Tessie — Of Death and Roses Revisited
I posted this way back in September, 2010 and to launch my new website, I was asked by some of my readers to repeat it. This is a simple story of the first time I saw a dead person. It is also a powerful exploration of the relationship between a father and a son.
Tessie – Of Death and Roses
My father was 41 years old on the very day I was born. My two sisters and one brother were almost grown by then and my mother thought she was going through “the change”! Neither of my parents was prepared for the arrival of a new baby so late in their lives. Perhaps my father had forgotten how to play with a child or perhaps he was following in his father’s footsteps to be stoic and unemotional around your child. Whatever the reason, my mother’s instruction to me each and every day was not to “bother” your father when he “gets home from work.” I looked up to the thin, balding man in black rimmed glasses with some trepidation. In fact, there were times I feared him. And so it was on one particular day at the age of eight I had an odd connection with my father.
We were spending the weekend in the countryside of central Louisiana. There, the rolling hills of red clay were carpeted with towering pine trees and kudzu vines. The journey from Blanchard in the northwestern corner of the state to Saline near the center of the state took two lifetimes it seemed. At age eight, one and half hours easily passed for such an epoch. The winding roads always left me carsick and I had to avoid my cherished M&M’s and Pepsi cola until we arrived. But, when we turned right at the stop sign in Lucky just five miles from Saline and I gazed out the rearview window into the distance and saw the towering peak of Mount Driskill, I knew snack time was near.
I often daydreamed of what lived on Mount Driskill. It was the highest point in the state of Louisiana and the state’s only mountain. To my mind, it was Mount Doom with marching hordes of goblins and trolls and the tentacled sea monsters that populated my favorite television show, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. I would crane my neck around and rise up on my bare knees in the back seat of our Rambler to watch the mountain disappear in the pine trees behind us. I vowed that one day, I would climb that mountain. One day, I would beat the beasts of hell to the pinnacle and save the world from certain doom! But for now, I had to settle for gingerly turning around in my seat to avoid getting sick and breathing in the fresh air that came in through the open window.
We often stayed with my grandparents in a towering and crumbling ruin of a house filled with darkness and shadows and the smell of ancient sweat. The eaves sagged and sloped down from the huge tin roof. The stairs swayed in the middle as if beaten down by a thousand footsteps. The ceilings inside the house stretched a half a mile into the darkness and one bare bulb hung from this distant roof by a black wire in each room. If you bumped it, the light and stumbling shadows would fill the air with dizzying, swooping stuff of nightmares. I would run out of the room when these creatures descended and hide in my grandfather’s outhouse.
To this day, I have no idea what possessed my father to ask me to accompany him. He never invited me to go with him anywhere unless it was a family affair. But this Saturday morning was different. I was playing in my grandfather’s front yard avoiding the shifting shadow monsters in the house when my daddy came down the stairs and stopped to stare at me. He seldom stared at me. I was only a chance distraction from his piddling and guitar playing and jogging from one end of the house to the other or his jury-rigging of a broken air conditioner or a henhouse wall. Don’t get me wrong. I knew my father loved me. He sang to me and laughed at me and always kissed me once in the middle of my forehead every morning before he walked out the door. But, he never really looked at me. It was not until I was twenty years old at his brother’s funeral that he told me he loved me. But, I knew he loved me as well as I knew the sun would wallow up from its covers each morning and Sootie, my dog, would slobber all over my face when I sat on the back steps and werewolves were real just kept away from our house by my mother’s prayers and her bush of switches that could leave red welts on the skin of dinosaurs.
But, to look at me deep in thought? This was new. I stopped in my tracks and let the three headed monster I was chasing escape somewhere in the distant bluriness of my imagination and stared back. We stood like that in the stillness and the sound of cicadas buzzing and the trees creaking in the wind. A pine cone bounced beside me and I jumped.
“What is it, Daddy?” I whispered.
“Do you remember Mrs. Tessie?” He said.
I blinked. Mrs. Tessie was unforgettable. When we ventured to Saline, my parents always went to church on Sunday. The church was right behind me, across the street from my grandparents’ house. It was white washed and made of clapboard with a short steeple and a bell tower. It was not air conditioned and when we went to church, mother always made sure we sat next to a window to catch the breeze. Mrs. Tessie would appear out of nowhere. She was a short, thin woman with wild yellow hair and bright blue eyes. She always wore a purple hat with netting. But, she never pulled down the netting around her face and it flew up over her head like Peter casting his net for the fish Jesus brought to the Sea of Galilee. Mrs. Tessie would hurry over to our pew and descend on me like one of those funny birds that bends at the waist and dips its beak in a glass of water then bobs back up and tilts back and forth. Mrs. Tessie was like that only her nose wasn’t covered in felt.
