EDITOR’S NOTE: Baptist Press today continues a 12-part serialization of the novel, “A Scent of Jasmine,” by David Dockery, a member of Pocahontas Baptist Church near Jackson, Miss.
The day was still overcast and chilled even more by a stiff breeze, but the cemetery stroll was not gloomy for Libby. She loved the old stones, some of which dated back to the yellow-fever epidemic in the 1820s. The plague had wiped out whole towns along the Mississippi River and had killed many children in Westhaven. Families of modest means had purchased large and expensive stones to honor their dead. They had poured out their hearts in long inscriptions to lost sons and daughters. Even babies of only a few days had been honored in this way.
The town cemetery was joined to the First Westhaven Church cemetery with no fence between them. Libby knew the property well. Some of the old monuments, headstones, stone slabs, and box graves were of native sandstone from a nearby quarry. The state stone mason, who was charged with quarrying stone for the state house at Jackson, sold the best stones on the side as cemetery monuments. When officials checked on the slow progress of his work, they found the quarry full of cemetery stones. The stone mason was relieved of his duties; the inferior stones of the State Capitol later crumbled and were replaced, but the grave stones of Westhaven stood tall with inscriptions that looked freshly carved. Libby loved to walk among the old stones and imagine that they honored her relatives.
Libby followed Stephanie to the fresh dirt of two graves only a few days old. There a young lady, who had lost her parents two years earlier, was arranging flowers at the graves of her aunt and uncle. Her tear-drenched face lit up when she saw Stephanie.
“Stephanie!” she cried. “I was afraid you wouldn’t come. I can’t take this by myself!”
“Sorry I’m late. Gail, this is my friend, Libby Anderson. Libby, this is Gail Morris. Gail and I are like sisters; she is an only child like me. This day each week we bring fresh flowers for our parents’ graves.”
“The Whittens,” Gail explained to Libby, “were my aunt and uncle on my mother’s side. They died in a house fire. Everything seemed to be going so well for them. They had always wanted children, and just five years ago they adopted Johnny from the Ward Clinic when he was a newborn baby. It’s a miracle the firemen saved Johnny from that burning house. Now I don’t know what will become of him. He’s with my only living aunt and uncle, but they are old, and their house is a mess.”
“Why don’t you adopt Johnny?” Libby asked.
“I would if I could, but they don’t let single girls like me adopt children, at least not here. I’ve changed many a diaper on Johnny and missed many a college class to help with him when he’s been sick. It seemed like a lot of trouble then, but Johnny has a way of growing on you. There are few things more precious in life than seeing a five-year-old child light up when you enter a room. I’m so afraid someone outside my family will adopt Johnny or that he will be placed in foster care.”
Gail’s expression grew determined. “Before that happens, I’ll marry someone off the street and adopt Johnny.”
“Don’t do anything that drastic,” Stephanie warned. “Your aunt and uncle aren’t going to give Johnny up to another family.”
Gail managed a faint smile. “Dr. Ward asked me to be director of Johnny’s scholarship fund. I don’t know why he picked me. There were so many important people who wanted to help, but Dr. Ward insisted that I be the director. What if people don’t respond? What if I fail and Johnny has no money for college?”
“Do you love Johnny?” Stephanie asked.
“With all my heart!” Gail asserted.
“Then you are the perfect person for the job. Don’t worry about the money; it will come in. Everyone wants to help him.”
Libby turned to Stephanie. “Wasn’t Gail one of the women at the Ward Clinic when you were there?”
Stephanie put a finger over her lips before explaining quickly, “That was a different Gail. Gail Morris is much younger than I am.”
Gail’s hand trembled slightly. “I was once a patient at the Ward Clinic.”
“Did you give up a baby for adoption?” Libby questioned.
“No,” Gail replied and hung her head.
“Did you abort the baby?”
“Yes,” Gail confessed. “My boyfriend and I ‘jumped the gun’ as they say, and then when I told him I was pregnant, he ‘jumped’ town. And he didn’t just jump town; he left the state to avoid child support. I was determined to end my pregnancy. Dr. Ward tried to talk me out of it, but my mind was made up.”
“Are you sorry?” Libby asked.
“Yes, I’m sorry,” Gail admitted. “When my parents were sick, I prayed for them, but I felt like a hypocrite. How could I ask God to save my parents when I aborted my baby and their only grandchild? Now my aunt and uncle are dead, and Johnny is twice an orphan. It’s all my fault!”
