The newspaper said this summer has been the hottest one in Georgia in thirty years. I remember that other summer, 1962, like it happened yesterday. It was so hot and humid that Mama's beauty parlor business was down. There were hardly any customers. No one wanted to go under a hair dryer, not even for a minute, and it stayed that way from June to October.

I turned sixteen in 1962, got my first permanent in 1962, and in August of the same year, I finally told Mama and the whole Flower family off. I told them I wanted to go to business school and be a secretary. The gasps at the Sunday family supper that hot day was like I wanted to be a gogo dancer in one of them cages at the Touch'e bar that used to be down on the turnpike.

Mama jumped up from the table and took both my hands in hers, and with tears and sweat running down her face said, "Hydrangea, honey, you have the hands, like all the Flower girls, and you have to carry on the tradition of beautician." Really, like I had hair spray in my blood or something. Now I loved my Mama and didn't like to see her cry, but I told them they were all loony nutsos.

Tradition or not, I had made my mind up to be a secretary, not a beautician.

To make matters worse, I did the next unforgivable thing - I dyed my natural blond hair brown, which caused even more gasps. Kinda like a brown sheep, you know. No one had ever broken that blond tradition. I had the whole Flower family yelling that year. They didn't talk to me for a few weeks. Then, they being as kind as they were loony, came around and gave me enough money to go to business school. Yes, that was 1962.

My mother Lilac was born a Flower sister on a farm on the outskirts of a little old town in Georgia. There were four of them: Aunty Holly, Aunty Azalea, Aunty Daisy and Mama. The whole family had names like that. Rose, Lily, Fern, and Grandma Heather. I had two sisters, Iris and Peony. The whole damn family was a garden. When Mama gave birth to me, I got named Hydrangea. That's right, Hydrangea, after the bush. They say my father fought like hell for Jessica, but as usual Lilac won the argument. Can you imagine naming a kid Hydrangea?

I would have liked to have been there when Aunty Holly gave birth to a boy. Mama said all hell broke loose. When she looked down at the baby they'd laid across her stomach and saw this boy child that resembled no baby she'd birthed, she screamed bloody murder. She hadn't screamed that loud in the pain, they say. Mind you, there hadn't been a boy in the Flower family for generations.

"Oh my God, what am I gonna name this child? What am I ever gonna name this child?" After a family meeting between the sisters and Grandma, they decided to call my poor cousin Elmtree. That's right, Elmtree Flower. The only boy in the whole damn garden and they named him Elmtree. He never changed it though, and he grew to be as big as a tree and as strong as an ox. When he walked into high school on his first day with a cigarette dangling out of his mouth and wearing a black leather jacket, nobody made fun of Elmtree. Even when he wore his white smock at the beauty parlor where he worked as the best beautician Mama had, nobody said a word.

Those Flower sisters oozed Southern. Sure, Southerners have an accent, but when the sisters spoke they were syrupy and filled with "y'all" a lot. The accent got thicker and harder to understand around men. A man would say, "Pardon? I didn't quite understand you, ma'am," and the women'd lean close, and with their licorice smelling breath explain it all again, giving whatever man a peek of what they owned, and then flutter their eyelashes.

They all had natural platinum blonde hair, almost white. All were beauticians and all wore no bra. This, mind you, happened before it was stylish. They looked like floozies, even my own dear Mama.

In the '50s, while the sisters pranced around town on high heel shoes, all twittering and giggly, all of us poor girls were growing up with these crazy names. I used to cringe when teachers called out my name in class. I swore that when I grew up, not only would I change my name to Barbara or Carol, a real name, I would never name any child of mine after a flower or a bush or anything green.

Now, I realize I haven't mentioned any other men in this family, other than Elmtree and my father. That's because there weren't any left. All the men were either driven to drink, died, or left the beautiful Flower sisters. It wasn't easy being married to a nutso loony who spent most of her life applying makeup and curling her hair. My father coined that phrase as he walked out on my mama Lilac. He yelled "Your whole damn family is nutso loony," and at sixteen in 1962 I also hated the family. It wasn't just because they were different, it was like Pa said, they were nuts.

What finally turned me against my own Mama though, happened at the spring concert of the same year right before that hot sticky Southern summer. I had joined the band that year for the first time. I'd been smart up ‘til then not to let mama catch on that there was a concert or a play. Well, she got wind of it in the beauty parlor and "she came to see her baby girl," as she said, "play that big horn." I hoped for a tornado, anything to stop her, but I knew, as the audience grew quiet that Mama and the girls had walked in. Everyone stopped talking when the Flower sisters came to town. Bobby Maguire, who played second coronet and not very well either, whistled and said, "Ang!" (I took the ANG out of Hydrangea and told everybody to call me Ang when I started high school). "Ang," he said. "Would you look at what just walked in?" I knew without looking that Mama was there. She wore a tight white dress with no bra, red nail polish, red lips and high heels. Ringlets of perfumed blonde curls were all tied up with a red ribbon and a big gardenia.

The boys on the bandstand almost jumped out of their pants. Their mouths hung open and it's sure hard to play a horn like that. Bobby Maguire's hand started sliding up my thigh like it always did and I bent his finger all the way back, like I always did. This time he said I broke it. Through gritted teeth I told him that was my mother and her sisters.

