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Rheta Johnson: Azaleas and long legs

 

Rheta Grimsley Johnson

 

 

There are still a lot of overgrown Katrina lots on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, green ghosts left from a decade ago when the driveways led to houses and the concrete slabs held homes. 

 

I cut a branch of Formosa azaleas for my table off one of those sad lots, wondering who planted the gargantuan bush, who watered it in a long-ago hot August, who took an Easter photo in front of the blooms. 

 

Formosa azaleas are the color God intended for the flowers, the purple-pink of an old woman's crooked lipstick. It should be illegal to plant azaleas north of I-10; they grow house-high down here. 

 

The azaleas riding shotgun led to thoughts of my father, whose job it was each Easter Sunday to document our finery for Mother, producing a trove of black-and-white shots that measure familial growth like marks on a wall. Mother fetched the Kodak Brownie, and always, always, Daddy lined us up in front of the azalea bushes. 

 

In the official Easter photograph, you had to imagine the fuchsia color of the blooms. Daddy's shadow ended up in the shot with us, legs slightly spread apart, the better to position the camera at his waist. 

 

My memory also has to supply the color of the dresses that were made by my maternal grandmother, who wrapped her handiwork in brown paper tied up with string and mailed them to Alabama from Georgia. Protected only by a layer of thin tissue and the recycled grocery sack mailer, the dresses always arrived perfectly intact. This was back before the post office gave customers the third degree. 

 

I can't remember what I had for breakfast this morning, but I can remember those dresses. Pink polished cotton. Yellow voile. Blue taffeta. Dresses in melon colors embellished with crochet or smocking or lace. 

 

For good visuals, Grannie's dresses dwarfed the azaleas. 

 

Our azaleas never got as big and glorious as the ones on the lot where I "borrowed" my latest bouquet. Daddy was far too neat to be a successful gardener, and obsessively pruned bushes at any old time of year. You could throw a tablecloth across the flat-topped results and set a proper tea table. That didn't help the blooming any. Or the photographs, where my sisters and I look as if we've been tortured and released. 

 

Some years there were bonnets, some not. Anklet socks eventually were replaced by first heels. In one photograph, my younger sister has a big scab on her knee from a bicycle wreck. Our smiles were a lot like the azaleas behind us: half-hearted, eyes closed as we squinted into the sun. 

 

After the photo session, the women in the family marched off to services, leaving my father behind to read his newspaper, exactly like the scene in the 1959 Norman Rockwell painting "Sunday Morning." Now his long legs could rest on the recliner, his feet on the rest that popped out like an extra appendage when you pulled at the wooden handle. 

 

Easter services at a Baptist church were as predictable as the meal that followed. "Up From the Grave He Arose." Ham and congealed salad. 

 

To us it was a waiting game till church was over and the dishes cleared and the egg hunt could commence. If the weather was nice, we could go barefoot to look for eggs. If not, Mother warned us back into our shoes with the edict that we were "rushing the season." 

 

And who in her right mind would not?

 

 

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