by Sean Patrick
I was looking over Danny’s shoulder into the Fanny Farmer Choice Candies box where Mama kept the tiny items that meant something special to her. There, hard as a rock and with only the barest hint of color on the tip of one tight petal, were the mummified remains of a long-ago rose, placed in the box shortly before Duffy went to war.
Duffy — Dorian Fitzhugh was his full name — was the friend Kevin could always count on as being his very best. So his death in combat shortly after graduation from Holy Redeemer struck Kevin and all of us with a blow from which we really never recovered. And after the military funeral and burial in the little cemetery behind St. Columbkille, we learned just how much Duffy meant to Mama.
Duffy’s own mother had died.
Duffy’s own mother had died giving birth to him, and his dad had sent him to live with an aunt. Even though his aunt dearly loved him, her own children were the apples of her eye and Duffy felt somewhat on the outside.
Just before Duffy was to enter the eighth grade, his aunt became ill and he returned home to live with his father.
Red Fitzhugh, Duffy’s father, had never gotten over the death of his wife, and a mantle of sorrow hung over him. He was a solitary giant who would sometimes ruffle the youngster’s curly hair, but, for the most part, he sat alone while Duffy fended for himself in the tiny flat where they lived, just a block from us.
As his friendship with Kevin grew and he began to spend more and more time with us, it became evident that Duffy appreciated the acceptance he found in our crowded household. (We really can’t take credit, though, because Duffy was so likable, anyway!) He was soon considered another Patrick boy, Mama’s “adopted” son.
Over the years I often heard one of the nuns or one of the priests at St. Columbkille comment on Kevin and Duffy’s close friendship — how they stood apart as the ones to watch on the athletic field or the basketball court, or any other field of competition, and how they complemented each other in so many ways.
I still remember this particular Mother’s Day, a warm Sunday in May when the sun had found its strength after a long, reluctant-to-pass winter. After serving Mass with me, Danny had ventured out on the scruffy sandlot where we played baseball and pronounced it dry enough to play on. So we hurried home, planning to fetch Bloke, Victor, and some other friends for the first game of the season.
Kev and Duff were at the apartment. They were 15 and stalwart sophomores at Holy Redeemer, and as such, they were not really planning to spend the day with us “younger pups.” But we could detect a hint of nostalgia when we told them about the game and knew we would see them at the field before the day was out.
First, however, there was important business at hand. “I’ll be back in a minute, Kev!” Duffy said, just as we Patricks remembered what the day was all about and went to fetch Mama’s gift.
Carefully, Mama unwrapped the gifts.
“Happy Mother’s Day, Mama!” we chorused as we carried our small gifts out to the oilcloth-covered table. “Happy Mother’s Day!”
Mama feigned surprise, as she usually did, and wiped her hands on her apron.
“Oh my! What’s all this? You’d think it was a birthday or something!”
“It’s Mother’s Day!” we would retort.
The ritual was the same, year after year. But we looked forward to it and Mama didn’t seem to tire of it, either.
Carefully, Mama unwrapped the gifts. A lace-bordered handkerchief; a pair of tickets to “Bank Night” at the Pearl Theatre so that she and Mrs. O’Malley could go without worrying about the money; a jar of her favorite quince jelly — with the promise that it would be safe in the icebox for her consumption alone.
One by one the gifts were opened and the homemade cards read. Tommy was away in the Navy, so there was a slight void in our celebration, but he had sent a card and long letter which Mama counted as precious as any gift could be.
Just as we were getting up from the table, the door opened and Duffy came back in carrying his baseball cleats in one hand and a still-moist American Beauty rose in his other.
“Here, Mrs. Patrick! Happy Mother’s Day!”
Mama took the rose from the beaming boy. The flower was still in a fairly tight bud and dew glistened on the velvet of the petal. The stem was long and green, with sharp thorns and shining leaves that also showed traces of crystal moisture.
We were a bit surprised, I guess, but not shocked. There was a pause in our boisterous conversation as we looked at Kevin’s best friend standing with his hand still outstretched after he had given Mama the rose. The fragrance of that rose was heavy in our crowded room; the memory of its scent still comes back to me whenever I smell a rose.
