Chapter One: The Dead of Winter
"You don't have to look any further than your compost heap if you want to be comforted. If you need reassurance. You've got this stinking, rotting heap of decay, and then out of that springs sturdy, green, new plant shoots. Somebody shout Amen! Yes, they push up through this putrid mixture, this decomposition. Just like the fulfillment of the gospel's promise that says there will be life after death."
-- REVEREND LEMUEL PEDDIGREW
of Calvary Baptist, offering comfort to the bereaved
It was the day of Silas's funeral -- a freezing February morning at Calvary Baptist. Patches of leftover snow were turning to orange sludge on the roadsides. Imogene Lavender felt like Rosie, the robot-maid on The Jetsons cartoon Lou liked so much. This couldn't be her life that was happening. Somebody somewhere was pressing buttons to make her speak and wave at appropriate times.
Standing outside the church, Imo saw the folks she'd known all her life; but today they were strangers, wearing expressions she didn't recognize.
"I sure will," she said when they squeezed her hand and said to let them know what they could do for her.
Perhaps the one operating her by remote control was her dear friend Martha, the Reverend Lemuel Peddigrew's wife. She was standing beside Imo, greeting folks and directing them inside to get warm, answering their questions and giving out comforting words like, "I know Imogene appreciates that," and, "She's holding up real good."
"Let's get you inside now, the service is about to start," Martha said. They settled on the cool front pew and a peaty smell rose up from Imo's corsage.
A herd of clip-clopping heels echoed on the hardwood of the vestibule and made them both turn and look over their shoulders. Here came the rest of the Garden Club girls, some with husbands to lean on.
It almost made her cry, but Imo steeled herself and gave them a neat wave. Martha had pressed a packet of tissues into Imo's pocket, but they were still smooth and dry. She would make sure they stayed that way, because Silas said she should laugh at his funeral for all the good times they'd had.
Toward the end, when Silas knew the cancer was winning, he took on the job of trying to cheer her up, for God's sake. Now, if he could, he'd probably sit up in his casket, turn to point his finger right at her and say, "Don't you cry, Imogene. Things aren't that bad."
But they were. This was terrible, sitting here at his funeral, listening to somber chords of organ music.
Imo watched Jeanette out of the corner of her eye. Rail thin. In a slinky black dress that dipped way too low to be seen in anywhere, much less at her father's funeral. Eyeliner and rouge and lips so wet you could see your reflection in them. Imogene bowed her head; the girl looked like a common tart.
Sitting on her other side was Loutishie, her Lou, with skinned knuckles, wearing a sweet cardigan over a modest cotton dress. Now, that girl was crying enough for all of them. Splotchy cheeks and swollen eyelids and a lap full of soggy tissues.
Imo made it through the eulogies and opened her hymnbook. She could just barely glimpse Silas's face when they stood up. He certainly looked peaceful.
The last of the service crawled by. During Reverend Peddigrew's sermon about being ready to meet your Maker, she leafed through the hymnal to distract herself.
She planned to get home fast after they put him in the ground and send Martha away so she could think.
How did that ditty go? "Better to have loved and lost than never loved at all?" Something like that. But she didn't know if it was true after all.
This whole episode in her life was worse than she'd ever imagined. The big gaudy mums and heart shapes of hot-house roses lining the front of the pulpit were in the same places where she'd put vases of poppies when she married Silas forty-eight years ago.
Lou held Imo's hand as they left Calvary. Jeanette sashayed ahead of them like a movie star heading to her limo.
"Wow," Jeanette spoke for the first time all day, "we get to ride in that?"
The hearse was long and gleaming, gunmetal gray that matched the casket, with a velvety interior that Jeanette stroked when she sat down.
The gravel scrunched as the hearse pulled out, leading a string of headlights burning in the gray haze. No one said a word as they traveled the small narrow roads that stitched the back side of the county together. Here and there, an old dilapidated out-building stood, tucked into the pine trees like the cows who watched the cars go by. They turned up the last hill, creeping along a dirt road that the rain had gutted years ago. The hearse shuddered to a stop. Silas's grave was in the family cemetery -- a high, rocky spot between a stand of pines and an empty alfalfa pasture.
"Let me help you, ma'am." The driver opened Imo's door and held out his white-gloved hand.
"Wasn't that a nice service?" Martha squeezed her arm when they were standing near the freshly mounded earth. "He looked so natural up there. Real peaceful."
"Natural," Imo repeated as the casket was lowered. She caught bits and pieces of the final prayer and heard a shovelful of earth hit Silas.
