In April of 1967, my biggest worry was the wrinkle in my stockings in my Senior Favorite picture for the Delta Daze, the school yearbook. I was sitting beside A. B. Cox in a glider in someone’s flower garden for the photo session. He had his arm behind me on the back of the swing and appeared cool, casual, and sexy. I was poised — back straight, chin up, hands folded in my lap, wearing a flower print dress with a white Peter Pan collar and white patent shoes with a double strap. I must’ve twisted my stocking when I put it on that morning, because in the final shot, there was that wrinkle running diagonally down the side of my left calf to my ankle, where it would remain forever, stuck to the page of time.
That day, I drove my green 1960 Ford Fairlane 500 to the photo shoot, and Anna Margaret rode with me. In the Superlatives, I’d won Class Favorite, and she was Miss CHS, Sophisticated Senior, and a Beauty. I rolled my window down an inch and let hot wind blow in, as we drove out Highway 8 East, chatting and listening to WHBQ on the radio. It was one of those steamy mornings that could melt the make-up right off your face. Instead of worrying about my Cover Girl, I should’ve paid more attention to my Hanes.
“We should’ve caught that,” the editor of the annual later said, “and stopped it.”
“Maybe no one will see it,” I said, hoping people would pay heed to my cute shoes, the arch of my eyebrows, or the pearl and diamond ring my parents had just given me for graduation.
But people always notice wrinkles.
Other than that wrinkle, and maybe trying to dog paddle out of senior math — a friendly term for trigonometry — with my head above water, it was a jubilant time. It was the season for senior parties, Cotillion, senior prom, Class Day, and graduation gifts. It was a time for bonding with friends before closing the high school chapter of my life and moving on to college and all the world had to offer.
Yet there was one more wrinkle in the elation of the season. Halfway around the world, half a million boys just a year or two out of high school were fighting a bloody war, getting shot, getting maimed, getting blown up. They waded through flooded rice paddies full of leeches that stuck to them and had to be burned off with cigarettes, or they trudged through jungles, encountering mines, mortar shells rigged to tripwires, booby traps, pits with poison-tipped bamboo stakes, spears lashed to bent saplings, and the enemy darting from hidden tunnels in ambush, raging to kill.
The debacle of war in Vietnam had been going on since I was a baby, when President Truman sent military aid and soldier-advisers. The Soviet leader Kruschev told us, “We will bury you.” Communism was an evil menace that had swept over Vietnam, and if that tiny country fell, it was likely the whole world would go. President Eisenhower said, “You have a row of dominoes set up. You knock over the first one, and what will happen to the last one is a certainty that it will go over very quickly.”
In April of 1967 the biggest military offensive of the war was taking place — a surge of troops sent to Operation Junction City, an 82-day search and destroy operation, that turned out to be successful, but when the troops left, the enemy covered it up again.
The war took place in my living room. The evening news played it — clips of soldiers running with big guns, orange smoke and the fire of bomb blasts, flag-draped coffins coming home instead of live boys, and those infernal helicopters playing the sound of war. Medevacs dropping in to unload fresh soldiers and load up the wounded made deep haunting blade sounds, a whir mixed with rapid beats moving faster than a knife cutting celery on a chopping block. The sound of the blades echoed through my living room, into the kitchen where Mama was cooking supper, into the bedroom where my sister and I were doing homework and listening to records — “The Beat Goes On” and “There’s a Kind of a Hush-sh-sh.”
Thousands of boys were dying in a fury and firestorm, while I slept in my own bed at night beside a picture of my boyfriend in his basketball uniform, ate Mama’s roast beef and mashed potatoes with gravy and two-layer chocolate cake, and worried about wrinkles in my stocking.
It all came home to rest one Saturday afternoon my second year of college when I saw a black car without whitewalls on its tires drive up in front of the house across the street. The boy who lived there was my age, had dropped out of high school, joined up, went to Vietnam. I watched as two soldiers in dress uniforms, pressed to perfection, got out of the car, stopped at the end of the sidewalk, straightened their jackets, straightened their shoulders, then took the first step together and walked in cadence to the front door. I didn’t know what to make of it at the time, but I later realized, after word got out and Mama took food over. Terry Tharp was killed in war.
A wrinkle, in the name of freedom, in the name of peace, in the name of democracy….
I grew up a little bit that day.
“ . . . Gather around their sacred remains and garland the passionless mounds above them with choicest flowers of springtime . . . ” [General John Logan, 1868]
The day lilies come back to stay. Honeysuckle and morning glories climb fences and trellises. Impatiens and begonias border sidewalks. Cannas are on the rise. Clover, wild onions, and dandelions spangle the yard.
It’s Memorial Day, the unofficial kick-off of summer. It’s a long weekend, a day off work.
Schools are out, pools are open, and it’s time to clean the patio. It’s time for the first watermelon cutting, time to crank out the first bucket of homemade ice cream. It’s time for cookouts. Time to roll out the grill and slap on some burgers. It’s time for my husband to try out that new steak injector he got for Christmas.
By Memorial Day, my yard is usually in tip-top shape—beds neatly mulched, annuals planted, and pots of geraniums placed on the porch and patio.
Not so this year. Weeds cover the beds like heavy blankets.
Weeds also fill my mind, getting in the way of things I want to do. I can only think about one thing. Dad. He’s ill. In the hospital. Gone from us. I sleep, I cry some, I don’t care about the weeds.
