When I was a baby, my parents rented a tiny house trailer in Randolph County, Alabama. Their elderly landlord was a retired country doctor. Dr. James Parker* and his wife, Opal*, passed their days tending to their legendary vegetable and flower gardens. Born in the late 1890s, they told my mother many stories from their childhoods.
One thick summer evening, sitting on the Parkers’ front porch, Mom complimented Miss Opal on the waxy, heaven-scented white flowers blooming at the very edge of her yard. “Your gardenias are amazing. Would it be all right if I cut a few to put in a vase?”
“Help yourself,” Miss Opal said. “I can’t stand gardenias. James loves them. I told him if he just had to have them, he needed to plant them as far away from the house as he could.”
This was a new one for Mom. “How come you don’t like gardenias?”
“They remind me of my Uncle Bert*.” Miss Opal looked across the lawn at the hundred-foot row of waist-high, glossy-green-leaved shrubs that separated her yard from the overgrown pasture next door. She sighed, and turned back to Mom.
“Uncle Bert was Mama’s youngest brother. He left for Oklahoma when I was a child—thought he’d try farming out there, where it’s flat and you can see for miles and miles. One day, he was fixing a barbwire fence when a bad storm came up. He didn’t worry, though. The storm was still a good way off. He’d figured he’d patch that fence, get on his mule, and beat the rain back to the house.” She paused. “He didn’t count on the lightning.”
Miss Opal nodded sadly. “Lightning struck about a mile away. The charge traveled all the way up the fence to where Uncle Bert had his hands on it. Killed both him and the mule.”
“Even worse,” Miss Opal continued, “was that he had told his wife he wanted to be buried back home, in Alabama. And he died in late June.”
She closed her eyes. “The funeral was open-casket, even though we could barely recognize him. There was this big old burned streak down his face, down into his shirt collar and, I reckon, the whole length of his body.” Miss Opal shuddered. “Took the train eight days to get here from Oklahoma City. His wife didn’t have the money to have him embalmed. With all that time passing and the summer heat, by the day of the funeral—Lord, have mercy. They had that church full of gardenias to cover up the smell. It didn’t work.”
“To this day, every time I catch even a little whiff of the blasted things, all I can smell is sickly sweetness—just overpowering summer and perfume and death. I see Uncle Bert again, all burned and purplish-black there in the casket. And I just about faint.” Miss Opal pointed toward the edge of the yard. “And that’s why I made James plant his gardenias way out there.”
*Note: All names have been changed.
Photo: “Gardenia Ghost No. 2” (LaGrange, Georgia – 6 June 2016)
© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)