Averyell A. Kessler
April was always a wonderful time in Avery Gardens because that’s when the azaleas bloomed. My grandfather WG started his 30-acre garden project by trucking up hundreds of azaleas from the Gulf Coast and planting them wherever he thought they’d flourish. The name Avery Gardens didn’t exist; we called it the country. By the time my family moved to the country, many of his prized plants were giants, their branches hanging heavy with electric pink blooms, as well as soft pink, lavender, and frosty white. There were camelias too, as well as day lilies, but during bloom time, they were unable to outshine the stars of the show. He was delighted when people came to see the show as his azaleas took their annual bow. On Sunday afternoons, he hired a man to direct traffic so it wouldn’t back up on County Line Road (still a two lanes of crunching gravel) and everything went well – usually. Sometimes it did not, as my mother and I discovered early one Saturday morning when she announced that she was going to give herself a hot oil treatment.
“Why,” I asked. “Your hair looks fine.”
“I read about it in The Ladies Home Journal,” she answered. Her favorited magazine was rarely a source of trouble.
“Why don’t’ you go to the beauty parlor? (Nobody said salon back in the day. Perhaps it was too easily confused with saloon.)
“It’s easy, I read all about it,” she said. “Besides, I don’t want to lean back in a shampoo bowl for hours.”
“Ok,” I said. “Good luck. I settled in our den hoping for a rerun of American Bandstand or Leave it to Beaver. No luck with either, but our own show was just beginning. When I looked out the large picture window in our living room, I saw cars drifting through the gardens. Only a few, but I knew more were on the way. Time to slip out of my baby doll PJs and dress in non-transparent clothing. My plans were interrupted when I heard a scream coming from Mama’s bathroom.
“Averyell, come back here! Now!
I charged down the back hall and threw open her door. The bathroom was filled with the acrid aroma of peppermint and I saw my mother standing in front of her full-length mirror, her eyes wide with hysteria.
“I made a mistake,” she yelled, waving a flattened tube of some unknown substance. Her face was surrounded by a helmet of blue foam. Tendrils of streaming hair dripped down her back forming a turquoise puddle on the floor. “I just worked a tube of Crest toothpaste into my hair instead of hot oil!” she shouted. “I tried to rinse it out, but it’s worse.” I didn’t laugh. It was hard; but somehow, I swallowed giggles.
“Take a shower,” I suggested.
“No,’ she said. “I’m afraid I’ll stop up the drain.” Our septic tank was a troublemaker, and her sink was already clogged with foam.
“There’s a spray nozzle in the kitchen.”
“That’s it,” she replied. “Let’s go.” Together, we trotted into the kitchen – Mama in her slip and underwear, me still in baby dolls.
The kitchen sink worked wonders. After long minutes of aggressive rinsing and the constant flow of hot water, her hair was clean – finally.
Our ordeal was over. She wrapped her hair in a towel, and we mopped up the mess on the floor. Then a strange noise, a combination of squealing brakes and a struggling motor.
“What’s that?” Mama asked. Together we peeked around the kitchen door and looked out of the living room window. A multi passenger church van was parked in front of our house, and a crowd from “Heavenly Inspiration Church” was waiting to see the sights. When its folding doors opened, a stream of humanity stepped onto our lawn. Some with cameras.
“Oh no!” Mama shrieked. “I’m in my underwear.”
“They’re here to look at the flowers. They won’t see us,” I answered, “Let’s run for it.”
The moment we stepped into the living room, we saw them, women in frilly dresses and men in suits standing directly in front of the window, their noses, as well as their hands, pressed against the glass. We turned. There were more, wandering in the back yard, cameras aimed and closing it. We were trapped like possums up a gum stump. No doubt, he kitchen windows were next and two scantily women would be served up for a la carte photographs.
“Hide! Mama yelled.
We darted behind the kitchen curtains, our backs against the wall and cowering like fugitives, until Mama received a bit of heavenly inspiration. “Laundry room,” Mama whispered. “Dryer.” We left the kitchen with clean sheets covering our shoulders and fluttering around our ankles. Pillowcases concealed our hair. Our curious visitors gasped and pointed as mother and daughter mummies casually passed the window and disappeared into the back of the house. We were safe! Within minutes, they scrambled onto the bus and zoomed away at a reckless speed.
The rumors leaked out the next week. Anonymous, of course. Our house in Avery Gardens was haunted. The meddlesome visitors had seen it themselves, two ghostly figures appearing right before their eyes. Perhaps they were haints rising from the abandoned cemetery abutting the east side of the gardens. Maybe spirits of Union soldiers had returned to reenact Chimneyville. One brave soul floated the theory that they’d seen angels, but that was too benign for Jackson’s busiest gossips.
As always, my grandfather WG thought the whole event was hilarious. My friends at Murrah were impressed and asked for a late-night tour of the cemetery. Mama’s hairdresser repaired her frazzled hair and replaced the peppermint aroma with lavender. Eventually, the chatter died away when a well-known politician was discovered at a no-tell motel in a black lace teddy and stiletto heels. After a few weeks, the Avery Garden haints faded into nothing. Mama never bought Crest toothpaste again.