Mamaw Daisy was more than happy to see me. It had been a week since my dad’s shiva, and my step-mom, Shelly, had finally reached the point in her grief where she wanted to be alone. I figured some traditional grandmother one-on-one, complete with too much food and drowsily watching daytime game shows in her dark living room, would be a good palate cleanser for my soul after days of creeping into Shelly’s kitchen to munch on funeral sandwiches.
Mamaw was already preparing lunch. It was no later than 10 a.m., but I hadn’t eaten breakfast, so I had a plate of crowder peas and mashed potatoes topped with Armour beef stew and home-canned tomatoes. Mamaw Daisy, whose hair was in curlers while she waited for her perm to set, sat across the table from me and had only a cigarette.
“How you holdin’ up, girl?” she asked.
I shrugged, mouth full of potatoes.
“I lost my daddy to cancer fifty years ago.”
She went on to tell a story I had already heard. Her father had colorectal cancer and, out of his eight children, only Daisy was willing to go home and care for him. Grandfather Samuel had been a backwards southern Mormon who once tied his eldest daughter to a tree and beat her with a whip because her brassiere strap accidentally showed from under her shirt. His youngest, Daisy, was his favorite, shy and reserved, only daring to speak when spoken to. But when Daisy had her first daughter, Rose, and her husband, Daniel, hadn’t stopped hitting her, she returned home to Grandfather Samuel and Grandmother Alice only to have them tell her she now belonged to her husband and they couldn’t take her back.
Daisy returned home to the dying Grandfather Samuel because he no longer had a wife to tend to him. She stayed with him for six days. The last three, he kept begging her to kill him. On the final day, she hid in another room while he screamed and cried all day, only to go silent that night. She said for years she regretted letting him die alone, but after she left Papaw Daniel, opened her own flower shop to support her daughters, and began to lead her own life, she felt she had given Grandfather what he deserved: a feeling of pure, cold loneliness, of desertion so sudden and vicious, like biting down on cold metal.
Fun family stories like this were what passed the time for me as a child babysat by my grandma. No story was too graphic, too adult for me as long as it was entirely true. She also liked to tell me about when one of her brothers chopped her other brother’s finger off with a hatchet because they both thought the other would chicken out, and when her eldest sister died of rabies, but no story was more scarring than the one of Grandfather Samuel’s demise. She told my cousin Holly the same stories, but when our mothers were around and everyone was talking about the Good Old Days, there was an eerie sense that Mamaw Daisy’s own children had not been trusted with the same knowledge Holly and I had been handed before we were even in grade school.
“I loved my daddy, Mamaw Daisy.”
My dad had been a high school biology teacher who wore a lab coat to the grocery store and volunteered to do science shows for terminal kids at the children’s hospital in Augusta. He was tragically goofy, always having a good time, and for most of my life, was legally drunk every day.
When I was fourteen, I made him his favorite meal for his forty-second birthday. I wasn’t a great cook, but I worked for hours to make meat loaf, mashed potatoes, and collard greens, all from scratch and with fresh ingredients. When I had finished, my dad was passed out drunk on the couch. Shelly and I ate dinner without him. The following day, a Sunday, when he woke up after 2 p.m., Dad had some of the leftovers for lunch, as well as a forty-ounce Budweiser to ease his hangover and prepare for the next school day. I waited patiently for him to finish, for him to thank me for my hard work, but all he had to say was, “It needs salt.” I saw red, destroyed every glass, dish, and piece of artwork in my line of sight until Shelly pinned my arms behind my back and hollered at my dad, “This is all you! Look at what you are doing!”
He didn’t have a drop after that Sunday afternoon, but it didn’t matter. Almost four years after his last drink, he was diagnosed with stage three liver cancer, and a year and a half after that, he was gone. Tragically goofy as he was, his life ended up being just regular old tragic.
“I loved my daddy, too,” Mamaw said. “Anyways, your aunt Lily is coming by to help me rinse and set my hair. We’ll be gabbin’, you know, but please stay, and don’t hesitate to let me know if you need any little thing, sugar.”
Aunt Lily did come by to do Mamaw’s hair, but when she saw me she called Holly, Aunt Violet, and Aunt Rose. Before today, my mother, Iris, was the only member of this family who had seen me in the flesh since the second day of the shiva. I’m sure they had tried all kinds of ploys to smoke me out, but all of their messages were either lost in the stacks of recent tapes by Shelly’s answering machine, or scribbled carelessly on the notepad by the telephone at my mom’s, who ripped her answering machine out of the wall years ago because of her sisters.