Mama remained seated on the bench where she had opened her other presents. I can still see her face as she gazed first on the rose and then up at the boy who had brought it to her.
“Thank you, Dorian!” Mama said with obvious affection in her voice. “Thank you, indeed!” She motioned for Duffy to lean toward her, and she kissed him like she would one of us.
Just thought you should have it!” Duffy beamed self-consciously.
When we got home that night, we saw the rose had been put into the long bud vase Mama had carried from Ireland, the one that had belonged to her own mother. The rose stayed fresh for more than a week. It gradually opened to its full glory and, finally, gave up the ghost.
For a long time we thought Mama had simply thrown it away. Three years later, almost to the month, we were to learn differently.
Duffy’s funeral was a somber affair, and we all knew how greatly Duff’s death affected our Kevin. To tell the truth, we knew that it was a blow from which Kevin would never completely recover. In spite of almost a half-century in between, I know there are times, even now, when Kev will sit alone and remember his friend.
After the funeral and the get-together in the parish hall, we returned somewhat silently to the stillness of our flat. Tommy, who was home on furlough, cautioned Danny and me to respect Kev’s inner grief and let him work it out for himself.
David turned on the radio but kept it soft. John, Mama’s pet canary, chirped a hesitant “cheep” and then lapsed into silence as if he, too, felt the mournful sense of loss.
“Red Fitzhugh seemed to understand that Duff is gone,” Billy commented. Duffy’s father, from his own sorrow, had spoken to some of us after the funeral and thanked us for being friends with his son.
“Yeah,” Danny said, “he shook my hand and Sean-o’s, too.”
Mama got up from her chair and went into her bedroom. We wondered if we had said something that made her leave. But she returned a few minutes later, carrying the Fanny Farmer candy box, and sat back down in her chair.
Danny and I were on the floor while David and Billy shared the newspaper on the couch. Kevin sat alone at the old table, but we were glad he was with us and had not shut himself off from the rest.
Mama opened the box and set the lid on the end table. Then, carefully lifting it out of the box, she held up the now black remains of that long-ago rose. She had cut the stem short so it would fit in the box, but a few leaves remained on it as well as some thorns.
“I pricked my finger the day Dorian gave this to me,” she said softly. “Pricked it on this very thorn when I went to put it in the vase.”
She held up the dried flower and tapped lightly on the still-sharp thorn.
“He gave that to you on Mother’s Day,” Danny said.
“Dorian had so little in the way of joy when he came among us,” Mama went on, as if almost to herself. “Up to his 12th year he must have been so lonely a lad! Ah! I often wished I could take away that boy’s sorrows.”
I watched Mama. It was not like her to talk so much. Nor had I ever seen her talk in a normal voice while tears rolled down her cheeks.
“He gave me this rose and I kissed his cheek,” Mama said.
“Then, when you boys were getting your shoes and the ball and bat, he came over and sat down to wait for you. He put his hand in mine and thanked me for being like a mother to him.”
We had never known that.
“Ah!” her sigh was long and from the depths of her own grief. “He’s got his own mother as well as Mother Mary with him now. But, for a while, he was like one of my own, and I’ll miss him so much!”
With that, Mama put the rose back in the box and carried it back to her room. She shut the door, and we let her grieve in private.
After her own death we again opened her treasure box, which she had kept in a dresser drawer in Tommy’s home, where she lived her final years.
As Danny and I looked at the blackened remnant of the rose, Kevin came over and held out his hand to take the rose. Danny gave it to him in silence.
Kevin, now a burly firefighter, 50 years old and graying along the sides of his black hair, put the rose to his lips and held it there for a moment. Then he put it back in the box and turned to walk outside.
Danny and I hurried after him.
“It’s been a lot of years, Kev!” Danny consoled him.
“She never forgot him!” Kevin said as sobs shook his hardened athletic frame. “She never forgot him!”“
He was a fine brother to you, Kev,” Tommy said, kissing Kev’s cheek. “And to us, as well. A fine brother, indeed.”
Kevin nodded. “He was a fine son, too, to remember his mother on Mother’s Day.”