I was worried about Miss Emmogene being even more lonely since I was going away so I asked mama to take up the torch, as it were.
Mama was old school and didn’t believe in the “impersonal lazy way” of communicating through computer emails and outwardly cursed what she called that evil texting.
Instead, she wrote letters to me. The ancient art of penmanship was fast disappearing and some of my most treasured possessions are those hand-written letters from my mama.
She would tell me about what was now their “cookies and brew fests,” and even confessed that every year on the anniversary of the day I left, real “brew” was consumed while both she and Miss Emmogene talked of days gone by and dreams yet to be realized.
I could tell that mama was growing fond of her. I could also tell that she felt such empathy for this woman who had spent her entire life, living in a fantasy world when time was young and so was she.
The love Miss Emmogene had for her beau had never wavered, never aged and had only been doubted by those of us who didn’t have the capacity to believe in fairy tales.
One day, mama called me. As soon as she said my name, I knew something wasn’t right. I asked “what’s wrong mama?” She said “honey, Miss Emmogene died today.”
I tried to hold back my emotions and asked her how. “I think she just died of a broken heart,” mama said. “The doctors said “it just gave out.”
I told mama I would be on the next flight home and suddenly, as if Miss Emmogene was with me, I said “mama, make sure they put her in that red silk dress.”
I had told mama about it, so she said she would tell the undertaker. I remember thinking “undertaker? Undertaker? He was going to be the one making the arrangements?” She had no family on record. The only friend she ever had, that I knew of, was me and then my mama. The saddest part was that there would be nobody to mourn her but me and my mama.
I told mama to tell the undertaker to hold off and wait for me. I would be her next of kin and I would take care of her. I thought she would have liked that.
I was in a daze while I was trying to pack my suitcase. I was going through the motions like a zombie. During the flight, several times, I had to hide in the bathroom to keep from crying in front of the entire plane.
Memories came flooding back. This woman who in my foolish youth, I had made fun of because I believed her to be a witch, turned out to be one of my favorite people and most cherished friends.
Her reverence for the love of her life, albeit a fabricated lover, laid the groundwork for how I too, would revere the love of my life.
I smiled as I wondered if she knew that around campus, I was famous for my “brew.” More than a few times as a joke, an upper class man would post a flyer on the bulletin board, saying “for the best brew on campus, go to Hilliard Hall.” I always delighted in the faces of those lower class men who showed up, prepared to get plastered on what turned out to be sun tea.
When I got home, as soon as I saw mama, as we hugged we sobbed for what seemed like an hour. Miss Emmogene’s words echoed in my memory. “Leadership is about submission to duty,” and my duty was to take care of her. I contacted our pastor and told him that I would do the eulogy if he would say a prayer for her.
Unbeknownst to me or my mama or anybody else, years ago Miss Emmogene had purchased two burial plots in the Sacred Heart Cemetery. I could only imagine they were intended to be the place where she and her beau were to rest side by side for all eternity.
I made sure that she was dressed in her red silk dress, even though it was almost thread bare. Her locket was carefully placed around her neck and a bouquet of wildflowers were placed in her hands along with the smallest painting of her “beau.”
Mama, the pastor and I were the only people at her service. The usual “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” phrase was offered by the pastor while I played “Oh How We Danced” on my phone. When it was my turn to speak, I was so overcome with grief, I couldn’t say a word.
Mama walked over and said “this was a gracious and graceful lady, who befriended my son and knew the value of love and leadership. Mostly, she taught us about the ever enduring gift of hope. May she rest in peace and find the love in Heaven that she so longed for on Earth.”
The pastor and mama walked away so the workers could cover up the coffin but I stayed behind for a few more minutes. I knelt down and whispered “I hope you don’t mind Miss Emmogene but I took that record with me.”
I finally started walking away and I noticed what looked like a figure behind a tree. I walked over and saw this man who looked like he hadn’t eaten or slept in days. His coat was dirty and had holes in it. His shoes were mismatched and covered in mud.
He was trying to walk away when I asked if I could help him. He looked at me through hollow, worn eyes and in an almost inaudible voice asked if I knew Miss Emmogene. I smiled and said “yes I did. I’m Johnny Lee Wainwright, III and she was my friend.” I held out my hand and as he held out his, I saw the exposed scared fingers of his gloved, dirty, shaky hand.
He didn’t offer his name but he didn’t have to. I knew who he was. I had been wrong. We had all been wrong. Hadley Langston Thackeray, III wasn’t a fantasy.
“What happened to you?’ I asked. He looked toward her grave-site and said “my life didn’t turn out the way I hoped and I couldn’t bear to let her know.”
“Could you tell me,” he asked. “Did she die alone?”
I put my hand on his shoulder and said “no. She didn’t die alone. You were with her. You had always been with her.”