Holly walked in with a Polaroid camera hanging around her neck, bouncing gently on her pregnant belly. She collapsed into a kitchen chair, fanning her sweaty neck and whipping her blond ponytail off her skin.
“Hey, Mama, Mamaw,” Holly said. Lily and Mamaw Daisy ignored her, arguing over Mamaw’s hair. “Sorry it took me so long to get here. I had to run some photo tests for the Belcourt wedding.”
Belcourt. They sound rich.
Holly turned to me. “How are you doing, hon?”
I told her I was doing okay and asked her how her first year of college was, but I already knew. Holly and I had both just finished our freshman years at college, but unlike me in every way, Holly went to a prestigious private college to study pre-med. She realized she was pregnant after Christmas break but finished the year anyway with a 4.0 for the second semester and the year. She hadn’t decided if she was going to return or not, but it didn’t matter because the portfolio she had collected during her just-for-fun photography class was enough to book her ten high-paying photography gigs over the summer. She was considering photography full time. She was closest to a degree, an actual career, and producing Mamaw’s first great-grandchild.
Violet and Rose came in bickering, as usual.
“Well, I actually went to college,” Rose said, pulling her designer sunglasses off of her face.
Rose, like her mother and sisters, was a florist, but she worked exclusively with funeral homes. Her shop, Final Arrangements, was the most lucrative of all her sisters’ and she never let anyone forget it.
“For horticulture. Which you don’t actually need to run a flower shop,” Violet said, popping the clip-on shades off of her eyeglasses.
Violet and Lily ran Mamaw Daisy’s old flower shop, Sugarberry Blossoms.
"What do you know about properly running a flower shop? How many fingers have you got left?”
“Oh, did they teach you how to handle sharp tools at flower school? Please, Lily’s real estate license she got for fun is more useful to what we do than a horticulture degree.”
Violet slid her shades into the breast pocket of her denim shirt while Rose carefully placed her sunglasses on top of her hair like a tiara.
Aunt Violet was tough, which is one of the nicer words people used to describe her. She had calloused hands and short nails because “I do my own work.” Final Arrangements and my mom’s flower shop, Cat’s Foot, ordered pre-cut flowers, but Violet convinced Lily to let her cut theirs herself. One summer, when Holly and I were seven and being passed around between family flower shops while school was out, Aunt Violet cut the knuckle out of her index finger while trimming flowers. Because the blade was so sharp and she was working so fast, she didn’t notice until I scraped it off the concrete floor and handed it to her. A few years later, she lost the tip of her pinky the same way, but it fell into the trash and wasn’t found until ten hours later, much too late to reattach it like a doctor had her knuckle. Aunt Rose was insistent that one reattached digit and another lost forever wasn’t worth whatever money ordering uncut flowers was saving Sugarberry Blossoms, but to Aunt Violet, a penny saved was a penny earned.
After the bickering died down and Lily finished Mamaw’s hair, we decided to play rummy, and boy, there’s nothing quite like being in a room full of florists just after the funeral of your immediate family member.
“How did you like the wreath?”
“Pfft, wreath. Didn’t you prefer my peace lily?”
“A peace lily for a funeral? How original, Violet.”
Before I was forced to choose which was better, Mamaw Daisy came to my rescue.
“Iris came by wallago to bring me my pictures I had developed,” she said, a cigarette hanging out of her mouth as she held on tight to her cards with both hands. “Wanted me to thank you again for coming with us to Avi’s uh… thang the other day.”
She was talking, of course, about my dad’s shiva. In his final weeks, my dad had warned Shelly and me that his will would read that he be buried as soon as possible, not embalmed, in a pine box in the Jewish section of Sugarberry Cemetery, and he was not prepared to change his last will and testament.
“You bought a plot in the Jewish section of Sugarberry Cemetery?” Shelly asked.
“Don’t worry yourself, sugar,” he replied. “I bought four. One for me, you, Gertie, and Gertie’s spouse if she ever marries.”
Dad said all of this with great finality, discouraging Shelly or me from questioning him. Shelly was not Jewish and hadn’t planned on converting, but that was for her to figure out.
Dad had been what he himself called “barely a Jew” for most of my life and our visits to the nearest synagogue were always “for culture, not religion,” but his decisions about his burial were for us to figure out.
“And sit shiva for at least three days,” he said before abruptly closing his eyes and pretending to die.
“You know my folks are Christian, they don’t get that stuff,” Shelly replied.
He popped one eye open for a moment to counter, “The A.M.E. Church knows to feed you. Just tell them to use the food they were going to waste on the whole city on the day of my funeral to feed my wife and daughter for three days instead. My funeral doesn’t need a reception.”