"And you. You're holding up good, Imogene." Martha pressed another rectangle of tissue into her palm.
Imo stood there silently watching Jeanette's face. Oh Lordy, was she really lighting up a cigarette? Heat rushed up Imo's chest and neck, settled in her cheeks. She couldn't reach over and pinch the girl at the grave side, or yank that nasty cigarette out of her fingers with their long red nails, could she?
Well, what did anything matter anymore anyway? Imo held a hand over her heart. How could she manage her own life now, not to mention Jeanette's? For some reason all she could think of was the Bible verse about "Let the dead bury their dead." I am the dead, she reasoned.
Imo came home to a house that no longer had Silas Lavender in it, yet did. When Martha was gone, she took the phone off the hook and put away two spiral sliced hams, four cakes, three chess pies, and unlimited foods in Tupperware and tinfoil. She stood in the kitchen and looked at Jeanette and Lou, seated around a table loaded with flower arrangements.
"There's some of Betty Neal's potato salad in here, Jeannette," Imo said, standing in front of the refrigerator. "We didn't have a chance to have any lunch, did we?"
"I'm not hungry," Jeanette snapped.
"It's your favorite..." Imo's voice broke off. She closed the refrigerator door. Then she turned to Lou. "How about a ham sandwich, Lou?" She opened the refrigerator door again and pulled out ham, mustard, mayonnaise, and cheese, lined them up on the counter. "I do believe there's a Jell-O salad in here, too." Imo made three sandwiches, despite Jeanette's refusal, and placed one in front of her with a tall glass of tea.
After Imo washed up, she went and sat down in the den. Her head felt stuffed with cotton and her heart was so heavy that it actually ached. All of her best years were gone. What was there left? She prayed for courage and for wisdom to move ahead.
Imo decided to go outside and let the cold air clear her head. She walked into the yard, feeling she was floating in a dream past the stark leafless trees and the tractor shed, her black pumps punching holes in the ground. She found herself standing at the edge of the garden. Nothing but dry, brown stalks in a hard, frozen ground. A barren wasteland of dormant furrows covered with clumps of stubborn snow that looked like tombstones. Dead of winter was the perfect description.
Imo walked the perimeter of the garden, oblivious to the cold. In her mind's eye she still saw Silas, lying there dead, his face frozen in a half-smile. She felt her heart, hanging lifeless in her chest. She didn't know how she would survive in this cold, empty world without him.
No matter what people said about Silas being happy now and in a better place, Imo was not comforted. They'd even had the gumption to say, I know you're relieved that all this is over. She paused at the compost pile to gather the courage to walk back into that house. She took a deep breath and gave herself no choice.
She stopped by the girls' room. Lou was huddled up on her bed with the dog, and when Imo pushed the door open she flinched and yanked the covers over him.
"Hey, sugar foot." Imo patted Lou's thin shoulder and sank down on the edge of the bed. "Bingo miss you today?"
"Yes, ma'am," Lou said, tentatively peeling back a corner of the quilt while she searched Imo's face. "I'm just letting him stay inside with me a little while. He was so sad."
"Well, good. Where's Jeannette?"
"Bathtub." Lou stared at the wall and petted Bingo's side as Imo rose to turn off the lights. "Wait," she called when Imo was back out in the hall, "can he please stay inside tonight?"
"You know how Jeanette feels about him."
"Well, for a while longer," Imo said. Her face was sore from all the big brave smiles she had worn for everybody lately.
She put off going to bed. She worked a spell at straightening the mountain of mail and then turned on the television set. She sat in front of it without really seeing what was on. When the screen turned blank she looked at the kitchen clock. 3:00 A.M.
With a sigh, she made her way down the hall, peeping in at Lou and Jeanette on her way to bed. Lou was asleep in her funeral clothes with that smelly dog nestled in beside her. She strode over to grab his collar and put him out, but then a thought stopped her. What did it matter anymore? She didn't care if the whole herd of cows, the chickens, and the barn cats went ahead and set up housekeeping inside.
Finally, in her own room, Imo stood in front of the dresser, gripping the handles of her underwear drawer. Dead. The word echoed around their bedroom. She knew one thing: It was worse to be this sad and lonely than to be dead. Every now and then you heard about a mate dying of pure grief soon after their true love was gone, and now she understood it down in the depths of her soul.
By force of habit she slipped into her flannel nightgown and lay down stiffly on her back. Maybe she could somehow will herself to die.
