Dead Houses, Live Flowers

By Don Rollins

Everybody who serves a faith community has to do at least some measure of pastoral care. Serious accidents, terminal illness and wayward teens in juvie notwithstanding, it’s usually small potatoes. Call ahead and go visit. Most of us do pretty well with it. Some of us even like it. But a fair number of us would be happy as a woodpecker in a lumberyard if somebody else did the heavy pastoral lifting. Let’s face it: not everybody is cut out to be Gentle Jesus.

But, predilections aside, every religious leader ought to now and then have a conversation with the electric scooter generation. From Baptists to Buddhists, once that life review thing kicks in, most folks want to tell their story: places they’ve been, faces they’ve seen, love lost and found. To borrow the hook line from a song, seems my elderly parishioners just want to walk somebody ‘round their garden before the sun goes down. And so I call ahead and go visit.

Take Lillian. (Not her real name.) She lives in town, now, but her heart is still somewhere up a gravel county road in the South Carolina countryside — a patch of earth where the daffodils she planted decades back are once again radiant with spring dew and warm sunshine. Would I like some sweet tea? Oh, and grab that scrapbook over there, will ya?

The brown-tinted photos begin with the fresh, two-story farmhouse, framed with dozens of yellow flowers: 1943; 1944; 1945 … Always the same shot, taken from the same angle. Things don’t change much until I reach the streaked images of early color photography. Still, house and flowers go on like that: 1955; 1956; 1957 …

I thumb ahead. Same house, same flowers. Just better color. I don’t get it.

Another decade goes by. Somewhere along the way, Lillian tells me, a son moves out and a husband is taken by cancer: 1968; 1969; 1970 … The house and land are getting harder to manage, now. But this is her home. Her respite. Her place.

I keep turning pages. The Seventies become the Eighties. Now the semi-circular drive grows faint. The clapboard fades, weathers and peels. The porch swing and “tree tire” are no more. Time to think about the next phase, you know. Find the Realtor. Get the appraisals. Sign the papers. Have the sale.

But by the grace of the puzzled but accommodating new owners, the annual photos continue. Sadly, the young couple soon split and the house goes silent and dark. For good.

Still, Lillian makes sure the son with the fancy camera takes his spring forays to keep up with the daffodils. It’s a custom, a ritual, no matter ever-encroaching time and the dense Carolina kudzu.

I’ve come at a good time. The 2010 is just in. Like last year — like the last 20 — the house is dead, but the flowers still stand tall and elegant. Unbowed. A proud witness to a time when the entire world seemed in peril save for a shiny hill country farmhouse and the young family who willed it into being.

By now you might expect Miss Lillian to be sad about stubborn flowers in front of her landlocked shipwreck of a house; and you’d be wrong. She tells you to get the two of you a little more sweet tea, then, once you settle back into your chair, she puts a point across in true wizened, patient, Southern style: Some people see the house and some people see the flowers. She sees the flowers. How ’bout you?

Friends, the daily rags and blogs are enough to make our left-leaning heads explode. Our young continue to fight two wars, neither of which promises to make a damn bit of difference so long as this nation keeps in place its insane Middle East policy. If there’s been an upward tick to the economy, I wish somebody would tell that to the folks living in the shacks and trailers here in the South. And the president we thought would lead us out of the desert — literally and figuratively — is besieged and equivocating on key issues.

So, deep in the throes in my daily, good-white-liberal despair, what happens? I stumble upon an old Woody Guthrie pacifist/populist that was fighting Joe McCarthy when I was somewhere between my parents’ lustful look in history class and plastic underpants.

And she wants me to show me repetitious pictures of dead houses and live flowers. Something about the bright side of life, despite it all.

Tuck that story away in your hearts, friends. Put it in the front pocket of your soul. And hold it close the next time you’re laid low by all that needs changing.

Lillian sees the flowers. How ’bout you?

Rev. Don Rollins is a Unitarian Universalist minister in Spartanburg, S.C. Email

From The Progressive Populist, May 15, 2010

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