A death in Esto


Homemade ice cream under the pecan trees.

IT WAS 30 years ago today — exactly — that my mother died.

She had tried again to quit smoking, and had succeeded for almost a month. But when she’d come home from the shirt factory a few days earlier, driving the 10 miles south across the Alabama-Florida line, as she’d done nearly every working day since she was 16, she sat down on the back steps and smoked a cigarette. The aneurysm in her brain followed.

All the way to the hospital, she kept saying, “I knew I shouldn’t have that cigarette.” My brother Bobby called that night to say, “We have a problem.” Somehow I knew I should take a suit and tie. By the time I got across the country the next night, the doctors said it was unlikely she would recover. We never talked again. She was gone by the end of the week.

A death in Esto requires food. Fried chicken, potato salad and chocolate cake soon began to arrive from the neighbors. Two days later, at her funeral, flowers crowded the front of our church. Afterward we went outside to her waiting grave in the cemetery. We are neck-hugging people. When Mr. Bass, the ancient patriarch of our church, came slowly walking up, I hugged him close and cried. It wasn’t supposed to be this way, not so soon, or so fast, or so unexpectedly. “Well, son, it’s hard to lose your mama,” our neighbor Clyde Griffin said in his big loud voice as he wrapped his arm around my shoulder. And then he lightened the mood, unintentionally. “If she’d a lived,” he said, “after that aneurysm, she’d a never been nothing but a vegetarian.”


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