Susan Lilley

They are dying out, the grand old ladies of Florida, along with the citrus fortunes long spent and the orange blossoms that crowned their heads when they were beauty queens. Their graves wear flowers they called hydrangelas and spear lilies. They had their own language. In widowhood they traveled. When my grandmother went to Europe she had her hair done once and did not touch it for weeks. She might go up to Atlanta or down to Miamah for a funeral or a wedding, but would never board a plane to Chicargo. They were generous. They donated regularly to the Starvation Army and gave their maids and cooks old cocktail dresses and camellia cuttings, avocados, kumquats, and tangerines from the yard.

Some were teetotalers. Cousin Grover-Nell would order a Beefeater martini straight up only above the Mason-Dixon line. But my Granny and great-aunts blithely picked up fifths of bourbon with their delmonicos and maraschinos and long cartons of Benson & Hedges every week in the queenly light of high noon, fussing at the bagboy to stow everything just so in the back of Granny’s Oldsmobile Ninety-Eight. They never seemed lonely. They loved gaudy costume jewelry and kept the real stuff in a safe. They sat at white and gold French Provincial dressing tables and patted their necks and shoulders with giant powder puffs. They wore slinky negligees into their 80s and read racy Hollywood exposés until three in the morning. Aunt Mary Belle trained her poodle to sit in a highchair and smoke cigarettes. Granny talked to faces she saw in the coquina-swirled walls of her bedroom. They attended thousands of cocktail parties. They sent elegantly signed checks to their grandchildren for birthdays, and at fancy restaurants they taught us girls to order Shirley Temples and lobster tails against our parents’ wishes. If we wore denim in their presence, they moaned that we looked like field hands.

Then a few springs ago my own mother died. In her final weeks, the azaleas smelled so pink she hauled herself out of bed one day and said, “Honey, take me to ride!” I realized she was one of them. I drove her slowly past all the landmarks: her newlywed duplex, the bougainvillea blooming along the ball field fence, and then the lake house where she and Dad raised us, where she laughed and cried and cooked dinner in the orange light of uncountable sunsets. She muttered that the tacky new owners had ripped out all the flame-of-the-woods, her name for ixora, a shrub with tiny starburst blooms.

I nodded and kept my mouth shut. I learned as a child that you could argue with them all you like, insist the movie with Elizabeth Taylor and a horse is not called Natural Velvet, nor is what they served with tomato aspic and canned asparagus called college cheese, and the day after Friday is not Seerdy. They could take a lot of heartbreak. They would do anything for you. But they would not be corrected.