weren’t to be the focus of the funeral. That was fine by me.
All of my twenty-eight years, I’d known that what our family did made us different. Strange. The funeral business had set us apart from the rest of the town. The loneliness of it had always bothered me more than it did my younger brother. Cal, though, wasn’t as concerned with what people thought.
“Cue Old Buster,” Cal whispered out the side of his mouth.
Old Buster, or Reverend Barton Thaddeus, as we called him to his face, was one of two preachers in our tiny town of Middle Main, Michigan. The other preacher didn’t do funerals. As far as I could tell, he didn’t do much of anything. So, we got stuck listening to Old Buster a couple times a week. Much to our annoyance, he was family. Our grandmother’s cousin, he brought a fair share of frustration to us. But, really, most of the time, we just stayed away from him.
The way Old Buster stood in front of the casket, his nose pointed up and his barrel chest puffed out, he certainly didn’t seem like a preacher about to make himself humble to share in the grief of a family.
Thick Bible in the crook of his elbow, Old Buster flipped through the pages. Finding his spot, his eyes rested on the notes he’d used for years. The same funeral sermon every single time. Before he spoke, he wiped his upper lip with a tissue he kept folded in the palm of his hand.
“Psalm Twenty-Three,” Cal whispered.
Shoving the tissue into his jacket pocket, Old Buster opened his mouth. He read, not taking his eyes off the Bible, as if he had never seen the Psalm before.
Finished with the reading, he closed the Bible, holding it to his chest. “Isn’t that passage a comfort to our world-weary hearts?” he asked the people who shifted under the canopy.
If he’d really paid any attention to them, he might have realized that the comfort they most needed was a tall glass of ice water in an air-conditioned room.
Old Buster invited everyone to pray. They bowed their heads as he went on and on. Calling down peace and comfort from God. Praying that anyone who hadn’t found salvation would seek Jesus in that day of great sorrow. I feared that if he didn’t cut it off soon, we’d have to do another funeral from all the heat-exhaustion-induced deaths that were sure to occur.
When he finally said, “Amen,” we all sighed in relief. He got himself seated again in one of the chairs of the family row.
A tall soldier in dress uniform approached the widow. With straight, controlled motions, he kneeled in front of her. She white haired and wrinkled, he young and muscled. Lips moving, he shared words of thanks for her husband’s service to his country. Their eyes locked, and she touched his arm before accepting the flag he offered. Her hands fell to her lap under the weight of the folded canvas.
Old men lined up to the right-hand side of the casket. The veterans of our town. They wore ancient uniforms that either hung too big on their withering shoulders or too tight across thickened bellies. Still, they stood, and, one at a time, the men pushed red poppies made of paper into the spray of carnations. One at a time, bent backs straightened, bodies shaking from the effort, and hands raised to salute the casket.
The last veteran stood by the widow, his head hanging heavy. He gathered his hands together at his waist and prayed. His words gentle, he only used a few. Enough to matter, though. And enough to dismiss the bereaved. They made their way to cars parked along the curved path cutting through the lush green of the cemetery.
A lunch of deli slices and fruit filled Jell-O salads awaited them in the basement of the First Christian Church on Main Street.
Cal and I waited until the last car pulled away. After the groundskeeper came to lower the casket, we left the cemetery to return to the Big House.
That was our name for the family business. The Eliot-Russell Family Funeral Home. The only funeral home in town.
“We have to grab lunch on the way back,” I said, getting into the passenger’s seat of the hearse. “I’m starving.”
“I don’t mind stopping.” Cal started up the engine.
“I have an arrangement meeting in about two hours.” I sighed. “This summer has been insane.”
“So, speaking of Old Buster—”
“We weren’t talking about him,” I interrupted.
“We are now.” Cal buckled his seat belt. “Anyway, I heard he hired a youth minister.”
“There are only three kids in the youth group.”
“I also heard that he’s grooming the guy as his replacement.” Looking in the rearview mirror, he smoothed his light brown hair. Always the vain one, my brother.
“Is Old Buster retiring?” I asked. “It’s about time.”
“Well, that’s what I heard.” He steered the hearse slowly through the winding cemetery road. “Deirdre is never wrong.”
“Seriously, Cal? That’s where you get your information?” I rolled my eyes. “She’s nothing but an old busybody. You can’t believe a word that comes out of her mouth.”