"Wow, the one in white, she sure is a toot. You gonna look that way, Ang, when you all grown up? Huh, Ang?" I, being completely humiliated by now, told him to shove his horn where the sun don't shine. Though, all them flower girls really had fine figures. As Mama sashayed down the center aisle and took a front seat next to a man whose mouth was also hanging open and whose wife almost broke his ribs poking, she waved and in her syrupy voice that made me want to puke, said, "Hi, Hydrangea." Bobby Maguire started choking. I was only trying to help as I hit him on the back, again and again.

"You trying to break my back too?" he asked as he held up his purplish finger. "What she call you, Ang? Hydrangea? Like the flower?" "It's just a nickname; my real name is Ang." I wanted to die. I wanted to snap my fingers and be gone like the girl in the magician's show. But it didn't work that way. They all stayed there watching and clapping through the whole concert, and by the time it ended so had all my dreams about being normal.

Mama twittered her way up to the stage, her high heels echoing as she tried to get her legs far enough apart in that tight skirt to climb the steep steps.

"Hydrangea, ain't you gonna introduce your mama to your little friends?"

"Hi," Bobby Maguire said as he stepped in front of me. "I'm in the band with your daughter Ang. It sure is a pleasure to meet you, ma'am."

"Well, aren't you the cutest? You actually got James Dean eyes. Hydrangea, you see that?"

At that moment I knew there was no God. I knew that in my soul. Mama and her sisters took us for ice cream sodas at the local candy store, and I don't think the store was ever the same. I know I wasn't. You see everybody knew about the Flower sisters in town but nobody knew I was one of the flower girls.

Graduation couldn't come too soon. I stopped talking to Bobby Maguire 'cause every time he saw me he'd hum a little tune about all the flowers in the garden.

I did what I said though. I went to that business school where nobody knew me. On the application I wrote that my name was Carol and hoped they wouldn't check. I dressed differently too, in loose dresses and low practical shoes. After I graduated from that school up in the capital, I got a good job as a brunette secretary in the governor's office, and for a while I was happy and just like everyone else - till Mama and the girls visited me.

The state capital was no small town and there were a lot of different people living there. So you woulda thought they might fit in. But just like in school, when they walked into a room not a sound could be heard, except for their gushing and twittering. My boss, Mr. Pettlemen, came out to meet my dear mother Lilac.

"Mama," I said, "this is Mr. Pettlemen."

"Well, how do you do?" she said, kinda slurred.

"I'm sorry, ma'am, I didn't quite understand you," he answered, as this tall blonde goddess leaned in closer for the kill.

"Mr. Pettlemen, I do believe you have eyes like the late James Dean. Hydrangea, dear, you never told me that." No God. I'd thought it once and I thought it again; there is no God.

Mr. Pettlemen wondered why they all called me Hydrangea. "Just a nickname," I said, "just a nickname." After that I went home for visits, and except for a few more wrinkles the Flowers didn't seem to age. But even with all their nuttiness they were such happy people that each time the visit ended I'd go back to my little quiet normal apartment alone and unhappy. I didn't see Bobby Maguire again although Mama said he'd called a few times looking for me.

Funny, the older I got the more I missed them and it was sure hard to keep dying my hair brown. So, at the age of 25 I came home, half blonde and half brunette. They threw a party that the state capital would have envied. There were flowers all around. Besides being the best beauticians in Poinsettia, Georgia, by far they were the best cooks. (I don't know if I mentioned the town name before.) They cooked for a week, everything from hams and turkeys, corn bread and macaroni salad to the most delicious chocolate tart laced with rum that you could die for.

And then, at the coming home party there was Bobby Maguire. He'd gotten taller, put on a few pounds, and seemed to have become quite successful in Poinsettia. His voice was deeper and he really had grown up. I never noticed the color of his eyes before, light blue, and they kinda twinkled.

In the fall of that year I married Bobby Maguire, who by that time owned his own feed store and gas station. He was a toot. Bobby said I was better looking than even my mama. Now, how couldn't you love someone like that? I let my hair go back to blonde; Bobby said it was beautiful. The outrageous Flower sisters were all bridesmaids in my wedding. They all wore peach colored dresses with big hats and everyone had the same hairdo, compliments of Elmtree.

In 1972 I had my first of four girls, and on that day when I looked down at the perfection God had made in my child with the platinum blonde fuzzy hair, I knew there was a god - he really existed. I named the baby Violet Flower Maguire after her great-great-grandmother.

Guess I better stop daydreaming and close this newspaper. I have to start supper 'cause all the sisters are coming by. Grandma won't be coming. She's been gone now for many years, but I named one of the girls after her.

I adjust one of my pure white ringlets as my sixteen-year old comes in. I look at her. "Marigold, y'all read in the newspaper this is the hottest summer on record?" Then I just smile and shrug as I watch the face of my beautiful blonde daughter cloud up. That's a cringe I do understand, don't you know.

Copyright © Regina Phelps 2002. Title graphic: "Flower Family" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2002.