A Rose Is A Rose Is A Rose Is A Rose
I flew out to California in the middle of my writing an essay on small towns in Louisiana to go see my great aunt before she passed. She was ninety-one when she died, and no one ever expected for her to pass the way that she did. (I have learned that using the word passed is much more gentle than the word died.) So I feel as though I must talk about this now and her relationship to her town and city.
My great-grandparents immigrated from Castelvetrano, Sicily, Italy and came to New York City, through Ellis Island with my great aunt Anna in the 1920s. They then had another four children in New York, one being my great aunt Rosie. My aunt Rosie lived in Brooklyn, worked for CBS and as a bank teller, and then moved out to Santa Maria, California. It’s seventy miles north of Santa Barbara, but Santa Maria is the oasis for people who live in the more rural parts of central California. She lived there from the mid 1980s until this year. My aunt Janey and uncle Billy lived across the street from her.
My aunt Rosie was (I had to re-type was instead of is for a good ten minutes after this essay was finished) one of the most exuberant, funniest people most of Santa Maria will ever meet. She decorated her house entirely in pink. Not a single piece of clothing in her closet wasn’t pink or red. Her fireplace was painted pink, her carpets were a dull magenta, her kitchen walls were a nice baby pink shade. Her upholstery had a variety of pinks and fuschias. Her bathroom linens were pink and white. The other color that complimentary to the house was white. The house’s doors were white, but the panels were pink. The outside of the house was white, the kitchen appliances and cabinets were too. And every inch of that house had either a picture of a cat, a tchotchke of a kitten, or a stuffed cat. She loved cats, had one of her own named Nana, who is buried with her now. Her house looked like, quite frankly, a doll house. She was also a small woman, no more than foot four, eleven, so everything in the house was smaller as well. The kitchen table didn’t go up very high, and the mugs on the top shelf were barely touched. When I spent the first night in the house after she passed, I grabbed a pink crocheted blanket, and it barely covered my torso.
But my aunt Rosie was the talk of the town. When my father and I notified people about her passing, people were visibly upset. The bankers cried and had tissues nearby. Her neighbors had their breath taken away. A previous caretaker of her sister’s wailed and cried. And I thought to myself, this is how I want to lead my life.
My step grandfather left my grandmother at eighty years old, took some credit cards, some of her insulin, and his clothes and left with his son in the middle of the night nearly two years ago. He passed last Easter Sunday, right after my family was putting leftovers in containers, and when we all joined together that night to talk about it, no one shed a tear. Not even my grandmother. She was married to him for almost twenty years.
My dad told me after that that is a shameful way to live your life. No one cried for him.. My aunt Rosie had people cry for her. She left her town in complete disarray. Minutes after she passed, members of her church group came up to the hospital room and expressed their condolences. My aunt did not want a service, and yet, there is one being hosted in her honor because her church family never said goodbye. My dad notified his uncle’s stepdaughter who lived with my aunt for a bit in New York, and she began to sob over the phone. Nobody could control themselves.
Her town wept for her. Her town stopped in time. When people were told, they would pause and wipe at their eyes. Santa Maria stopped moving. Traffic lights seemed slow, streets seemed crooked, houses didn’t seem so colorful. People would say, “This is such a shock.” It was. It was such a shock, no one could comprehend what kind of life this woman would leave behind.
Rosie and her sister Janey and their sister Anna all lived on the same street.
“All the bird streets,” her neighbor told us. They retired here, one of the first groups to really realize that Santa Maria might be a nice place to settle down. The beach was not that long a drive, you could go down to Pappy’s dinner and see the mountains. The Santa Maria Inn, the only nice hotel in that town, housed Marilyn Monroe and Doris Day among other Hollywood starlets. It was not Hollywood, but it was three hour north, and so it was glamorous as three hours north of Hollywood could be. My aunt Rosie was a regular at a joint called The Pantry, a rundown soup and salad and sandwich place three minutes away from her house. She was also a regular at Hometown Buffet, which is where many of the photos of her, my aunts, and uncles were taken. She was born in Brooklyn, and she called that her home. My dad can recite the addresses of the places they grew up. But she moved out to California, and she left California very suddenly. It shook that state. That whole town could not believe that that time had finally come.
But life had to move on. The mortuary was across the street from a Michael’s and Target. And down the street from there was the only In-N-Out Burger, something we don’t get in Louisiana. My dad and I ate there after the mortuary and drove back to the house. We didn’t leave her house much, but when we drove around, my dad didn’t need a map. He said that place is laid out like a grid. That’s probably why my Aunt Rosie liked it. It was a grid, like New York. Everything was simple.
Aunt Rosie, you need to know that Santa Maria is heartbroken. But may God wrap you in a warm blanket and welcome you home, as you always wanted to go home. For Santa Maria was just a town, and Brooklyn was your city. But Heaven is your home.
Sacrificial Bitter Land
My brother hears the breath of the bayou
Hears the rushing stream
He is still, is void, he cries
for grandmother, says,
edna, edna, please, take me now.
She had been taken hours before,
so my brother sits on the bank,
ripping at the last of his grandmother’s
Get Well Soon balloon.
He could hear her breath in the hallway,
labored, but steady like a ticking clock.
He throws twigs into this bayou,
sacrificial, ernest bayou
thick river runs deep,
he hasn’t stopped crying for four days--
he says cold showers feel the best,
grimy tile under toes.
This is what edna felt.
Sacrificial bitter land,
She was plucked with God’s two fingers.
edna, do not go, he says.
Sacrificial bitter land,
Take me next. I am alive, but pluck me out.
Bayou, wrap your arms around me,
Swallow me whole.
Lord, digest me.
Animals, feast on me as I wash upon the bank.
Brother says, I can go no longer.
Sacrificial bitter land.
Whisk me away.