“I don’t know, Ev. She says that of all the goodies in her bakery, the chocolate cake doughnuts are the best. And she’s right about that.” He shrugged. “The woman never lies about her doughnuts. I have no reason to doubt anything else she says.”
“That makes no sense.”
“It doesn’t have to.” He flashed his smug grin at me. “Hey, so I hear you had a little date the other day.” He smirked. I hated it when he smirked. Especially when the smirk was accompanied by the sparkle of mischief in his blue eyes. That smirk and sparkle may have charmed plenty of girls. As for me, it only made me want to smack him right across the face. But no fighting in the hearse. Granddad’s rules.
“Where’d you hear that?” I asked, digging through my purse.
“Well, Ev, you shouldn’t ask questions you already know the answer to.” He glanced at me.
“How did Deirdre know?”
“I told you, the woman knows everything.” He pulled around a tractor chugging down the road. The farmer put up a hand, waving at us. “Although, she admitted that she didn’t know the guy. She was trying to figure out his name. I guess that kind of blows a hole in the ‘she knows everything’ argument.”
“Really. It was nothing serious.”
“His name is Nothing Serious?” Cal laughed at his own joke.
“No laughing in the hearse,” I said. “Granddad’s rule.”
“Right. Thanks for that reminder. The cows we just passed would be so offended to see me laughing.” He turned left onto another paved road. “So, what was the guy like? Was he cool?”
“I guess. I mean, he was nice.” I pulled the wallet from my purse. “But he’ll probably run far away when he finds out I work with dead people for a living.”
“He doesn’t know yet?”
“It never came up.”
“How did it not occur to you to tell him?”
“It just didn’t.” Unzipping my wallet, I dug out a couple dollars. “The date was going so well, I didn’t want to wreck it.”
Cal cleared his throat. “If a guy is so easily scared off, he’s not worth keeping.”
“Wow,” I said, a tad surprised. “That was really wise.”
“Yeah. Take it from a guy who is absurdly easy to scare off.”
“Some of the girls you’ve dated, you should have been terrified.”
He pulled the hearse into the only fast food place in town. It also happened to be attached to our only gas station.
“What do you want?” Cal pulled into a parking spot.
“Burger and fries.”
He took my money and got out of the hearse. He walked, hands in his pockets, toward the restaurant. A few college-aged girls stood outside their car, watching him walk by. If he noticed them, he didn’t let on.
My cell phone vibrated from somewhere inside my purse. Pushing all the junk to one side, I found the phone with glowing screen at the bottom of my bag.
“Hi, Granddad,” I said, answering it.
“Hi, Evelyn.” Granddad’s voice crooned in my ear. “How’d the committal go?”
“Fine. No problems.”
“And Old Buster?”
“Same as always. Long winded and sweaty.”
“I don’t doubt that for a minute.” He laughed on the other end of the line. “Now, don’t forget you got an appointment this afternoon.”
“Yup. We’ll be there in a few minutes.” I switched the phone to my other ear. “Hey, do you want us to pick up a burger for you?”
“No, honey. Thanks, though. Gran made me a sandwich already. She’d be sore if I ate a second lunch, as much as I’d like to.”
“We don’t have to tell her.”
“You know I can’t keep a secret from her.” He chuckled. “See you in a minute. Love you, darling.”
“I love you, too.” I hung up the phone.
A mini van parked in the spot next to me. A teen boy climbed out, pressing his body against the side of the van. The way he peered into the hearse, I knew he wanted to see if a casket rode in the back.
When the boy locked eyes with me, he sprinted toward the restaurant, almost plowing into Cal. My brother made his way to the hearse, a smile on his face and shaking his head.
“Did you see that kid?” he asked after opening the door and handing me a paper bag full of food.
“He was so freaked out.” He snorted, pulling the gear shift to reverse. “Extra ketchup and pickles.”
“Thanks.” I pulled the burger from the bag. “You’re a life saver.”
“If I was, I’d be out of work.” He drove out of the parking lot. “You’d better wait to eat that. You know. It freaks people out to see us eating in the hearse.”
Shoving the sandwich back into the bag, I stifled a laugh.
Just as we turned down the road to the Big House, Cal glanced at me.
“I hope this guy is good to you.” He looked back at the road. “Whoever he is.”
“Me, too.” I was tired of being alone.
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