Be a Camellia

Last month, my oldest friend Kathryn said goodbye to her mother. It was a hard goodbye after weeks of hospitals, frustration, and medical shortcomings, and Kathryn and her father will be dealing with the raw scar of pain for a very long time.

Andrea Hickman White was an honest to goodness force of nature. She was married for more than fifty years to her high school sweetheart, Ken. She loved her only daughter fiercely, a love exceeded only by her devotion to her three grandchildren, the bonus children added through marriage, and the great-grandchildren who followed. She helped shepherd me though an awkward adolescence, gave me a job, threw me a bridal tea, danced at my wedding, and treated me like a daughter, dispensing praise or correction as needed. She was probably the first person I told I’d been offered my first teaching job (she was a teacher herself), and her wisdom that day has lasted my whole career: “Some of the shortest days of work you will ever have will be in a classroom, and so will the longest. You will leave some days more tired than you have ever been in your life, and some days more energized than you have ever been. But every day will be worth it.”

Throughout my life, she was a woman who expected excellence from those around her and extended compassion to those she encountered. Generous, funny, particular, and singular, she was something else in the very best sense of the word.

Kathryn asked me to read a piece written by her mother at the funeral. It was perfect, encapsulating everything about Andrea’s hometown of Lakeland, Georgia and her approach to life in one lovely metaphor. I was honored to do so, and I feel equally honored that Kathryn agreed to let me share it with you.

Camellias

Every time I see camellias in bloom, fond memories of my youth waft by. The camellias in and of themselves are enough to invoke memories of running around and about the eight-foot bushes as if we were in a formal maze. Everyone had them; all of them were tall, and all of them stood like our town’s version of Stonehenge. Except our Stonehenge was not an open plain. Our tall, mysterious “stones” were guarded by stately pine trees that further added mystery and adventure to our play time. The blooms were beautiful, mostly red or a reddish pink, and some were touched with white. Some folks grew plain white or pale pink, but color was never the issue.

The real story about camellias is not what memories they bring, but who they remind me of. I never see a camellia in bloom that I do not think of Lucille Norton. Mrs. Norton was our home economics teacher in high school. She taught generations of girls to be Southern Ladies. She truly understood the limitations of our era in terms of money and resources, but she would not allow us to settle for less. She instilled in us that we had the resources to have, to do, to be whatever we wished for or whatever we needed. Accomplishments came from anticipating needs and creating solutions. Of course, every girl could have a fine wedding; decorations would be available: flowers and tons of satin ribbon (much of it recycled from past occasions); the food would be elegantly homemade, much of it from stores on hand. A new baby in the community did not go without a proper layette. A proper layette could be wonderfully handmade—a bassinet, quilted, padded and stitched by hand over a huge laundry basket. Receiving blankets, dresses, and caps were made of the softest flannel or the dearest batiste, all embroidered or monogrammed in silk thread. Later in life, if one needed or just wanted new furniture, it wasn’t a problem, for a Lucille Norton Clone would just reupholster the furniture she had.

How would she succeed at this tedious task? The answer is simple—after a full school year crammed with every possible learning activity, young girls in Lakeland were expected to return to the classroom in the summer to learn the extra special skills such as to upholster; make pleated drapes for the hospital; can pears, vegetables, tomatoes, and relishes; plan and practice dishes for fall Lion’s Club luncheons; make a bride’s gown; scallop a tablecloth; or do any other of a thousand and one things that she concocted for us to do. All the while she preached to us that we were performing a service, we were meeting an obligation and duty to our community; we had to do this, and this, and this, and we absolutely had to do it right, else we must tear it out or throw it away and begin again. We did as she instructed us to do; each and every time we rose to the occasion, for she would have it no other way.

What we learned far surpassed perfect biscuits in the oven, tailored buttonholes in a wool jacket, red and green pears canned for Christmas luncheon, pickles, and mayhaw jelly. We learned to take the resources at hand and our brains and hearts and “make it happen” no matter what “it” might be. Mrs. Norton insisted on a full-blown Valentine dance every February sponsored by her beloved FHA. While February may be the month of love, it was not then or now a month of readily available resources. It was the month when the cash flow in every household began to feel a pinch. Undaunted by the lack of resources, Mrs. Norton would set out on the Valentine Ball Journey taking us all along for the ride. We would prepare the food and the punch, set up and decorate…and here is the place where the camellias entered our lives. We would run around town collecting camellias in bloom (even drive over to Valdosta to gather them if need be). Then we would float them in glass dishes on each table, or stick them in ivy around the punch bowl, or decorate the top of a tiered cake (made by us, of course), or make corsages for our honored guests with them, or pin one blossom to the napkin at each place, or pin them along wide satin ribbon that ran across the serving table. A conservative estimate of the things Lucille Norton could do with a camellia surely numbered into infinity. Today, when I check my recipe box and discover that I now can make 122 different dishes with just one pound of hamburger as my main ingredient, I think fondly of Lucille Norton and the camellias.

In this contemporary world, women from the South are often characterized as “Steel Magnolias.” I think perhaps the women of our little corner of the Southern world were Camellias. Certainly, camellias are not as tall and showy as magnolias, but in their fashion, they are every bit as strong. Their demeanor is tempered by a hint of the delicate, a variety of colors, and a longer-lasting quality. Most of all, when the winter is the bleakest, and resources are at their lowest, there they are in full bloom—thriving rather than just surviving, available to do whatever is needed of them, always resourceful as they stretch toward the sun. I am certain that is what Lucille Norton was teaching us: She wanted us to become lovely Camellias.

Camellia photographs taken at Magnolia Gardens, Charleston, SC, by my sister Martha Gaston.

 


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