Thursday, October 18, 2012

"Hannah’s Funeral Flowers"

By Abigail Fithian Halsey

Poor Hannah Hildreth was dead. Why the people of our village always designated one as poor after his decease, I do not know. It was not that they were uncertain about his future, for everyone in the little town was known to be a church member except old uncle Sam Jennings and he was not dead yet. Perhaps it was the old Puritan belittlement of mortal flesh, the worm-of-the-dust attitude that made good Dr. Williams announce on a beautiful June Sabbath morning—

“To the praise of God we will und unite and sing to the praise of God six stanzas of the Four hundred and sixtieth hymn—
            “Shall the vile race of flesh and blood
            Contend with their Creator, God?
            Shall mortal worms contend to be
            More holy, wise or just than He?”

Poor Hannah died just at the time when flowers were first used for funerals. At least no one in our village had heard before of their use in this way. But Matilda Hewitt had been to a funeral in Sagg Hill the week before and she said they had flowers on the coffin—white flowers, call lilies and similar. So Ruth, Hannah’s sister, thought it would be nice to have some flowers for Poor Hannah. She asked Mary Harris and Mary Fairfox to get them.

“You know more about such things than the rest of the folks,” she said.

White flowers were not easy to get just at that time of year, for everybody’s callas had been re-potted, lilies of the valley and garden lilies were all gone and it was too early for day lilies or white phlox. Mary Fairfox is equal to almost anything though and the day of Poor Hannah’s funeral there lay on the coffin two large long bunches of beautiful white buds. No one knew what they were or where they came from, though everyone was talking about them out in the front door yard after the friends had viewed the remains. Even Miss Rachel Smylie who had in her garden every flower that grew from Sagg Hill to Dark River did not know. You could see though that she did not want us to think she was ignorant on a subject where her knowledge was easily first, for she said—

“Mary Harris got ‘em from New York an’ Mary Fairfox fixed ‘em up. She knows how to do such things, Mary Fairfox does ‘cause she’s been to Boston, y’know.”

This satisfied the older women and they stopped talking of the flowers to discuss the “naturalness” of the remains.

“Poor Hannah, I thought she was older than she looked. You never can tell the age o’ such folks though.”

“Blessed relief it must be to Mrs. Hildreth Hannah died when she did. ‘Twould a been dretful if she’d a outlived her mother.”

“Ruth seemed to feel it most o’ any o’ the children.”

“Yes, they say she’s had the hull care o’ Poor Hannah ever sense she could walk.”

At this point the coffin was brought out and the presence of the mourners checked the flow of friendly gossip. We followed the bier to the old graveyard and after the burial the people lingered in little groups to visit the graves of kindred or inquire after the health of absent friends. I was one of the last to leave the place and Linda Marks overtook me as I went out the gate.

“We’re found out,” she said excitedly, slipping her arm through mine.

“Found out what?”

“Law, what all o’ us was talkin’ about over there—about the flowers.”


“Yes, Rachel Smylie ‘lowed she knew so much about it, she didn’t know a thing. After the mourners was all gone an’ we could get near ‘em, we went clost up to see if we could make ‘em out—that’s how I know, besides what Jane Hand told me. I suspicioned as much when I see ‘em on the coffin, but o’course I didn’t hev no time to stop and examine ‘em before the mourners.”

“Well,” I said curiously, “What were they?”

“I’m comin’ to it. Mary Harris she didn’t get ‘em in New York a’ tall. She got Uncle Tom harden to get ‘em for her out o’ Town Pond. They was just pond lily buds the most of ‘em, that’s what they was, nuthin in the world but pond lily buds with the green outsides pulled off. And the long ones, they was white holly hawk buds, the big double ones, you know, that Uncle Tom has growin’ on the south side o’ his house. He never would have given ‘em to any body besides Miss Mary, he’d do anything for her, you know. So she just went an’ ast him would he give her some white holly hawk buds to put on Poor Hannah Hildreth’s funeral coffin, an’ Uncle Tom, though he never hurd tell of such a thing as flowers on a funeral coffin before, said he would. An then Mary Fairfox says,

“’Will you get us some pond lilies too?’”

“’Pond lilies,’ says he, ’they’ll be all shut up by night.’”

“’never mind,’ says Mary Fairfox, ‘that’s just what we want.’”

“Well, he got ‘em an brought ‘em, pond lilies an holly hawks to Mary Fairfox’s house this morning. An’ you see how they fixed ‘em! Beautiful as a New York florist! I tell you Mary Fairfox can do anything she sets out to, an’ Mary Harris, she’s got the money. She aint stuck up a bit either. There comes Rachel Smylie, it’ll be such fun to tell her, I must do it. Good-by” and with a friendly squeeze of my arm Linda was gone.

The next day Mary Fairfox added a choice bit to Linda’s story, which however, was correct in the main points.

“Did she tell you about the spearmint?” Mary asked.

“What spearmint?” I said, and Mary took off her glasses and laughed until the tears rolled down her cheeks.

“I thought Linda didn’t know about the spearmint,” she said, wiping her eyes and putting back her glasses, for Mary Fairfox is very near sighted. “Uncle Tom has one corner of his garden full of it and the day we were there I begged some, saying it had such a nice flavor I used it for sauces sometimes. Well, when he brought the flowers for Hannah, he brought a bunch of the mint along. I had duly admired the holly hocks and thanked him for the lilies.

“‘An’ this ere spearmint,’ he said, ‘I thought you might like a little o’ that for poor Hannah. Y’know it’s got such a nice flavor.’”

Text courtesy Abigail Fithian Halsey Files, Southampton Historical Museum Archives and Research Center

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