Shelly and I did end up sitting shiva, or something like it. For three days, we sat on the couch in sweatpants with the door unlocked for several hours each day. We didn’t expect a turnout from our very goyische community, but if you’re sitting shiva in a largely non-Jewish town and want people to show up, Georgia is the place to do it. Neighbors, friends, and family brought truckloads of food to us for three days and then a couple more. The only thing was that they’d gently rap at the front door and we’d have to shout at them to just come in.
Uncle Calvin, Shelly’s brother and pastor, came through in a kippah, asking if he was wearing the “ya-mayka” right before delivering our sixth baked macaroni to the kitchen. Mamaw Berta, Shelly’s mother, came by approximately fifty-seven times on just the first day to give us food and nervously vacuum and wipe down all the surfaces with apple cider vinegar. Shelly’s siblings, cousins (first, second, and third), and every member of her church all showed up within the first twenty-four hours, then each checked back in at least once before the three days were up.
Dinah, Dad’s only living immediate family, showed up on day two, pissed as hell that we’d dumped him in the ground before her flight from Tampa had landed. Aunt Dinah was Dad’s older sister who he had been very close with when I was younger. When he quit drinking, he had asked her to give up drinking as well, but she just laughed in his face. Suddenly, seeing another person drunk at 11 a.m. on a Wednesday was depressing for him, so he avoided her more and more until she kickstarted her early midlife crisis and moved to Florida.
“I told you what he wanted and what was happening weeks ago,” Shelly said. “Being drunk is not an excuse for your poor memory and negligence.”
For the rest of the day Shelly ignored Dinah who, in turn, didn’t show up to sit with us on day three.
My mom, her three sisters, Mamaw Daisy, and Holly also showed up on the second day. The six women stood in a heap, staring at Shelly and me with big hungry eyes. My aunt Rose narrowed her eyes at the Magen David around my neck for just a fraction of a second before snapping her Botoxed cheeks back into place for a friendly smile as warm and southern as apple pie. They all suddenly remembered who they were and brightly and loudly expressed their deepest condolences, except my mom.
Mom and Shelly had never liked each other, nor had they pretended to. But the man who had come between them was gone. The man they had both loved at some point was gone. Mom took Shelly’s hand and gently squeezed it, then produced a little black box from the pocket of her gray slacks. Shelly opened the box to reveal a silver necklace with two small pendants strung independently: a silver chamsa and a silver cross.
“He’s still with you,” Mom said. “And in his eyes or your eyes, both ways, you are safe, protected. It’s real sterling silver. Avi mentioned a long time ago that you had a metal allergy.”
Hearing Dad’s first name stung. For days he had only been “Mr. Fleiss,” “Your Father,” “Your Husband.” Mom could say his first name because she knew him. She really knew him. In his mid-thirties, he had cheated on her with Shelly and, apparently, some other Jane Doe because Shelly and Mom both ended up with chlamydia. Avram Fleiss was raised strictly, cleanly, quietly, and chasidically in 1950s New York City. He moved to Georgia to study biological and agricultural engineering and, by the time he had his Ph.D., he was a husband and a father. He was late sowing his wild oats, but they got sowed one way or the other. He tricked Iris Green into believing he was a non-threatening nerd who wanted a quiet life, and for the most part he was, until one night he was thirty-five, drunk, and tallying up just how many research positions he had had to turn down to be a public school teacher so he could be around to raise his daughter. Taking his drunkenness outside of the house, which he rarely did, he bumped into Shelly Noble, who he hadn’t seen since undergrad, as she leaned over a pool table in acid-wash jeans. You know what happens next. He disappeared for six months— well, not exactly. He kept his job at the school where he showed up every weekday, but he moved into a single-wide trailer to be a single man for a while and only saw me on weekends. To everyone’s disbelief, instead of returning home to my mom, instead of divorcing her and starting over completely as a single man, at the end of his six-month spirit journey, he chose Shelly Noble.
Iris Green knew Avi Fleiss. She had loved Avi Fleiss, hated Avi Fleiss, forgiven Avi Fleiss. Now she was at his shiva as the first wife. The tossed-aside, used up dishrag, but she refused to show it. She was in her mid-forties but her skin was taut, her figure was thick but smooth, and her eyes were bright, because her first husband walked out when she was still young and she had the good sense to never get another one. Shelly Noble got the good life with Avi Fleiss. The sober life. The faithful life. But the price was to be his wife as and when he died before fifty. Iris Green had the good life now, but instead of rubbing it in Shelly’s face, she marched into Avi Fleiss’s shiva and gave his second wife the gift of forgiveness and solidarity.
Everyone looked up from their cards as Mamaw spoke. She appeared was looking directly at Aunt Rose, who didn’t seem to appreciate the attention.