“You are too pretty to be a boy! Isn’t he, Lena?” Tessie said to my mother. She would pat me on the head and then reach into her purse. I knew what was coming. It was the only reason I did not hide behind my mother. She pulled out two pieces of Juicy Fruit gum.
“Here you go, young man. You are a miracle from God. Don’t you forget it.” She would pat me on the head again and then bob up and down and hurry away to her favorite pew.
“Yes, Daddy. I remember Mrs. Tessie. She gives me gum.” I said.
My daddy just looked at me some more and nodded. “Well, she has died.”
I knew what it meant when something died. I lived on a farm. Animals died all the time. I didn’t like it. When my parakeet Cappy died, I cried for two days. When my horned toad died, I didn’t know it until it started stinking up the aquarium. When I picked him up he practically crumbled like one of those old mummies.
I didn’t know what to say to my daddy. It was sad that Mrs. Tessie had died. I would miss the gum. But, she was just one of the many people in my life. Back home, we had 45 cats and 26 dogs and it was sad when one of them died, but there was another one to take its place. Someone else would give me gum.
My daddy looked away then and wiped his face. He seemed to be coming to some kind of decision. He was sweating in the summer heat and beads of water dripped down his bare head into his eyebrows. At home, he would wear a cap with a handkerchief rolled up in the front to catch the sweat. “I’ve got to go see her family. You should go with me.”
I drew in a deep breath. “Go where, daddy?”
“To her house. To console her family.” He looked at me. “To tell them how sorry we are Mrs. Tessie has died. It would mean a lot to them if you came. Mrs. Tessie always loved you so much.”
“Okay.” I said. “I’ll go.”
Daddy nodded and led the way across the yard to the car. I started to open the back door and he shook his head. “You can sit up front with me.”
Sit up front? My face burned with excitement. I never got to sit Up Front. I ran around to the passenger door and hopped up onto the seat. In those days, seat belts were accessories and not required by law. So, I ended up tucking my knees under me with my hands on the dashboard so I could see. It was so different Up Front. As my daddy pulled out of the driveway and into the street, I almost got dizzy! I could see the gray road piling toward us and growing wider as the car ran over it and shoved it behind us. The dashed lines in the center of the road hurtled toward us and each time the car passed over one, I cringed waiting for the crash or the sound of laser fire as if they were energy beams shot at us by aliens.
Daddy was silent as we headed out away from the small town of Saline into the rolling hills covered by the pale green heads of thousands of watermelons. Saline was famous for its watermelons and they were everywhere covering every bare piece of land. They seemed kind of sad to me. It was as if the hills had a million green eyes all gazing to heaven pleading with God to rescue them from the hot, sandy earth; to spare them from being split open with their red meat exposed to the hungry mouths of people.
Daddy pulled the car off the road and down a dirt driveway to a small, dark gray house. The exterior had never been painted and the wood was gray streaked with green lichen and the dead husks of cicadas. The small front porch was dotted with men and women in their Sunday best. As we climbed out of the car, I began to feel a tremble of fear and anxiety. The people fell silent and their heads turned toward us with terrible swiftness. Some of the women’s faces were marred with dark streaks of tears. Some of the men wore frowns and blew smoke into the air. I froze in terror. I didn’t know why. These were the same men and women that sat around us in church. But, here on this gray porch in this hot, fetid afternoon they seemed like the very demons of the devil filled with a terrible knowledge, too terrible to share, too terrible to bear.
Then, the moment passed and as one, the people began to move again and speak in hushed whispers and their eyes drew away from me and I was no longer important to them. My daddy spoke to a young woman who glanced at me frequently and nodded as she whispered. Daddy took my hand and led me up the rickety stairs onto the porch. That is the first time I recall my Daddy taking my hand. His hand was dry and rough from working his garden and scaly with dead skin. But, his grip was intense as if he wanted to hold on to me to keep me from being swept away by the people who milled and swayed around us; as if some dark current from some rising river would wash me away.
