The flowers of youth are fresh and fragrant.
But with age, they can whither to become stale burdens upon the shoulders of those they once blessed.
The Fauntweth sisters were consumed in flowers.
Their flower-patterned bonnets bobbed nearly in unison as the sisters knelt together pulling young weeds from among the profusion of small self-seeded petunias. They were the flowers that would later tumble in copious vines to cover their portion of the banks with white and lavender flowers.
Flowers always cascaded in abundance down the black-earth banks below where their white stucco bungalow with the wide front porch stood. The house was roofed with blue-gray shingles so it was like a third bonnet covered sister.
Alva and Elsa Fauntweth resembled their bonnet covered mother who decades earlier had worked with hoe and pruning shears in her yard on the upper crest of the valley road, back during the Eisenhower presidency. They preserved some of her bonnets, and still hand-sewed themselves new bonnets just as she had shown them to do. Their mother herself had preserved the bonnet habit from her own mother from before the Hoover presidency along with the long sleeves and low dress hems that protected them from the sun.
The sisters worked with trowel and hoe, planting and weeding dozens of kinds of clematis, honeysuckle, red cardinal trumpet and other vines they trained over a variety of trellises. New marigolds, zinnias, cosmos, bachelor's buttons, portulacas and sedums always graced the slopes alongside the beds of iris and lilies, a continual kaleidoscope picture of yellows, oranges, pinks, reds and blues.
Yet, the Fauntweth sisters never seemed to really sweat as they worked, pausing from time to time to sponge a thin bead of moisture from their pink-blushed pale faces with the flower-patterned handkerchiefs they carried in their pockets. To actually sweat might have caused one them to open a perpetually non-smiling, but still happy thin-lipped mouth, to declare in all propriety that it was time for a glass of water in the shade.
Elsa had once married an older fifth cousin, also named Fauntweth, recommended to her by a second cousin, and had had a son, Elmo, who seldom visited the sisters because he had other things to do. She had always admired the Roosevelt presidency, and the fact that Eleanor had married her cousin, Franklin, both also named Roosevelt before.
Alva, 77, had never married although from time to time her stern blue eyes could show twinkles that might attract attention. One could surmise that once upon a time they had attracted attention. But that was a faded flower of long ago.
The week that surprised Elsa began here, in the flowers with the sisters on their knees, when she said to Alva, "You know, I believe it is our turn to provide some flower bouquets for church next Sunday."
"Yes, Dear," replied Alva, "and I do believe we will be required to do a number of extra bouquets. You will recall that there will be a celebration of Cyrus Wethberger's 100th birthday immediately following the service."
"That's right. It will be a special time for the old fellow. He must be very lonely living there all alone, his mother gone now for what, 30 years? How does he manage? He never married, but at 100 years old, he would have had a fair chance of being alone at this time even if he had. He is a little like us. He lost his only sister and her husband many years ago. He has great nieces and nephews, but I suppose they are remote from his life. It's always been said they have other things to do."
"Yes, I suppose they do. But, never say never, Sister. And, I suppose he manages because he has to."
"Well, you call me sister, and there's been no tiff."
"I add it only for emphasis because of the importance of this moment."
And why might it be more important than the last moment or the next moment?"
"Well, you recall that Cyrus Wethberger and his mother were always kind to us as children, have been good to us as friends, and they always were good neighbors."
"Certainly, certainly, they would fall under every admonition the good Lord gave to be good neighbors, and they were always fun too. Mrs. Wethberger was outstanding with her dahlias."
"Yes, she was. So, after the celebration of his birthday next Sunday, I shall marry Cyrus Wethberger."
"That shall be interesting Sister, and I must emphasize that I too only say sister in the importance of the moment. And what do you think Cyrus Wethberger's great nieces and great nephews will say to this union? Why, Sister, they could accuse you of being a gold digger since you are a much younger woman, and, I might add, still very attractive."
"Thank you, Sister, but I think they will say very little because Cyrus Wethberger has already deeded his home and farm to them. I will have no hand in his accounts. He shall come to our house after service, and the three of us shall dine in the front room as usual. Naturally, I will help wipe his mouth off, and see to his needs, so you will have little care."
"I shall appreciate that since although I still see his good looks and kindliness, old age isn't always the most pleasing thing if you are the hand attempting to average the attention to infirmities for the appreciation of those who also eat. I assume he has asked you to marry him, and you have no difficulty concerning the possible attitudes of others?"
"As for our fellow Congregationalists, Sister, I would wager they will say it was worth waiting for, and only a small leap from being transformed from a Fauntweth to a Wethberger."