“Of course I went. Why wouldn’t I go and be there for Gertie?” Rose turned to me and forced the corners of her mouth out.
“Well, she just knows you don’t like Shelly,” Mamaw said, looking back down at her cards to say We’re done here, back to the game, but Rose wasn’t having it. She scoffed.
“Well, obviously I don’t like her, Mama. She slept with my sister’s husband.”
“Oh, please,” Aunt Violet interjected, her spectacled eyes not rising from her hand, racing back and forth over her cards. “Cindy Anderson fucked your own husband and you still have her make your boutonnieres.”
“She cuts me a deal in exchange for me not telling her family,” Aunt Rose replied, then audibly snapped her teeth together, realizing she shouldn’t have said that.
Everyone looked up again, but no one spoke. Holly, who sat at the far side of the table to keep Mamaw’s smoke away from her pregnant lungs, drew from the discard pile and laid down the King, Queen, and Ace of spades.
“Even Aunt Iris has forgiven Shelly at this point,” Holly said, tapping her manicured nails against the last two cards in her hand. “Just tell us the real reason you’re so weird about her.”
“I just don’t know her,” Rose said, shimmying into her cardigan even though Mamaw had the gas heater blazing to warm her old bones. “She’s from… the other side of the tracks. You never know if you can trust those people.”
Holly nodded as she played her three of diamonds on Aunt Violet’s Queen, King, and Ace. “You mean black people?” Holly tossed her last card into the discard pile and smiled. “I’m out. Count your hands.”
Aunt Violet, totally absorbed in the game again, ignored the conversation at hand and hollered, “You can’t do that! My Ace is played as a face card, not a two. We don’t play ‘round the world in this house.”
“Let her,” Rose said, standing up. “I’m not gonna be interrogated at my mama’s dining room table. Game’s over.”
Holly kept a level head. “I just find it amazing that you’re a racist considering Shelly’s own mama raised you.”
“How dare you say such a thing in front of my mother?” Rose stamped her foot on the cement kitchen floor, but everyone except Holly and me were too busy counting their points to look up. “Mama raised me. No one else.”
“Berta fed you and changed your ass while Mamaw was at the flower shop. Doesn’t that count for something?”
“Forty-nine,” Aunt Lily said, breaking her silence. “Forty-nine points for me.”
“I got a hundred,” Holly said, not looking away from Rose.
Violet, whose head was still completely in the game, scratched down the points, then blew a puff of air through her glasses and into her falling bangs. “Tough play today.”
Rose, realizing no one was going to respond to her performance, sat back down. “Rook next?
The hinges on the screen door shrieked as I opened it to get away from everyone, but nobody seemed to notice. I always felt othered by my aunts. First, there was my name.
“Why didn’t you name her after a flower? Holly marks the third generation of flower names in our family.”
“Her middle name is Hazel,” my mother had defended.
“The first name, Iris. You know that’s how we do it.”
“Oh, please. I was twenty-five and madly in love with a man who wanted to name his first child after his mother who survived the Holocaust, what the fuck did you want me to tell him? No?”
Second was my accent. I was surrounded by lifelong Georgians my whole childhood. My dad and Aunt Dinah were the only people I hung out with during my formative years who didn’t have a deep southern accent. And yet, as a young adult, my accent was mostly American neutral. Sure, when I went to college and met a few out-of-state northerners, they all complimented my adorable southern accent, but to my own family I may as well have been born and raised in Detroit. I said “y’all.” Any soda was a Coke. I often added syllables to words (down was day-own). But my aunts cringed when I said oil or toilet. I pronounced pin and pen differently from one another. My long Is were just that, long Is. Fire, tight, and bite were fire, tight, and bite, not fahr, taht, and baht. I was a victim of circumstance. Very weird, unlikely circumstance, but circumstance nonetheless. Still, my aunts often acted like the accent I had developed in childhood was my teenage or young adult self putting on a show and thinking I was better than my hick family. “Here comes Miss New York City,” they’d say.
Third was the most obvious one. My mom practiced pagan rituals and worshiped more than one god, but it wasn’t until she became pregnant by a Jewish man that my aunts began to worry. “You won’t raise the baby Jewish will you?” There was obviously no Christ in my mother’s life well before my dad showed up, but my theory is that Jewish was worse than Pagan because my mom’s religion didn’t seem real to my aunts. My mom was free to be a little witch until she grew bored of it because she had been baptized when she was six. My soul, however, was doomed because I never even considered letting Jesus into my heart. I’m sure he exaggerated a tiny bit for the drama, but I once overheard my dad telling Shelly that he and Mom had caught my aunts plotting to have me baptized by the cover of night. My mom had gone to the office of the pastor who was involved and reminded him, sweetly as ever, that law enforcement would probably take pity on my aunts for what was clearly kidnapping from a legal standpoint, because they were innocent ladies and my relatives. He, however, would look like a huge creep in what would be “Need I say it again, Pastor? Kidnapping.”
