This story is by Kathy Ferrell Powell and was part of our 2021 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
I hopped in my Honda Civic, wanting to drive, not knowing, or caring where I was going. Trying to get away. Somehow to be alone with my thoughts and maybe sort them out and make sense of life. Unsure if I was running away from the idea of being an orphan or hoping to find a way to accept my mother’s death. Too many losses in my life, I couldn’t bear this one too. It was the middle of the summer break, so I couldn’t even throw myself into my work with elementary students. I just wanted to be somewhere else.
After driving for a while, I saw a bridge ahead and a pretty, little meadow that didn’t seem imprisoned by a fence. I turned on to a dirt road, stopped the engine and jumped out of the car. Three ducks swam in a circular pond sheltered by a tall live oak. The place seemed patiently waiting for me to discover it. I searched the car for anything resembling breadcrumbs and found my niece’s lunch sack stuck between the seats. Inside were bits of leftover sandwich, some stale shortbread cookies, and something shriveled that I thought must have been baby carrots at one time
Planting myself on the cool, luscious Bermuda grass, I leaned back into the oak. The discomfort of the rough tree stifled the ache in my heart. The ducks wobbled over, expectantly. I tossed pieces of the bread and cookies towards the pond and laughed as the ducks waddled in double time, snapping at the water, the cacophony of their quacks filling the air. When the food ran out, they returned to their uninterested swimming. I closed my eyes — one with nature.
After dozing in the summer sun, I opened my eyes to notice a roadside shrine, wilted flowers surrounding the lone white cross. I stumbled over to the memorial. On the cross hung a picture of a girl about seven – the same age as Anna when she was killed. The girl was dressed in a feathery pink ballet costume, her bright blue eyes sparkling from under a flowery headdress, crowning a long mane of silky, dark hair, her smile beaming with pride. Someone had scrawled, “Our little angel.”
Tears of anger stung my eyes as I turned away. Had she been killed by a drunk driver, like my sister Anna? The ancient, red hot anger bubbled again and stunned me with its intensity. I never allowed my mind to remember, not in the last fifteen years. It was when I became jaded.
Scenes from the court room flitted through my mind. The well-dressed defense lawyer stood before the judge and jury and asked, no demanded, leniency for his client, ‘because he was normally an upstanding citizen.’ Tell me what kind of honorable citizen continues to drink and drive knowing their actions can end some innocent person’s life?
‘It wasn’t premeditated, ladies and gentlemen of the jury. It just happened.’ Such bull. Lightning striking just happens. After seven drinks, he knew what he could do, the same as if he had pointed a gun at Anna’s head and pulled the trigger.
The judge granted him a suspended sentence and probation — no jail time. His life continued, watching his family grow, while Anna lay in the ground, her family mortally wounded.
Someone shooting fireworks in the distance broke into my livid meditation. I am relieved. I rarely let myself think of Anna. It still hurts too much. Ten at the time, I was her big sister, her only sister. Surrounded by four brothers, we were the united front. Together we took them on and won. But I couldn’t protect her from the evil that night; I couldn’t die instead.
Birthdays were always big celebrations in our family – homemade cakes, presents, no chores that day. Five weeks after the accident was Anna’s birthday. My mother made us celebrate it. She said we needed this to heal, but I only felt pain. No presents that day, but my mother made a beautiful birthday cake with a large, purple octopus in the center. Anna had really been fascinated by sea creatures. Mother said the octopus represented our family. Each of us was an arm – six kids, two parents. But if you counted the legs of the octopus now, there were only seven long legs and one short stump. The stump to remind us that Anna would always be a part of our family. The family survived, alive and together. But just as our three-legged cat, Yard had learned to function as well as any four-legged cat, so too would our family continue without our Anna. I found it hard to accept, because Yard had been born without a fourth leg and didn’t know the pain of separation, unlike us.
When the boys were in bed that night, my mother gave me the quilt she had made for Anna. It was a tradition, at age eight, my mother made each child a quilt, with nine squares. One square for each member and the middle square blank until you decided what was most important to you. I hid Anna’s quilt in a chest unable to look at it.
School starts again. The bell rings with lots of tears shed for the passing of summer, but not from me. I am grateful for the passage of time. New thoughts fill my mind. I introduce my students to the concept of music as a universal language. Even deaf children can feel the rhythms and beats. All over the world, no matter if educated or not, people create music with whatever they have available and have done so since the dawn of man. Music can be your comforter in times of sorrow, rejoice with you in times of triumph. No one is alone with music.
They seem in awe by this concept and over the next few weeks I introduce them to the life cycle of flowers. I pick carnations because they are my favorite and come in a cornucopia of colors. I want to show them from one tiny seed comes this beautiful plant that delivers many flowers. Even when the flower wilts and dies its life is not over. We lose that beautiful flower for a brief time, but it forms seeds and gives us more beautiful plants. Life lasts beyond the present.
As I teach my students this, realization dawns on me. After school I am once again driving in the car, but this time I know where I must go. I stop the car, kick off my shoes and drag Anna’s old quilt with me. I walk along the wave swept beach until I find the place our family used to camp. I spread my quilt and sit on the warm sand. The tears flow from my eyes freely. The weaving of my family’s tapestry unraveling crushes me – first Anna, then dad, Michael, Sean and now mama, all gone, three of us left. I close my eyes and feel the wind blow across my face, tossing my hair into disarray. I swear I can smell the incense from all the funerals. It is said the incense carries the spirit upwards to the heavens. And I think of the cemeteries and I remember a professor telling me, “The only permanently well-adjusted people are those who are dead. For the rest of us it is a daily struggle for balance.”
I open my eyes to see the sun setting in the west with vibrant scarlet, royal purple, and orange hues. Life is made up of sunrises and sunsets. Each has its own beauty; each can be seen in a negative or positive light. I can either mourn the end of the night or look to the adventure of a new day and new opportunities. I can mourn the end of the day or celebrate and reflect on the good and wondrous things of the day and place them forever in my memory.
Mama was the cement that held our family together and without her all the other tentacles will drift away into a vast nothingness. No, the family would still survive, with another battle scar.
I run my hand over each square, letting the memories flow. Each square represents a family member, designed with our different personalities and favorite things in mind. Anna’s ninth square is still blank. I always thought the blank square was sad, foreboding but now I understand how to complete the quilt, the cycle of life.
As I sing an old favorite song, I embroider the ninth square, with “sisters forever” in a heart. When I have children, I will make them a quilt and they will understand how they fit into the scheme of life and how all the pieces make a beautiful quilt of memories.