“Sister, do I recall correctly that not only were the Wethbergers good neighbors, but that Cyrus Wethberger showed a great deal of interest in visiting with you when you were perhaps, say 16 or 17, a most delicate age for a girl although an age when the interests of other persons in her are heightened.”
“Yes, I suppose we did visit a great deal. I always enjoyed the company of Cyrus Wethberger.”
“But, Sister, at the time didn’t our mother determine that you were indeed at a delicate age when it might not behoove everybody for the attentions of an older man like Cyrus Wethberger to be diverted visiting with a younger girl such as yourself?”
“Yes, Sister, I suppose our mother did determine some such injunction.”
“Well, Sister, I believe our mother might have even extended such concern to visiting with Cyrus Wethberger and his mother about it.”
“Yes, Sister, I suppose that might have been true . But I don’t want to dwell in the past now. Let’s just say that I have always regretted that I didn’t get to visit a great deal more throughout the years with Cyrus Wethberger. I always found his intellect bountiful. His knowledge of gardening was very thorough. Indeed, he and his mother have always seemed as though they might have been family.”
"What will you do after all these years, Alva, if Cyrus Wethberger, to try to put this delicately, desires to be intimate?"
"You were as delicate as the petals of a rose, dear Elsa. I hardly think I need to concern myself about that, but in case consideration of such a situation occurs, I will determine my attitude at that moment, and you will hardly need to concern yourself about it either."
Sunday was a beautiful day with Elsa and Alva providing no fewer than 30 flower bouquets dominated by sweet smelling purple lilacs throughout the broad, brown plank board sanctuary with its great stained-glass window showing Christ leading lambs.
Cyrus Wethberger was led like a lamb himself by two younger men, so he wouldn't stumble, to a front pew where half-way through the service, his great pale round bald head sunk to his chest, and he slept.
But, before he slept he smiled through half-folded eyes upon his stunning bride-to-be, Alva, in a white gown her mother had left with pink-flowered blue shawl and a white bonnet with pink flowers sewn in it, her own white hair tightly coiffured to look like part of the decoration.
The bouquets, fresh and fragrant like the joy of youth, were spread around again in the fellowship hall as the congregation sang happy birthday to Cyrus Wethberger who stood to hold himself against the back of a chair, beaming even though breathing shallowly.
"I must thank you all," Cyrus struggled to speak softly, "for being my family in fellowship today after a century of life." He looked at Alva and Elsa, "There is nothing more important in life than to love, and to be loved."
The two young men supported him as Cyrus held Alva's hand during a brief ceremony marrying them in the sight of God. Everybody ate cake, and drank punch.
Afterwards, Alva drove the car home while Cyrus sat beside her, sleeping with his chin against his chest as he breathed very slowly, and Elsa rode in the back seat.
Elsa had prepared roast beef and vegetables which she and Alva ate heartily while Cyrus mostly sat at the table occasionally turning to look at each of them smiling.
"You know," he said, "my mother loved you two. She always said you were the prettiest, most well-behaved little girls she had ever seen. I’m only sorry it took me growing to 100 to admit that I loved you both too. And now we're family."
Elsa couldn't help but bat her eyes a few extra times as her sister used a napkin to wipe Cyrus Wethberger's mouth while the two of them stared into each other's eyes. She thought to herself more than once that it would require her attention to adjust to the presence that had always been down the road being in her home instead.
After dinner, she helped Alva move Cyrus to a front porch chair, and said, "You sit out here together while I clean up. After all, this is an evening you should celebrate."
The sun began its descent to finally disappear as a red ball shining through wispy clouds as Elsa occasionally peaked through a window at the two people sitting side by side on the porch. At times, she saw them holding hands.
Finally as the stars shined to pinpoints of light in the sky, and the night sounds of intensifying frog song and occasional owl hoots grew, Elsa opened the door. "Would you like some hot tea?" she asked.
"I will have a cup, thank you," Alva answered.
"What about Cyrus? Isn't he beginning to chill?"
"Cyrus Wethberger passed away about an hour ago, Sister. I heard his last breath while he was sleeping."
"Oh, Alva, I'm so sorry, your wedding night and everything," said Elsa glancing over at Cyrus who in the dark only appeared to be sleeping.
"No, you don't understand, Elsa. It only goes to show what a fine person you are that you didn't need to ask more questions. This is what Cyrus wanted. He knew he would be dying, and told me he would hold it off until this moment if I was willing. Cyrus said he knew he was going on to be with the Lord, but he wanted to be with family when he did it. He didn't want to die lonely, Sister. We'll wait another half-hour before we call anyone. Just give us a moment more to be together. Then we'll need a good night's sleep because I want us to dig a dahlia bed tomorrow to remember Cyrus."
Copyright 2008, Jerry W. Engler