This story is by Kimberly Schramm and was part of our 2022 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
I woke up with Mamaw standing over me, a cup of coffee in her hand.
“It’s late,” she said, though I could tell from the sun on the curtains that it was barely past sunup on this October morning. “Ok, Mamaw,” I croaked, my throat still clogged with sleep. The chill in the mountain air told her there wasn’t a minute to waste in getting her prized yellow rosebush ready for the coming winter.
After pulling on the jeans and sweatshirt that were draped over the chair in the corner and putting on my shoes, we went to the shed behind the house to retrieve the tools we would need.
“You want to cut it right here,” Mamaw said, showing me the proper spot to prune the canes. “That way, you’ll get better blooms,” she said.
She handed me a pointed spade to dig around the bush so that the deep watering would seep in. Then, she pulled the long, green garden hose across the yard and saturated the soil. Next, we drove in the wooden stakes and wrapped the rosebush with burlap and stapled it so it would be safe from the icy wind until spring.
I had completed my task to her satisfaction. “Come inside and I’ll fix you a nice breakfast,” she said. “I would love another cup of coffee, maybe a piece of toast,” I said. Mamaw rolled her eyes.
“Nonsense,” she said. “You need some meat on your bones.” She pulled a slab of bacon and four eggs out of the refrigerator.
“You really don’t have to fix all this,” I protested. “There are only two of us. This is enough to feed a battalion.” She didn’t listen.
Mamaw knew her way around the kitchen like nobody else, and a few minutes later, breakfast was served.
“Your Grandaddy ordered that rosebush for me when he was in the hospital, right after he had his first stroke.” Her voice quavered and I didn’t know how to respond. “It’s such a purty yellow.” She was from old-school Scots-Irish Presbyterian stock and mostly kept a stiff upper lip about everything.
“Now that Henry’s gone, and my kids don’t need me, taking care of that rosebush gives me something to do. And now, I’m teaching you.”
As we cleared the breakfast dishes, Mamaw leaned against the kitchen counter, pain etched on her face. She had her hand pressed against her side.
“Mamaw, are you okay?” I asked. But I knew she wasn’t.
A few days earlier, my mother, Mama, had called me and told me that Mamaw had pancreatic cancer. The doctors had decided not to do surgery or chemotherapy. It was too far advanced and her heart was too weak. She would only have a few months to live, and Mama said we shouldn’t tell her. I cried, but I agreed to keep the secret.
The doctor said he would give her some medication to help with her digestive issues. They would prescribe pain medication as needed. I cried when Mama told me, but now I had to pretend everything was all right.
“It’s just this pain in my side,” said Mamaw. “I saw the doctor, and he gave me some pills to make it better.”
I had just finished my exams for Fall Semester and I was off from college until mid-January. I had a job at a local pizza place, but I had moved in with Mamaw for the winter. The doctor said she probably wouldn’t live past the first of the year.
“I’m so proud of you,” said Mamaw. “When you graduate next spring, we are going to go to Montana to see Charlie.”
“What?” I asked. “You’ve never been outside North Carolina.”
My Uncle Charlie was her youngest boy. He had lived in Montana most of my life, so I had only seen him a few times.
“We can take the train from Asheville to Chicago and then on to Montana and back. I want you to help me make it happen and I want us to see Glacier National Park. It’ll be good for you, and good for me, too.”
I was shocked.
“I always wanted to see the country,” said Mamaw. “But I was married by the time I was 16, and then we had four kids. I had them and your Grandaddy to take care of. I’ve been chained to this place my whole life. You need to get out of here so you can have a better life.”
Mamaw absolutely impressed me. And I was just so sad that she wouldn’t live long enough to take the trip we were planning.
Christmas morning arrived, and everybody got together at Mamaw’s house. She loved having her family there. It reminded her of the days when the house always hummed with the sound of running feet and slamming doors. Now, the house was mostly silent except for the echo of her memories.
Two days later, Mamaw walked into the kitchen wearing a royal blue dress with a matching blue and white plaid cape. Against the rich blue, her crystal white hair was stunning.
“I want you to drive me to Asheville to get our train tickets. We have an appointment at 10:30 am with the travel agent”
I went back to my room, changed into my best blouse, put on some lip gloss, and grabbed the car keys.
Her excitement about the trip made Mamaw seem younger than her 77 years. Maybe Mama was right about hiding the diagnosis from her. Planning this trip seemed to be the miracle she needed.
As we walked along Haywood Street, we attracted attention. With Mamaw’s pretty white hair, dramatic cape, and my red curls, we made a striking pair. What people didn’t know is that we were planning a wild adventure to the other side of the continent. An hour later, we walked out of the travel agent’s office with two round-trip tickets to Montana.
Just a few weeks later, Mamaw started failing quickly. I sat by her bedside as she moaned in pain. She asked me to give her one of her pills.
It was late in the evening. She lay back among the pillows that I had piled around her, trying to make her comfortable. Her skin had taken on a jaundiced look, heightened by the contrast with the white sheets.
“They think I’m dying,” she said. “Those doctors and your Mama. But we all are, you know.”
“Yes, Mamaw, that’s true,” I said.
“I want to die, right here, in this bed,” she said. “I don’t want to be in the hospital, covered with needles and tubes.”
“I know, Mamaw.”
“When I die, I want you to go see Montana for me.”
With that, I burst into tears. I sat on the bed and took Mamaw’s hand in mine. “I promise,” I said.
“And promise me you will take care of my rosebush,”
“I will, Mamaw. I promise.”
Darkness settled on the house. Mamaw fell asleep. I could see the lumpy shape of the rosebush, shrouded in its winter burlap. As I looked out at the moonlit yard, I offered a silent prayer. “Please let her live to see it bloom one more time.”
The morning sun woke me up. I was happy that Mamaw had slept through the night. But when I opened the bedroom door, I knew Mamaw had passed away in her sleep.
It was a hard winter, but the danger of frost finally passed and I unwrapped the rose in preparation for spring. I finished college in May, graduating with honors.
Now, seated in the observation car of The Empire Builder, I watched the scenic vistas of Montana unfold. Mamaw’s spirit was with me. She rode with me through every mile of the journey. I sensed her presence in the majestic beauty of Lake McDonald next to the mountains and in the kindness of the people I encountered. Mamaw’s hidden sense of adventure inspired me.
Heading home, I was filled with gratitude. Mamaw had lived a life full of deprivations and struggles. But in her last act, she bought me a ticket to freedom.
When I returned to her empty house after my trip, I found the rosebush in full bloom.
To my astonishment, I saw, among the spectacular yellow blossoms, one perfect crimson rose.