There Are No Dahlias In Detroit by Lawrence Chizak
“Mama, you’re just gonna love Shady Rest,” my daughter says grabbing the back of my wheel chair. “George, don’t forget The Ultra Deep Kneading Foot Massager that we got her last Christmas.” My eyes move from her lips to the pictures piled on the staircase and then back to her lips. She doesn’t see them. She keeps on talking, not to me, not to the pictures, just talking, just filling the void that she doesn’t understand. “Shady Rest has everything you ever wanted,” she continues, looking for a place to park me. “It has a band new therapy room, an arts and craft room open three days a week, separate dining areas on each floor and a TV “get-together room” with a 58 inch plasma high definition on the wall.”
“I got the massager, Dorothy,” George yells from the second floor. “Is there anything else your mother wants?” Yes, to be left here alone. Take your goddamn massager, your Shady Rest, your arts and crafts, but don’t take me. He doesn’t hear me. He is a puppet on a string: pull, jerk, pull, jerk; stroke, home, stroke, home; everything in its place.
“No, that’s the only thing,” Dorothy answers back. “You’re gonna love it in Detroit, Mama,” she continues. “Away from this dusty old house, these cobwebs and stained rugs. This old house is miles away from anyone and anything. You could just die here and no one would ever know.”
Oh, they would know, child, they would know. Jack is out in the barn cutting wood. You three kids are upstairs fighting over the bathroom, and Grandma Perkins, wandering the kitchen, thinking about dinner, would say, “Well, it’s about time.” The smoke house is full of meat. We have fresh milk and cream every morning, and potatoes and turnips are waiting in the root cellar. I’m not miles away from everyone, child, or everything. You, you’re the one who moved to Detroit, miles away from everything.
She wheels me past the dining room and I see boxes where family once sat. We each had a place at that table, and a place for another when they came along. Jack is at the head dishing out food, talking up a storm. You at his side, his favorite, passing along the plates. Your brother sits on the other side, teasing your sister. Grandma Perkins next to you and a guest or family next to me. Now there are only dishes piled high instead of people and Eddie, your eldest, packing them away.
“Hi, Grandma,” he shouts as if my stroke affected my hearing. “Coming to Detroit with us, cool. You’re gonna love them Tigers.”
In the middle of the table, on the kitchen side where I always sat, little Emma stands with my grandmother’s silver place and just polished tea set. She is sullen looking for a ten year old, like a bean sprout that didn’t get enough water or sunshine. Her pants, “hot pink caprice” she told me, keep riding up on her and she is constantly pulling them down.
“Who’s gonna to use all this stuff, Mama?” she asks lifting up a spoon between two fingers.
I polished that ‘stuff’, little lady, when I was your age. That ‘stuff’ was used at my mother’s wedding before I was born. That “stuff”, young lady, survived the Great Depression when the car and the house didn’t.
“Don’t fuss with them knives and forks, Emma,” Dorothy says to her daughter. “Just throw them in a bag. Some one will have use for them somewhere.”
George comes down hugging the foot massage. “Here’s the massage,” he says. “What else do you want me to do?” Dorothy casts an eye into the dining room and then wheels me around and parks me in the living room. It is empty. All the furniture, gone. Faded silhouettes of family pictures now decorate the walls. Grandma’s Scottish sconces, gone. I don’t know who took what. I got a bed in the back parlor and a full-time nurse. I heard them. They came with sweet remorse on their lips. They came as Christian vultures, scavenging my life in the name of good deeds. They all left with something, sometimes tucked under their arms as they said their goodbyes. The grand piano was given to the church. My matching pair of chintz chairs went to a neighbor; the Chippendale sold to Maggie Smith, the banker’s wife. The dining room set is going to my other daughter Josie, who lives outside of Chicago; my bedroom set to an Aunt Julia, someone from my son Jeb’s in-laws. Some stranger bought my Evans sidepiece. I am allowed to bring my bed and one chair.
“What do you want me to do with all these knick-knacks?” George asks grabbing a pair of Meissen bird figurines from the mantle.
“Oh, no one would want those old things,” Dorothy answers. “Put them in the trash.”
I promised myself that I would not cry. It’s no use to cry. I am not a baby anymore. This is life, this is what happens, accept it, move on. Tomorrow is a new day. Or is there only night ahead? Dorothy turns around and, by accident, catches a tear in my one good eye.
There is that split second of silence, full of every cry ever uttered.
Come on Mama,” she wheels me out of the living room. “Let’s put you in the warm sunshine while we finish up.” She wheels me onto the front walk leading to the street.
I am here with my dahlias in full bloom: pearly white petals with just a tinge of dark yellow on the edges and deep amber stigmas and purple stamens. They have been freshly weeded. Sally next door must have done that. She always admired my dahlias. I should have left them to her. I should have told her to come and take them after they bloom. My dahlias, Cousin Anna had willed them to me. They had won county and state blue ribbons. I was so envious of them that once I tried to persuade Jack to dig one up when Anna and John were down to a wedding in Lexington, at Derby time. They would come home that night if it weren’t Derby time and John liking the horses. But Jack said that stealing from the family was still stealing. Every year Anna invited us to see them in bloom. Every year I baked my special peach pie and every year I begged for just one. Finally she said, “Emma, they’re yours when I’m gone.” True to her word, there they were in her will.
Look at them lined up like sentinels saluting my visitors as they arrive. They were in bloom at Josie’s wedding. What a bouquet they made, almost took away from the bride. The most beautiful things I ever saw. When they are in bloom, people would come by and we would sit and talk. I would have company, just like when Jack was alive and the houses down the road weren’t boarded up. There are no dahlias in Detroit, none like these. There are only smoke stacks and concrete. Oh, look at them, waving goodbye, gently swaying back and forth, all of them. If I could only touch them one last time. Goodbye my beautiful dahlias, goodbye.
A pale thin hand inches its way towards the dahlias and gently fondles one. The white peach fuzz of the petal is soft, almost like a cat purring. Eventually the bluish hue of the hand becomes as white as the dahlia.