Queen Anne’s Lace

by Rosalyn Stilling

Morning light filtered into the room, diffused by lace curtains, and scattered into soft floral patterns across the cream quilt. I opened my eyes and wiped the grit from them, sandy and heavy from a long night’s sleep. I stretched my little limbs across the soft, queen-sized bed, practically a swimming pool of buttery cotton blankets and feathered pillows compared to my diminutive six-year-old frame. I lay still for a while, feeling the heaviness of sleep slowly evaporate from my muscles like mist in the growing light of dawn.

Doves cooed in the oak tree outside of the window as my eyes slowly focused on the pattern of the soft sheets. They were cream and adorned with little colored illustrations of wildflowers. Their names were written in an evergreen, ribbon-like script, which after many washings, had bled slightly, giving the sheets a slight mint green haze. I reminded myself to ask Meme what each one was called when she woke up—I was beginning to learn to read, but I still couldn’t decipher script. I traced my finger along the curving letters and up the stalk of the flower next to my cheek on the pillow. I stroked my finger along the lavender colored petals, imagining I was sitting in a field surrounded by them. I jumped my finger over to each flower near my face—to ones resembling a warm yellow daffodil, a soft blue daisy, a fluffy coral rose. I was mesmerized by the colors and imagined how beautiful they must be in person.

As I continued playing flower petal hopscotch across the pillowcase, there was a gentle rapping on the door. I lifted my head and looked across the room as Meme peeked in. A Cheshire cat grin cracked across my face as she softly came into the room. Despite still wearing her pajamas, her hair was perfectly coifed into billowing peachy-red curls that perfectly cupped her angelic face. Her large chestnut eyes creased at the edges as she smiled back at me. I loved her smile—it was always warm and sincere with an infectious charm. If she was smiling, I couldn’t help but be happy, and it was rare that I saw her otherwise.

She wished me a good morning in a lilting, sing-songy way. I smiled even bigger as I patted the vast space next to me, imploring her to join me. She lightly laughed at my cheesy grin that showed off my pearly baby teeth as she lay down next to me. We chattered about our night’s sleep as she petted my head and smoothed out my honeyed mane of bedhead. I asked her to tell me again the name of each flower on the sheets. “Queen Anne’s Lace” or “Larkspur” she would say as she traced her finger across the ribbony names in time with each syllable. My attention lingered on the Queen Anne’s Lace. I was mesmerized by the starburst clusters of fluffy white, so I dotted my fingers on each flowery tuft, memorizing its smooth stalk and puffy petals. Her fingers, though knobby with age, were smooth and pale, dotted with small, russet beauty marks and tipped with apricot nail polish. I repeated after her and traced my tiny finger across the words.

The doves cooed again, now accompanied by cackling crows and other bird songs, and I looked up out of the window above the mahogany sleigh bed, watching the oak leaves bob up and down in the morning breeze. Meme smoothed my hair again as she told me about the birds I was hearing, teaching me their songs and promising to show me their pictures when we rose, so I could learn to identify them. I smiled and nodded, always eager to listen and learn from her.

Now satisfied with my tamed hair, she petted my face and let her thumb linger on the many umber moles scattered across my cheeks. I giggled as she counted each one and reminded her, as was our morning ritual, that it was time for her to pet my back. It was one of my most favorite interactions with her because her hands were the softest in the entire world, and she took time and care while she rubbed my back. I lifted my night shirt, an oversized Bird Watching Society shirt of my grandfather’s, and her downy hands travelled up and down my back. They rivaled a swan’s raiment in softness and purity, for they were velvety smooth and only ever outstretched in peace and love. We would take turns petting each other’s backs, though I doubt my little hands, normally cold or slightly clammy, could compare to the velvety warmth of her slim hands. I awkwardly swayed my hand back and forth over the back of her cotton pajama top. After a solid thirty seconds, my tiny arms were tired, so it was back to her turn. I relished the fact that she put her hands on my cool back. The tactile contact was immensely valuable and comforting to me when all else in life seemed confusing, uncertain and scary. In these moments, I felt safe and comforted by the tenderness she showed me. If we could have stayed like that all day, I wouldn’t have minded.

When our arms were fully tired and the cooing doves were gone, our morning ritual was over. She pulled me into her arms, kissed my head with satiny lips, and ushered me out of bed to get changed for breakfast. I had little concept that anything existed outside of the days I spent with her.

Thirteen years later, she was lying in that same antique sleigh bed, though our roles were much changed. Her angelic face now revealed more velveteen crinkles of a life well lived, though her brow was furrowed in confusion.

“I’m scared. Please don’t leave,” she said, her voice cracking as she held back tears. She was now unable to walk and her nurse had to use a lift to take her from the living room of her little apartment to her bed. She was afraid that the lift would drop her, though her tall slim frame had shrunken to a waifish build that could hardly be cumbersome to anything.

“You don’t have to be scared, Meme. You’re safe in your bed and I’m here. I won’t leave you,” I said, though my voice cracked.

“Can you pet my arm, Rosalyn? It makes me feel better when I’m scared.”

“Of course,” I said softly as I smoothed my hand across her forearm. Her skin was still downy soft but creased like thin satin crepe. I hoped I was able to comfort her, but I wasn’t convinced that I was much help.

“When I was a little girl, my daddy used to pet my arm before I went to sleep at night. It helped me to feel better and not be so afraid,” she confided. Her large brown eyes, rimmed with tears, left mine as she focused on the window. I looked away to contain my emotions. I had to be strong. “Thank you,” she said, looking back at me as a delicate tear slipped down the crease at the corner of her eye.

I smiled back, unable to properly form my thoughts into a coherent statement. I wanted to tell her how little it was in comparison to how much she had done for me and meant to me, but my mouth was dry. I simply said, “I love you.”

Later that month, I would find myself kneeling at her bedside rather than sitting on its edge, watching family members come and go from behind her hands, now cold and laced together with a rosary. They would stay for point five seconds, cry a bit, tell my mother and aunt how wonderful my Meme was, and walk out, hardly looking at her. I couldn’t bear to look at them either. I couldn’t understand why they wouldn’t fully acknowledge her. I didn’t care if breath no longer stirred her chest, she was still there.

Doves sang outside the window, our constant companions. I leaned my head against her smooth arm and wept. “Don’t be afraid,” I whispered to her through my tears. “I won’t leave you.” I gently smoothed my hand back and forth along her gossamer forearm. I could feel the warmth leaving it little by little. With the other hand, I traced my finger along the sheets beneath her arm. I could see blotches of faded color and green ribbons through my tears. As my eyes cleared, my finger traced a swirling green ribbon by her elbow. It read “Queen Anne’s Lace”.