By SEAN DIETRICH
There once was a little girl who lived in a tiny town, in the far off land of south Alabama. A beautiful little girl. A girl with braided brunette pigtails, chocolate eyes, skinned-up knees and a cherub smile.
Hers was an era when men wore fedoras and women wore summer dresses. An era when bulbous, chrome-covered Fords and Chevys traveled 12 mph on the main drag. When distant radios sat in window sills, playing Bing Crosby, Eddie Fisher and of course, Les Baxter.
From her earliest years, the girl’s favorite activity in the world was dirt. Oh, how she loved playing in dirt. She loved to put her hands in dirt. She loved squeezing dirt. She loved smelling dirt. Other girls played with porcelain dolls, others liked coloring books. She preferred straight mud.
Her daddy owned the hardware store. Her mama was a math teacher. They were your typical small-towners. Her father spent his days sitting behind a shop counter with a floor fan aimed at his sweaty face, selling roofing nails, fishing rods and toilet lids. Her mother sat at a blackboard, teaching kids the cosine.
Meantime, if the little girl wasn’t playing in dirt, she was usually eating. She has always been a great lover of food. Namely, cake. Cakes of all kinds. But also candy bars. You never saw anyone love candy bars more.
Her favorite candy bars were as follows: Pay Days, Baby Ruths, Snickers, Almond Joys, Butterfingers, Heath bars, Milky Ways, Hershey’s bars, Mounds, Crunch bars, Kit Kats, Mars bars, Three Musketeers, Twix, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups and pretty much anything else that comes in a wrapper and isn’t good for your teeth.
And don’t even get the little girl started on ice cream.
One of the girl’s inherent gifts was the ability to make flowers grow. She was good at it. Some people just are. This is why throughout the girl’s lifetime her fingernails were often dirty, her skirts were stained with soil, and her arms were usually tan.
When she got a little older she went to Huntingdon College, a Methodist school. She left her Alabama hamlet, driving in her first-ever automobile. She took Highway 31 straight up to Montgomery, seated behind the wheel of a giant gray Plymouth that looked like a seasick Moby Dick.
The car was junk. Sometimes it didn’t even crank. And once you got it going, if you braked at an intersection the engine would die. So she learned to completely ignore stop signs. A lifelong habit she would carry into old age.
Going to a Methodist college was fun. Like all good Methodist girls, she would often sneak beer into the dorms, icing longneck bottles in the lavatory sinks, trying hard to ignore the framed portrait of Jesus on the wall.
Late at night, the girls would all congregate in someone’s room, sitting on filthy dormitory floors, eating homemade cookies and smoking unfiltered cigarettes. They would burn the midnight hours laughing and discussing the philosophical topics that all devout Methodist girls discuss.
But mostly the girls just rode around in that hideous car. They took famously fun trips through town. And whenever the ugly car would approach a busy intersection, local traffic cops, who recognized the vehicle, would halt traffic to let the girl’s Plymouth blitz through the stoplight so she wouldn’t have to tap the brakes.
When the car rolled by, five or six beautiful girls leaned out the windows, blowing kisses to the patrolman, hair flying in the wind, all screaming, “Thank you, officer!”
And it was probably the greatest day of that officer’s life.
The girl eventually married. She settled down. She had kids. Three of them. Two girls and a boy. She had a cute house. A nice backyard. Many colorful flowers.
She did the usual mom stuff. She changed cloth diapers, attended school plays, went to Little League games. She was in Civic League, she made ridiculously good deviled eggs and she could whip up a tomato chutney that made grown men see visions.
And then she grew old.
It all happened so fast that hardly anyone noticed. Why does age work like that? Why do the years get shorter? Why does life itself whirl past us at a breakneck tempo?
Her lifetime went by like a veritable blur. Often she wonders where it’s gone. It seems like only yesterday afternoon that her lean, youthful body was seated behind the great wheel of that godawful Plymouth.
Today, however, she lies in her hospice bed, drifting in and out of consciousness. She stares out her bedroom window, looking at her rainbow of geraniums, begonias, pansies, lantana, impatiens, and hydrangea-like clusters.
I’m sitting beside her, writing this.
My thoughts are interrupted when she struggles to speak through the confusion that overwhelms her mind. But eventually she gets the words out so that we can understand her.
“Please,” she says. “Don’t forget to water my flowers.”
We won’t, of course. We will never forget. Because we all know how much this girl loved playing in the dirt.