What trivial things to care about for women whose lives revolved around flowers. When I was small, before my first summer actually spent working in a flower shop, I fully intended to continue the dynasty and be a florist. I would have a sweet little shop that didn’t take itself too seriously, just like my mom had. Just like my mom, I would work alone, but I would complete impressively huge projects. I would build wedding chuppahs, starting out by connecting the hardware on my own, then growing various vine plants up the braided wood. I would be a whimsical enigma, seen in a sundress at the flower market, in paint-splattered shorteralls at the Home Depot. I would always smell like lavender oil and my hair would be long and wavy. I would be making six figures by my twentieth birthday.
Instead, I was now nineteen with absolutely no idea what direction I should be taking. Panicked on what to major in, I chose agricultural engineering like my dad. My advisor reminded me that I didn’t have to declare a major yet, but if I was considering this one, I should go ahead and get the math out of the way. My first year of college I, someone who had never been remotely good at math, took three math classes and a lab that was all about dirt. Soil, to be more scientific, but what I was looking at was dirt. Aunt Rose, who had a very useful and not-at-all-silly horticulture degree, told me I could still fall back on flowers if I graduated with an Ag degree.
My dad had gotten really sick right before exam season, when all my big papers and projects were due. I went from a 4.0 in the fall to failing every single class in the spring. I was on academic probation and all the merit scholar programs who were so pleased to assist me financially weren’t returning my calls. I was tired all the time and usually smelled like instant ramen. My hair was barely shoulder length and dark, dull, pin-straight but still kind of suffering from an expired perm at the lowest two inches.
My aunts had always compared Holly and me, but I couldn’t really blame them. I mean, look at where we were. Holly was blond, sweet, pregnant and glowing. She didn’t know if she was finishing school but either way she was succeeding. She was a Georgia Peach. Plump red cheeks, an accent as thick as USA-manufactured corn syrup, and a love for Jesus Christ. Named after the flower people sometimes use to celebrate the big man’s birthday.
“You’re late,” my mom said, sitting on her front porch sipping a peach Nehi.
I wanted to explain to her that, yeah, it was nearly 8 p.m., but my teenage monkey brain told time by the sun and the longer summer days made 8 p.m. the new 5 p.m., but instead I just apologized.
I walked inside to find a dismembered watermelon on the kitchen table. Butterbean, my orange tabby cat, was sitting among the fruit’s innards, licking his chops. The cardiovascular system of AC flooded the room with the lifeblood of summer, the antidote of the dry heat.
Home. Home. Home, home, home. I had gotten drowsy the second I had walked into Mamaw Daisy’s flat-roofed brick house earlier that day, but this was on a whole other level. Not only did my body immediately relax, but my brain was finally able to close up shop for the first time in weeks.
I went back out on the front porch to enjoy the fact that the sun had still refused to set. Butterbean jumped up onto Mom’s lap and she adjusted them both in the white plastic lawn chair.
“How you doin’, sugar?” she asked.
I didn’t answer. I couldn’t say the words out loud yet. I was about to experience my first summer without my dad. He wouldn’t be setting my summer curfew, which had consistently been pushed thirty minutes later every year, leaving it at a projected 1 a.m. this summer. He wouldn’t push me to spend quality time with my annoying aunts because “you never know when you’ll lose someone.” He wouldn’t be spending his evenings on his porch, clumsily picking at a banjo in yet another effort to replace his identity of City Jew with Good Ol’ Country Boy. He wouldn’t be winking at Mamaw Berta from across the room as he helped himself to another serving of her green beans, knowing the bacon fat they were boiled in makes them treif. He wouldn’t be around to remember in the grocery store checkout line that he forgot something, leaving me alone, with no money, to count down the seconds before the cashier is to give me the total, returning at the last possible second with his forgotten item, grinning and saying, “Thought I’d abandon you? I had my chance to drop you off at the fire station, I’m stuck with you now.”
My father was dead after an excruciating, yellow-stained battle with cancer, and now I was the only Jewish person in Sugarberry, Georgia. I felt like I had swallowed an armful of peaches whole, let them slide down my insides, their pits black holes, jerking my whole being inward. But I didn’t know how to say any of this.
Mom didn’t ask me again. Instead we sat in silence, watching the sky hemorrhage purple and the late flowers bloom.