I hate thistle. It spreads everywhere—along roadways, in pastures. It’s a tall and gangly weed, crooked and awkward. It’s repulsive. It reminds me of a fibroid growing unwanted somewhere.
A thistle is growing in the gravel parking lot behind my office building in Cool Springs. I cut a stalk and lay it on my desk because I feel like looking at something ugly.
It is spiny and coarse with thorns all up and down it. It has jagged prickly leaves, and on top of rows of prickly bracts, sits a purple flower.
The plant is hard to handle; thorns stick in my flesh and hurt. But the flower is what surprises me. It’s purple, soft, delicate. And it doesn’t belong on that awful stalk.
Shades of purple filaments stick up, ordered in a circle around a center of tiny white seeds in a swirl pattern. The seeds seem protected by the outer hairs that curl gently around them.
I touch the flower to my face. It feels like the big round make-up brush I apply powdered blush with. It leaves inky marks on my cheek.
The flower is quite lovely, its fragrance sweeter than I ever imagined.
More than four million Americans, ten percent of the population over age sixty-five, have dementia, an ugly disease causing a severe loss of thinking and reasoning abilities. The families of those four million people face anguish, frustration, and grief, watching a loved one slowly slip away, even while continuing to live.
Live, meaning to breathe in, breathe out, walk or pace or shuffle, and talk even if it’s only to someone who doesn’t exist. Live, without a shred of quality or an ounce of dignity. Live in the same old body with an altered personality and a new behavior. Live, eventually, some place other than their own home.
Delusions and hallucinations are common, such as believing money has been stolen, a spouse has been unfaithful, or unwelcome guests are living in the house. Those with dementia see and hear people who aren’t really there, and the fantasies are realities that slowly take over their lives.
Having a loved one with dementia is like having a death in the family with no funeral.
Memorial Day is for honoring our nation’s war dead. It’s a day to put flowers on soldiers’ graves and hang the flag in remembrance of those who gave their lives in service to our country.
I have two fourth great-grandfathers and a third great-grandfather who fought in the Revolution. I have a piece of the original tombstone of one of them, placed in a mulched bed in front of a Burning Bush. Maybe I’ll put a flower on it.
Dad served in World War II. He rode with the Great Third Army and General George Patton. Dad was a sergeant, a frontline medic, and got a Bronze Star with Valor.
“War is hell,” Dad said.
“He has terrible memories he will never forget,” Mama said. “When he came home from the war, I listened to him talk day after day until he could sleep and stop shaking.”
“War is a bloody, killing business. You’ve got to spill their blood, or they will spill yours. Rip them up the belly. Shoot them in the guts. When shells are hitting all around you and you wipe the dirt off your face and realize that instead of dirt it’s the blood and guts of what once was your best friend beside you, you’ll know what to do!” Patton said to his troops.
No soldier is ever one hundred percent sane after the initial indoctrination of war. No soldier is ever free from emotional scars related to perpetual exposure to imminent danger.
Dad’s dementia has somehow pulled out the war experiences he spent sixty years trying to forget, and they are tormenting him.
War is hell. Soldiers die. Soldiers come home from the battlefront to live among innocents who stick SUPPORT OUR TROOPS ribbons on their cars, and they try to resume normal lives after what they’ve seen and where they’ve been and what they’ve done.
My goal every year is to have the grass manicured, the flowers in the yard beds and pots on the deck blooming, the little garden in and growing, and the weeds OUT by Memorial Day so I can sit outside and admire it all. It hasn’t happened in the last ten or twelve years, but this year it will be a reality. And it’s going to happen even though I hurt myself and am on full-time Ibuprofen. (I tripped over a puppy gate. I lifted my foot, but the Chaco didn’t lift or clear, and caught the top bar and I went splattering down the hall, slung my glass of water, which broke and cut me, and possibly broke something inside the very top of my leg.)
Yesterday, to finish off my garden, I planted five heirloom tomato plants a neighbor gave me. She was raised on a farm in McNairy County of West Tennessee, lived in Ohio for her professional career, and moved back to Tennessee to be near her grandchildren. She knows how to harvest seeds and plant them the next year. I want to learn. I told her this will be very helpful when the coming financial crisis happens or when our country declares financial martial law, as Ron Paul speaks of with surety. I thought of buying the book he promotes on this subject, but it costs $75, and I’m not paying that much for any book unless it’s about the Mississippi Delta. (I bought David Cohn’s book for $120.)
I’m writing about the Mississippi Delta — a little fictional town near Cleveland, on the river, with five women who are main characters. It will explore race, religion, family, and land — all good Southern topics for novels. I am taking my time on this book. Trying to say what I want to say and get it right.
And now, of all things, Cleveland, my hometown, and Cleveland High School, my alma mater, are in the news. The Cleveland school district has been given a federal court order to desegregate. People all over the country are making disparaging remarks because they are picturing an all-white school. No. CHS began integration in 1965. My class of ’67 might have been the last all-white graduating class. The one student who joined my class during our junior year in 1965-66 did not come back the following year to graduate. But others came, and the ratio grew over the years to almost equal in that one particular school. Here are the cheerleaders for the mighty CHS Wildcats this year! Yay, Black and Gold — conquer and prevail! Cleveland High, all hail!
I’m not sure what the world is coming to, or if in future months we will falter into financial martial law or if we will make a return to the 1960s, or just how much the federal government is going to stick its neck into our lives, but all I want to do is sit in my own back yard and look at all the handiwork and grow muscadines, blackberries, and heirloom tomatoes.