By Sean Dietrich
It was March. I remember because my truck was covered in yellow powder. And if you don’t know the yellow powder I speak of, you might be from Ohio.
A lot of people who move to the South from other places think our biggest problems are humidity, mosquitoes or evangelical fundamentalists. But those are nothing.
We have dehumidifiers for humidity, citronella for bugs and fundamentalists won’t bother you if you play dead or talk about beer.
No, one of our biggest pests in these parts is the Satanic dust that kills innocent woodland creatures and ushers in Armageddon.
Long ago, I tried to start a landscaping company. It was a bad idea and a colossal failure. I bought a utility trailer and some equipment. And when pollen season hit, I put a few fliers in mailboxes.
“FIRST LAWN-CUTTING IS FREE!!!!” I advertised, and I used four exclamation points.
One of my first customers was an old man. He hired me to re-sod his entire front yard during the height of pollen season. I paid my friend Adam to help me.
Adam and I worked like rented mules. We replaced almost half an acre of centipede grass. Our noses were running, our eyes burning.
“This pollen’s killing me,” I said to Adam.
“Who said that?” Adam answered. “My eyes are too swollen to see anything.”
While we worked, an old woman came walking out of the house. She wore a nightgown, her hair was white and messy. She wandered through the yard like she were in a daze, letting the sun hit her face. She smiled. She sneezed.
“Oh, Carl!” she shouted. “There are boys out here!”
She sneezed again.
“Boys!” she said. “Two boys!”
I was afraid this woman was going to boil us in a kettle with toe of a frog and eye of newt.
Finally, the woman announced that she wanted to have a tea party. She clapped her hands together and hollered, “A tea party!”
I almost ran for the truck.
The old man made little sandwiches for everyone. He placed fine China on a yellow-dusted patio table. We sipped from little teacups and talked about the weather. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a woman eat so many Zapp’s dill-pickle-flavored potato chips and live to tell about it.
When we finished, the old woman barked to her husband, “Carl, get my easel.”
The man went to the other room and gathered oil painting supplies. He set up a makeshift studio in the backyard for his wife. A chair sat opposite of the easel. I was instructed to sit.
“Me?” I said.
“You,” the woman said.
The woman painted, and when she held her brushes, she became fifty years younger. She kept reminding me to hold completely still and suppress my sneezes.
She made grand sweeping motions on the canvas. She stared at me with brilliant eyes.
Behind her, I could see the old man was crying.
After what seemed like an hour, she finished my portrait. She displayed it to us. It was incredible. This woman was not just a painter, she was a master.
The old man took the canvas into his careful hands. He led us to a room at the end of a long hallway. Inside were paintings of all kinds. Colorful flowers, figure studies, still-lifes, and portraits.
“Thank you for posing,” the old man said. “You don’t understand, my wife hasn’t painted in fifteen years. Most days she can’t even remember my name.”
He went on to say that his wife started taking art lessons long ago when she turned forty. She turned out to be a natural, and nobody would’ve ever guessed it.
Soon, all her friends were visiting the house to pose. The woman painted furiously through her forties, fifties, and sixties.
Then Alzheimer’s. It came hard. One day, they closed the doors to her studio forever. Overnight, the man transformed from husband into caregiver. And there is a special place in heaven for caregivers.
I don’t remember much more about that day except that my friend and I laid sod after dark by the glow of outdoor lights.
I also remember that the old man paid us too much for our work. Before we left, we saw the man and his wife through their lit-up windows. The man was helping her into bed, but she was fighting him. He was patient.
I will never forget that.
Yesterday, I drove through a familiar neighborhood and I saw that house. A young couple lives there now. There were children playing on lush green grass. A young man was working in the yard.
I asked the man if he knew the people who lived there before him.
“Yeah,” said the man. “Those were my grandparents, did you know them?”
No, I didn’t. But once, a long time ago, I was fortunate enough to have tea with two beautiful people who loved each other very much.
God bless those touched by Alzheimer’s.
Watch out for pollen.
Sean Dietrich is a columnist, and novelist, known for his commentary on life in the American South. His work has appeared in Southern Living, the Tallahassee Democrat, Southern Magazine, Yellowhammer News, the Bitter Southerner, the Mobile Press Register and he has authored seven books.