My mother was a good southern lady. Even in heavy summers when the heat and humidity were so oppressive they stole your breath away, she was always perfectly made up, completely collected: hair caught up in pins and ribbons and the right amount of lipstick without any smudges. The neighbor ladies, try as they might to keep up their decorum, never managed and ended up unkempt and drenched with sweat. Their dresses clung to their bodies and their hair slipped out of place and their makeup disappeared within five minutes of stepping into the sun. But not my mother. No, not her. It seemed like she was always walking in a secret breeze she had found and managed to capture for herself. She was a good, clean, church-going woman, so much so that even the old crones inhabiting the veranda across the way couldn’t say much about her.
My mother was friendly and sociable and she always smiled, but I always had a feeling, watching her when she didn’t know I was, that I never knew her much at all. Even when she spoke to daddy and kissed him when he came home, I saw in her eyes something that I couldn’t name. A depth that she never plumbed. At least not around me. Not around daddy, I expect, either. When she played hymns on the piano, I saw it even more clearly, and sometimes when she let me play with her, she would make a move to speak and that place in her eyes opened for a moment, came to the front, but then she would change her mind and traded what she was about to say for something different. And her eyes went back to what they were: just a hint of a something flickering beneath the surface.
One time I came home from playing in the creek down the hill, caked in mud and bits of a grass, but with a pristine white daisy stuck behind my ear and larkspur braided messily into my hair. My mother fussed and used all the foul language she could allow her tongue to utter as she scrubbed me raw in the tub. She plucked all the flowers out of my hair, complaining about the knots and tangles they gave me before she sent me off to bed while she tried her best to get the grass stains out of my new, department store shirt.
A week later, after she came home from the supermarket and we both put away the groceries, my mother handed me a book without a word, and I thought I saw that something in her eyes crystallize for a moment before she turned away. I took it upstairs and opened it only once I’d buried myself in the safety of my pillows. All the flowers she’d untangled from my hair were pressed and preserved perfectly on the first page with their proper names carefully listed beneath—bellis perennis, delphinium alabamium—and a note written in the corner in her flawless script, “A girl should know a part of nature as well as she knows herself.” We never spoke about it. She never brought it up again, but by the time I’d grown out of that house which felt smaller with each passing year, I’d filled all the empty pages with pressed flowers and leaves of my own, so much so that the spine could barely hold all of my bounty.