We stepped into the living room of the small house. The air was thick with the fragrance of roses and six women sat in chairs and on a couch. Their faces glowed with an unearthly sheen. Their eyes bore a deep sorrow and hurt I had only seen in the face of my Sootie the day he climbed up under the house to die. I tried to reach him. But, the timbers that held up the floor of my house were too close to the ground. I could see Sootie’s black eyes glittering far in the darkness. He had gone there to die. Alone. Why had he done this? Why would he have to die in the first place? And, why did he have to die away from me? I lay there in the dirt and dust under the house and cried until my sister found me and coaxed back out into the light. Two days later, my Daddy retrieved Sootie’s body and we buried him in an old basket out by the pond.
“You must be the little boy Tessie loved so much.” One of the women said. It broke the spell of quiet and I swallowed.
“She gives me Juicy Fruit.” I said.
“Do you know why she loved you so?” The lady’s eyes glittered with tears.
I shook my head.
“She had a dream that your mother’s life was not over and that she would have a child. God told her you would be born. You’re a miracle. You were born so late in your parents’ lives. She always said you were a gift from God.” The woman wiped at her tear streaked face with a lace handkerchief.
Daddy’s grip tightened on my hand and I tried to breath. I was a gift from God? Me? This fat little clumsy boy who got sick riding in the back of a car? I looked up at Daddy and tried to loosen his grip. His teeth were gritted so tightly I thought they would shatter. He looked down at me and sighed. His hand relaxed. He squatted down in front of me and studied me from behind his dark rimmed glasses. “A gift? Yes, a gift.” He mumbled and then his clear eyes fixed on mine. “Do you want to see Mrs. Tessie?”
I raised an eyebrow in confusion. “You said she was dead.”
My daddy nodded. “She is. She’s right over there.”
I turned and for the first time saw the roses. They were in vases and on stands and on shelves at the other side of the living room around a long, black box sitting on a table. The box was long and shallow and my heart raced. I knew what the black box was. I had seen the same box on television when Dracula had opened the lid to his coffin and climbed out to bring death and destruction to mankind. I took a step back and felt my daddy’s hand on my back.
“You don’t have to see her, if you don’t want to.” Daddy said.
I will forever be transfixed in that moment. Eight years old and caught between the world of fantasy and reality, on the cusp of the great opening of my mind to the true world around me, poised on the knife edge of childhood. I could turn and run back out to the car. I could climb back into the back seat and turn my face through the rear window and long to see Mount Driskill. But, a growing sense of inevitability gripped me as if a tight rope was threaded through my navel and slowly, oh so slowly growing taut with anticipation pulling my mind, my soul, my body, my childishness out of the thing it was into the thing it had to become. I took my first step away from childish things, away from the mirror darkly, away from the rain streaked window where Mount Driskill became nothing more than a big hill and the three headed monsters disappeared into simple shadows and the smell of roses became the aroma of death.
I shook my daddy’s hand off my back and walked across the room to the box. I was just tall enough to look over the edge. Tessie was asleep in the dark box. Her hair was perfectly combed beneath the purple hat and the netting. Her lips were red with lipstick and rouge burst forth in crimson from her cheeks and her boney hands were crossed over her stomach. I wanted to feel sad. I wanted to cry like I had when I had seen Sootie. But, instead I was fascinated. So, this is what death looks like? Not some dark phantom of the creaking night with taloned hands and foul breath. It looked like sleep. Like a nap.
I reached out and before anyone could stop me, I touched her hand. These fingers had dug through her purse for the gum. This hand had patted my head. But, the flesh was as cold as an iced watermelon rind. And, I knew there was no life here. Tessie was not here in this room with doting friends and crumbling roses. She was in heaven. She was with God. He would warm her flesh and open her eyes and He would hold her hand as he led her down the streets of gold that we sang about in church.
My daddy took my hand then and pulled me gently away from Tessie. I studied her still features until the edge of the black box eclipsed her from my view and the hot sun greeted my backturned gaze and my father lifted me bodily and put me in the front seat of the car. I do not remember the drive back to the house. I do not remember the road rising up to meet us or the monster emerging from the bushes in the front yard of my granddaddy’s house to play with me.
I only remember one thing. The door to my side of the car opened. And, my father reached in with open arms and gathered my stunned body into his grasp and held me close to his warm chest and his beating heart and his firm shoulder as he carried me, crying, up the stairs into the house.