Like clockwork, they started blooming this week. The delicate, daisy-like pink chrysanthemums with the bright yellow eyes that decorate my fall flower bed popped open in the last few days, just as they always do in early October of every year. They are the last plants in my yard to produce flowers before the winter slumber — the last magnificent hurrah of the season.
My mother gave me a big clump of the mums years ago, shoveled from the plants she grew along the driveway of her Ohoopee home.
“I call them my Gloria chrysanthemums, because they usually bloom about the time Gloria’s birthday rolls around,” Mom had said. “And they are just spectacular. You’ll love them.”
Mom was right on both points. They are stunning when they decide the time is right to show off, and for the last decade, I’ve relished their beauty as I’ve watched them bloom in the days leading up to my Aunt Gloria’s birthday on October 9.
This year is no different. I walked over to the flower bed to get a closer look yesterday.
“There you are,” I said looking at four or five blooms. “Well, look at you — so pretty and pink.”
This year, their arrival is somewhat bittersweet due to my aunt’s recent passing. If she were alive, we’d be celebrating her 88th birthday, but she’s not here any more. The chairs around the kitchen table where dozens of Jarriels sat for so many years are empty now.
It’s dry here in Northwest Georgia, so I grabbed a hose and gave my thirsty chrysanthemums a drink of water and remembered the last moments I spent with Aunt Gloria.
“She eats less than a little bird,” my mother had told me back in August.
So, when I visited Tattnall County the following week, I whipped up an Italian pasta dish and some chunky ambrosia, and Mom and I carried it over to her house on Hub Jarriel Road. Glory Bell was noticeably frail, and we convinced her to eat some of the fruit salad.
From a kitchen chair off to her side, I examined her as she fiddled with the oxygen tube on her face and spooned a maraschino cherry to her lips. She was thinner (having recently lost some weight), and her hair was shorter than she usually wore it. And every topic that came up seemed to aggravate her that day.
That same morning, we had learned of the passing of my Uncle Robert’s first wife, Danny, and the three of us discussed the possibility of going to the funeral later in the week in Fernandina Beach, Florida — a two-and-a-half-hour drive away.
“If you feel up to it, and you want to go, I’ll drive us all down there, and afterwards, you can spend a few days with Caroline,” I suggested to my aunt, referring to her daughter who lives in Brunswick.
Two days later, the three of us loaded ourselves into Mom’s truck, “Brownie,” and cruised southward through God’s country. Gloria was uncomfortable in the passenger seat, and I lobbed question after question her way, trying to distract her from her not feeling well. Mom sat in the backseat and gazed out the window at the miles and miles of farmland.
She revealed to me who her favorite grandchild was and what songs she wanted sung at her funeral and why. She talked about some of my cousins. She detailed a misunderstanding she had with her daughter- in-law that caused a family rift that lasted decades.
“We didn’t get along, but I always loved her,” she told me.
In Jesup, Gloria pointed down a road and said, “Aunt Beaut lived down there a ways in a pretty house. She had a piano in the front. Remember that, Wanda?” My mother wasn’t paying attention and didn’t answer.
Near Brunswick, she pointed to a marshy area. “Me and Ray and Robert and Danny fished there one time,” Aunt Gloria said. “Danny caught a big ol’ fish that day. None of the rest of us caught a thing.”
The memory brought a smile to her face.
When we arrived at the funeral home, cousins who had traveled great distances to pay their final respects to Aunt Danny were pleasantly surprised to see Aunt Gloria stroll in behind her walker. They surrounded her and celebrated her with hugs, kisses and love.
After the burial, Caroline suggested the four of us eat a late lunch at Steffens Restaurant in Kingsland before heading back to Ohoopee.
We huddled into a booth in the back of the dining room. Aunt Gloria was cold, so I went out to the truck and retrieved a big green blanket for her and watched her cuddle up into its fleece before our drinks arrived. Mom ordered fried alligator tail saying, “I’ve never tried it, so why not?” Aunt Gloria ordered fish and shrimp with sides.
Even though my aunt was weak and exhausted that day, I saw flashes of her electric personality as the four of us talked and laughed like girlfriends on a girls’ weekend getaway.
I didn’t know it was the last time I’d hear her laughter or hug my Aunt Gloria’s neck and tell her I loved her.
I savor the memory of those last moments spent with her, and I’m so grateful for that day and the 57 years I had Gloria in my life.
And that’s what I thought about as I watered my flowers yesterday. I looked at the chrysanthemums named for my aunt and tried not to be sad. Instead, I thought, “Life is beautiful,” and I tried to be grateful, because I am.
“ Gloria chrysanthemums”