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Corpse Flowers

by Frances Lynn Sally Galbraith



Photo by Kevin D’Amico: Singer-songwriter Chuck Jones at a Waterhole Branch Shoe Burnin’


Flowers are a language in themselves. They speak of love, of sympathy, and, sometimes, darker feelings. A friend of mine was once told by a woman--I’ll call her the Boarder--although she never played the piano, that if the Boarder was ever really angry with someone, she would plant a corpse flower near their front door. Since the corpse flower blooms rarely, and the bloom smells like decaying flesh, it seemed a long term and particularly nasty form of revenge to my friend. It was.


Waterhole Branch is a creative node on the Fish River near Fairhope, Alabama. It attracts writers, musicians, painters, and other artists. On my visits, I am struck by the tranquility and almost magical aura of the place.


Great works, and great traditions, are born here. Everett Capps, the author of Off Magazine Street, owns a place here. So do authors Suzanne Hudson and Joe Formichella. Writer Sonny Brewer has taken up residence. Author Judith Richards was a frequent visitor. So is cartoonist JD Crowe, Louisiana favorite Bev Marshall, the quirky and irreverent Bay Woods, and so many more.


The musician and songwriter Grayson Capps has roots here as well. He wrote the title song for the film Love Song for Bobby Long, based on his father’s (Everett’s) book. Various other musicians are other occasional residents these days, some of the best songsmiths and players out there. The legendary Gove Scrivenor’s autoharp, for example, has serenaded the majestic oaks and Spanish moss. Chuck Cannon, Chuck Jones, and other Nashville standouts have made the trek.


One of the great traditions re-born on Waterhole Branch is the Shoe Burnin’, usually held just before Thanksgiving. The ritual involves a bonfire and a group of highly creative, and often highly inebriated, folks who bring a pair of shoes to burn. The ritual requires the bearer of the shoes to tell a story, recite a poem, or sing a song about the shoes before burning them. That tradition has evolved into a show, which followed publication of a collection of those bonfire tales, The Shoe Burnin’: Stories of Southern Soul, edited by Joe Formichella. A companion CD holds some of the music.


On one of my visits to Waterhole Branch, I was both a guest and a volunteer at the first Shoe Burnin’ held on the new stage furnished by the publisher of the book. I was a guest for a delicious Thanksgiving dinner as well. A guest, a cook, a server, and, eventually, a dishwasher. I was happy to help, especially since Joe and Suzanne had been called away because of Joe’s father’s fatal illness. Before they went, they prepared two turkeys and much of the fixings, but they could not stay for the dinner or the show.


The Boarder was disappointed. Angry. Although she was not an original Shoe Burner, she was the impetus behind the book, the stage, and the formal show. The absence of Joe and Suz, original participants and central to the performance, left a gaping hole. Death has a way of doing that.


I was staying in Joe and Suzanne’s house. After the show, the bonfire, the whole fandango, I helped to put the place back in order. By then, Joe’s father’s wake was over and they were heading home. I would be gone before they returned, but I wanted to do something to express my sympathy. Judith told me the local florist was a bit pricey and recommended a place to purchase some bunches of flowers. I cut and arranged blossoms and greenery outside on an old table in the front yard of the house.


The Boarder watched.


I left the large white bouquet in the middle of the dining room table, accompanied by a sympathy card addressed to Joe and Suz.


A few days after my departure, the Boarder sent me a text explaining that I might not get a thank-you card for the flowers because she might have given Joe and Suz the wrong address for me.


You, Dear Reader, may see where this is heading, but, alas, I did not. I was not aware of Suzanne’s meticulous etiquette. She will send a card for anything and everything. I was not aware of a lot.


Several years after that bittersweet Thanksgiving, I was a guest again at Waterhole Branch. I helped with a fundraiser to raise the stage that had been demolished. Walking through the dining room the morning after the house concert that was part of the fundraising effort—Larry T. Smith, Sonny Throckmorton, and friends— I offhandedly asked Joe about the flowers. I guess I was reminded by the table, now empty.


“What flowers?”


Apparently the table was empty when Suzanne and Joe got home from their journey.


And the worst part of that is not the deceit. The vindictiveness. The misplaced trust. The waste. It is that for all those intervening years my friends thought I did not care enough to acknowledge the death of the husband’s father. Flowers are a language in themselves. Even their absence speaks volumes.


When the Boarder finally moved out, as the car was idling in the driveway, she paused by Suzanne and Joe’s front door to dig in a flower bed. Months later Suz discovered the parting gift. A corpse flower. Volumes, indeed.


Suzanne potted the growing plant and moved it away from the house, hoping to see its beautiful blooming, regardless of its cruel beginnings. And although the plant ultimately died, it did produce a few pups, which she shared with her friends who garden, and who tend to their blossoms in the language of love.


Volumes.


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