Jeanette probably wouldn't care one way or the other if Imo kicked the bucket. Actually, she'd be glad, because then she'd get the car and she could drive it wherever and whenever she pleased. And sweet little Lou was still young enough to bounce back. Maybe Martha would be hurt for awhile, losing her best friend, and some of the old folks she took care of would notice, but on the whole, things would go right on if she went ahead and died.
The fact was that ever since Silas took his last breath she had sensed the Grim Reaper trailing her, a dark specter creeping along at her heels, waiting for her to give up the ghost. Her body was still good enough, but her broken heart was leaking its pain into her bones. She'd done her duty -- stayed on just long enough for Silas to have a proper send-off.
She took a deep breath, her mind fixed on an image of herself on the other side. With Silas. There would be none of the prostate cancer hanging over them like a black cloud. Her eyes filled with hot tears. The first ones that she had let escape since they learned the cancer had spread too far. They teetered on her eye rims and spilled over her cheeks and filled the corners of her mouth with salt.
Now she'd gone and lost it, at least as far as the tears. Why not just go on and let go?
She did. A huge painful sob tore out of her chest and left her gasping and hiccoughing herself into sleep.
* * *
After Uncle Silas's funeral, I remember looking out the window and seeing Imo, walking around the garden. Good, I thought. Nothing like the garden to salve her heart. But the way she was muttering to herself made me wonder. Then she paused at the edge of the compost heap and it looked like she was blessing it out. That was when I realized how hard things were going to be around here.
The garden used to make her happy. Even in the dead of winter, she would pore over her garden catalogs, order her seeds, and draw up a garden plan. In years past she put in her English peas at the end of February, and although there were still the icy blows of wind and frosts, from that moment on, the garden became a growing place and the promise of life was there.
I had seen her get excited talking about her compost pile. "Lou, this is black gold to a gardener," Imo told me once when I was little. I was holding my nose and peering into her smelly heap. She picked up a fistful of dark, rich crumbly black compost that had once been a mound of corn cobs, egg shells, chicken manure, rotted vegetables, coffee grounds, pine needles, and Kudzu vines, among other things.
Toward the beginning of that same summer, when I was following Imo around the garden, she stopped and pointed at the edge of the dirt. "Look, Lou." As I stepped closer, I noticed a corn cob, only half-decomposed, jutting up and out from underneath a butter bean plant which was loaded with blooms. In fact, there were bits and pieces of stuff I recognized from the compost pile just about everywhere in the dirt of our garden. "Life springs from death," she reminded me every time we were cleaning up the supper table. "Don't throw out a thing, Lou. We'll put it in the compost heap."
From that spring on, I thought there was something almost spiritual about composting. It put me in mind of the promise that we heard from the pulpit Sunday after Sunday -- that there would be life after death.
"Please, God," I breathed, pressing my mouth against the cold window pane, watching Imo. "Let her see right up through the clouds into Heaven. Let her have just one glimpse of Uncle Silas all happy and free now."
I knew Uncle Silas was up there because on one of our last visits to see him in the hospital, he held Imo's cheeks and made her look at him. "We'll see each other again," he said, and she nodded her head. I knew he was talking about in heaven.
Normally, she was a real cheerful person with the kind of face that said, Isn't this a great world and aren't we all so happy to be alive? But she came in from the garden that day of his funeral, and there wasn't a glimmer of hope left in her eyes.
Looking back, I think I believed that if only she would start her garden, it would pull her back into life. I have a vivid memory of the month that followed. Daily I checked the south-facing windowsill where she used to start her tomato seeds indoors. Nothing but dust. Then I expectantly trotted outside to the cold-frame and peered in. A barren wasteland.
She might not even realize it's time to start her tomato seeds, I reasoned. Come to think of it, I hadn't even seen a single one of her garden catalogs out. She didn't seem to notice much of anything.
"Imo," I said, trying to find some shred of my fingernails left to bite on, "when you going to start the tomatoes?"
"Hmm?" said Imo, gazing off into space. "Sure is warm in here, isn't it?" She sighed and pressed her hands together. That was when I realized she wasn't connecting with reality anymore.
When March slipped by, I prayed that God would illumine Imo's mind so that she would remember to start the garden. Next, I dug out old garden catalogs and placed them in the kitchen, the bathroom, and on her bedside table.
Then I imagined her outside in the sunshine where her heart would mend -- digging and weeding and working the compost into the dirt so deep she felt the pulse of the Earth. I even imagined her smiling at the promise of harvest.
Copyright © 2001 by Julie Cannon