Defining Moment

Ruth Holmes (Everett) Whitehead '69


Miss Daisy Doar was remarkable to me for two things.  She had a glass eye, and she was the first dead person I ever saw.  She had been my great-aunt’s good friend and they lived catty-cornered from each other, on the opposite edges of Carolina and Richardson Avenues.

The day before she was buried, my mother came to fetch me from school, and we drove up to Summerville, not talking, but feeling appropriately solemn.  We helped carry all the turkey, biscuits, glazed ham and chocolate cakes for the post-funeral festivities over to Miss Daisy’s house.  I was 14, and I stood awkwardly in the kitchen taking waxed paper off some things, and putting it on other things, not saying very much, but pleased that something momentous had finally occurred.

A drift of ladies were out in the living room, arranging things and talking and fanning themselves with little paper fans on bamboo sticks.  The fans had pictures of Jesus on one side, and the words “Cauthen’s Hardware Store” on the other.  It was hot, but the kitchen was dim and cool on the northern side of the house.  I was in there with Louisa Sellars and Eliza Logan, two women who worked, on and off, for my great-aunt.  They were saying cool and restful things.

“Gon thunder later, unt?”
“Sky look black up the road.”
“Need that rain.”

Then they notice me, picking with my fingers at some crumpled ball of aluminum foil.

“You bun een to pay your respecks?”

“No,” I said.

“Well, come on, baby,” said Louisa.  “She right in there.  Don’ be fright.”

Who’s right in there?

Miss Daisy’s lying in a box.  Her head’s sticking up, and her face is still her face, but it’s all lavender.  (I’m looking at a dead person, I thought.  So that’s how they look.)  Miss Daisy’s face gets bluer and bluer as I’m looking.  I’m fascinated and appalled and I have the distinct feeling my mother would NOT want me to be there, so I’m looking as fast as I can, storing up the experience before she comes to find me – spellbound by the strangeness of the silence in lavender flesh, frightened on some interior level that says this is an invasion of privacy, like watching Miss Daisy in the bath.

And yet that lavender blue is so enthralling.  Years later, when my daughter was born, she was just that shade, yet it was a hot vivid colour.  This is so icy, remote, drained.  This is so different.   
I wondered about the glass eye.  Would it be left, staring up into the dark, to startle future archaeologists?

I’m groggy.  And Miss Daisy’s grandson Bill – he’s 17 and even I in my immaturity think he’s the handsomest thing I’ll ever see – Bill comes in, hauls me right out of there, right outside, and makes me sit up in the pear tree with him for a while to recover.

So death is lavender, I know that much, and yet remains secret – hidden from me by love, by huge wrapped platters of food, by the wind of paper fans, and by all those long-ago leafy pear-shaped branches.