Mountain City was too small to have a full time florist, so when there was a death in the community of 2,300 people the Sanders brothers would order a substantial quantity of mums and yellow and red roses, and carnations, from a florist wholesaler in Bristol and would turn their kitchen into a wreath and spray assembly line.
Jimmy and John were only two years apart, both in the mid-fifties then, and lived in a Victorian house with a younger sister and their mother. The house was larger than the four of them needed for it has served for many years as both the family home and office for their father, Dr. Sanders, who had passed away several years before . When the kitchen became a flower factor, Sis, as they called their sister, and Mrs. Sanders would help, although Mrs. Sanders helped less than supervised by offering critiques of the boy’s work. Sis was assigned to cleaning up the cut stems from the table and sweeping up as they worked, much like a barber does between customers.
My part time job when I was 16 years old, just having gotten my driver’s license, was to drive the finished wreathes and potted arrangements and the huge casket spray when finished from the Sanders’ back door to the back door of Howard Funeral Home on Main Street, the only funeral home in the city. The work was sporadic, only happening when there was a death in the community, and would usually take only a few hours, moving the floral arrangements via the Sanders’ station wagon.
I liked the waiting for the next load of flowers for the Sanders, all natives of the small town, would usually exchange stories of the deceased, and not necessarily the way one does on the night before the funeral when visiting with the family in the funeral home’s small chapel. These stories offered critiques of the person’s life, their family, their farm or store, any aspect of the person’s life was open for review as floral wire was twisted around the stems of flowers and stuck into deep green Styrofoam. The stories were never about infidelities or crimes the person may have committed, but more about how he would always short change his customers or how she drank during the day when at home alone. The life-critiques were more fact-based gossip than any thing that really should never be discussed in public. Either way, I was always listening and learning.
When I arrived at the funeral home, Mr. Howard or his brother-in-law, who was also a mortician and drove the hearse to the church for the service and then to the cemetery, would meet me at the back door and help me unload the flowers. They would take the arrangements into the chapel themselves so I never actually saw the body, never venturing past the back room which served as the showroom for three or four display caskets, and never participated in setting up arrangements around the casket.
Very seldom did I make deliveries other than to the funeral home, and only once did I travel outside of town to the home of the deceased. That order was a modest one, only two arrangements and the casket spray, which had to be taken to a home up past Trade. The arrangements were ready when I arrived at the Sanders, so there was no standing around waiting for them to finish while sharing stories about the deceased. In fact, when John gave me the directions, he said they did not know the family at all, that the order had come by phone from the funeral home. All they knew was that the family lived way back off the road above the main highway and that the only reason they filled the order, since it was so small, was because it coincided with a larger funeral they world be working on the following day.
Directions I was given was to go to Trade, take a left on Haskin Fork Road, then right onto a dirt road called Haskin Creek Road and go to the end. The house, which was actually over the state line and into North Carolina by about a mile, was the last one on the left. Would probably take about an hour and a half to drive up there and back and I like the idea of getting paid to drive.
Having never interacted with a family in such a situation, I was a little anxious and since I had never arranged wreaths around a casket, I was unsure if there was a specific way it should be done. And I had certainly never carried a large casket spray and set it on the casket, open or closed. The further I drove, the more I got a little worried.
Haskin Creek Road twisted back and forth onto itself as it climbed up the mountain parallel to the creek with the same name. The road was not wide enough to meet another vehicle so I was pleased that I didn’t, but the route did not have signs of being heavily traveled anyway. The family of the deceased may be the only ones who ever drove up there.
The air got cooler as I drove farther long and I thought that was probably a contributor to the rich green canopy that hung over the road. I wasn’t sure how I would know which house was the last house, but around one particularly sharp turn the road reached a dead end in the front yard of a long, old, unpainted one story farmhouse. That was the house.
I parked the car and walked up to the front porch where two men sat. I told them I was delivering flowers and the younger man, who had stood up as I approached the porch, said to bring them on in. I retrieved the two simple wreaths from the car and walked up the thin wooden steps onto the porch and through the screen door he held open for me. The older man did not get up or even make eye contact; he seemed to be staring right through the mountain side that rose on the other side of the creek.
The front room of the house was dark except for a single tall floor lamp in one corner. All the curtains were drawn and the dozen chairs that were there lined the wall giving it the appearance that whatever furniture had been there had been removed. There were three or four older women, all dressed in black which accentuated their white hair sitting together on one side of the room with a young women also in black but with bright yellow hair. On the other side of the room were three men, also with gray hair, mostly thinning, one in a black suit and the others in clean pressed overalls and white shirts with the top button buttoned tight. No one said anything. I was invisible except to the man who held the door for me.
The one lamp in the room dropped a low bronze light over the open end of the casket, which sat along the far wall, illuminating the face of a soldier. His face was smooth and his uniform pressed neat, its subtle green dull against the pale blue of the casket’s lining. His chest was nearly bear of insignia He wasn’t much older than I.
I set up the two wreaths in front of the casket by a small table on which sat a display of a folded US flag, a picture of the soldier in a football uniform and a picture with a girl I recognized as the one with the yellow hair.
I returned to the car for the spray and only then realized why it was made of both red and white carnations instead of the usual red only, and why its bow was bright blue. The piece was nearly four feet long and a little unwieldy, but I balanced it carefully, made it through the front door and placed it gently on top of the casket, and then turned to leave. The room had remained silent the entire time I was there and no one’s eyes left the floor. As I left, the man at the door quietly said thank you and then turned away, not even leaving an opening for a “you’re welcome,” or “I’m sorry for your loss,” or anything. I was still invisible.
As I drove back I thought about how glad I was the Sanders did not know the family and that I had heard no stories, good or bad. All I knew of the family, and the soldier, was what I saw, and that was enough for me to know the young man’s absence would leave a big whole in their lives for a long time.