It was summer. I remember because my truck was covered in yellow powder. And if you don’t know the yellow powder I speak of, you might be from Ohio.
A lot of people who move to the South from other places think our biggest problems are humidity, mosquitoes, or evangelical fundamentalists. But those are nothing. We have dehumidifiers for humidity, citronella for bugs, and fundamentalists won’t bother you if you play dead or talk about beer.
No, one of our biggest pests in these parts is the Satanic tree dust that kills innocent woodland creatures and ushers in Armageddon – pine pollen.
Long ago, I tried to start a landscaping company. It was a bad idea and a colossal failure. I bought a utility trailer and some equipment. And when pollen season hit, I put a few flyers in mailboxes.
“FIRST LAWN-CUTTING IS FREE!!!!” I advertised, and I used four exclamation points, since four is better than three.
One of my first customers was an old man. He hired me to re-sod his entire front yard during the height of pollen season. I paid my friend Adam to help me.
Adam and I worked like rented mules. We replaced almost half an acre of centipede grass until our noses were running and our eyes were totally swollen shut.
“This pollen’s killing me,” I said to Adam.
“Who said that?” Adam answered.
While we worked, an old woman came walking out of the house. She wore a nightgown, her hair was white and messy. She wandered through the yard like she was in a daze, letting the sun hit her face. She smiled. She sneezed.
“Oh, Carl!” she shouted. “There are boys out here!” She sneezed again. “Boys!” she said. “Two boys!”
I was afraid this woman was going to boil us in a kettle with some toe of frog and eye of newt.
Finally, the woman announced that she wanted us all to have a tea party. She clapped her hands together and hollered, “A tea party!”
The old man made little sandwiches for everyone. He placed fine china on a yellow-dusted patio table. We sipped from little teacups and talked about the weather. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a woman eat so many Zapp’s dill-pickle-flavored potato chips and live to tell about it.
When we finished, the old woman barked to her husband, “Carl, get my easel.”
The man went to the other room and gathered oil painting supplies. He set up a makeshift studio in the backyard for his wife. A chair sat opposite the easel. I was instructed to sit.
The woman painted, and when she held her brushes, she became 50 years younger. She kept reminding me to hold completely still and suppress my sneezes. She made grand sweeping motions on the canvas. She stared at me with brilliant eyes.
Behind her, I could see the old man was crying.
After what seemed like hours, she finished my portrait. She displayed it to us. It was incredible. This woman was not just a painter, she was a master.
The old man took the canvas into his careful hands. He led us to a room at the end of a long hallway. Inside were paintings of all kinds. Colorful flowers, figure studies, still-lifes, and portraits.
“Thank you for posing,” the old man said. “You don’t understand, my wife hasn’t painted in 15 years. Most days she can’t even remember my name.”
He went on to say that his wife started taking art lessons long ago when she turned 40. She turned out to be a natural, and nobody would’ve ever guessed it. Soon, all her friends were visiting the house to pose. The woman painted furiously through her 40s, 50s, and 60s.
Then Alzheimer’s happened.
It came hard. One day, they closed the doors to her studio forever. Overnight, the man transformed from husband into caregiver. And there is a special place in heaven for caregivers.
I don’t remember much more about that day except that my friend and I laid sod after dark by the glow of outdoor lights. I also remember that the old man paid us too much for our work.
Before we left, we saw the man and his wife through their lit-up windows. The man was helping her into bed, but she was fighting him. He was patient, and she was really letting him have it. I will never forget that.
Yesterday, I drove through a familiar neighborhood and I saw that old house. A young couple lives there now. There were children playing on lush green grass. A young man was outside working in the yard. I asked the man if he knew the people who lived there before him.
“Yeah,” said the man. “Those were my grandparents, did you know them?”
I told him that long ago I was once fortunate enough to have tea with those two beautiful people. And I told him about a great artist I was introduced to that afternoon who painted my portrait.
The pollen suddenly became more than our eyes could handle.
God bless all who are touched by Alzheimer’s and dementia.
Sean Dietrich is a columnist, novelist, and podcast host, known for his commentary on life in the American South. His work has appeared in numerous newspapers and magazines, he has authored 13 books, and he is creator of the Sean of the South Podcast.