“It’s not your fault!” Stephanie shouted. Then she fell silent, as if startled by her own emotion.
Her outburst had surprised the other two girls, too.
Finally Stephanie looked at Libby. “You’d be surprised at how many couples jump the gun in this town,” she said quietly.
Libby explained to Gail, “I was adopted from the Ward Clinic. Someday I hope to find my biological mother. That’s why I ask questions.”
“I’m sure your mother will be delighted to meet you. I’d love to meet my child if I could. I think about it every time I see Johnny.” Gail rose from the grave site and gave Libby a hug. “I like your hair. It smells like jasmine.”
Libby smiled. “It’s my favorite fragrance. I use it on my hair every day as an incense offering to God. It’s my thanks for being alive.”
Gail appeared to enjoy the scent for a moment. Then her sadness returned. “Let’s help Stephanie with her flowers.” She sighed. “I need to keep busy.”
At the grave site of Stephanie’s parents, Gail took the old flowers away while Stephanie placed the new ones. When Gail returned, she and Stephanie carefully arranged the bouquets.
“May I have my flower?” Libby extended her hand.
As Stephanie gave Libby the rose, Gail stood to intervene, but a glance from Stephanie kept her silent. Libby took her rose and left the cemetery to walk among the tiny crosses by the roadside, crosses placed by Westhaven Church in honor of aborted children.
Gail swallowed hard before speaking. “What did your test show?”
Stephanie looked at the ground and tried not to show her fear. “I…have…leukemia,” she said slowly.
“NO!” Gail cried. “Stephanie, it can’t be!”
“Dr. Ward thinks I’ll be OK once I have a bone-marrow transplant. He thinks he has a donor match for me.”
“I’ll be your donor,” Gail pledged. “I’ll do anything. How can I help? I need you, Stephanie. You can’t die…it would be like another curse on my life….
“Gail, don’t blame everything on yourself. Things happen. I was scared when I heard the news, but Libby took my mind off my illness. I promised Libby that I’d help find her biological mother. With no records, that could be an impossible task, but I feel like I know her mother.”
Encouraged by Stephanie’s hopeful outlook, Gail managed a smile. “I do like the girl’s scent of jasmine.”
“Yes.” Stephanie paused. “It smells like someone else I know. It smells like…well, like Libby’s birthmother!”
Gail looked aghast. “You know Libby’s birthmother?”
“I think I do. At least I have a very good guess. Sonny’s sister, Allison, has that same blond hair and uses the same herbal shampoo. Her daughters look just like Libby.”
“So Libby is Sonny’s niece?”
“I’m not holding that against her. Libby is a sweet girl, and she may be my fourth cousin.”
“How can you be so sure that Allison is her mother?”
“When I was a freshman in college, Allison was a sophomore. That year she was voted most beautiful, had a straight-A average, and was president of the sophomore class. Allison loved college, but she didn’t return the next year. We were told that she was studying abroad. But one of her friends told me that Allison “had a bun in the oven” and was at a home for unwed mothers in Alabama. That was about the same time of Libby’s birth.”
“A home in Alabama! That’s where Dr. Ward wanted me to go,” Gail gasped.
“Me too,” Stephanie replied.
“Are you going to tell Libby?”
Stephanie smiled. “Good journalists never report a story until they are sure.”
“How can you be sure without seeing the adoption records?”
“Journalists have ways of finding out. A DNA sample from a paper cup or a licked envelope is all I need. That shouldn’t be too hard to get.”
Stephanie picked up the remaining rose. She always brought two roses, one for each of her parents’ graves. But this time she’d given the other one to Libby. Stephanie hesitated, then placed her rose on an empty plot beside her mother’s grave.
“What are you doing?” Gail said softly from behind her.
“This rose is for me. There will be no one to bring flowers when I’m gone.”
Gail tried to stop Stephanie. “I’ll bring flowers every day! Don’t scare me like this.”
Stephanie placed her rose in the face of a stiff breeze. She looked up, across the distant field, to where Libby was placing her rose at the base of a small cross. Libby had been pacing the field for ten minutes, picking that cross with such care. The breeze displaced the rose, but Libby anchored it to the ground with a pin from her hair.
“Her hair pin came in handy,” Stephanie noted.
“So did yours.”
Stephanie was surprised to find that she had inadvertently pinned her rose to the ground with her hairpin just as Libby had done.
“You two are a lot alike,” Gail observed.
“We were alike, when I was fourteen with two healthy parents and a happy home—before days of sickness, disappointment, and grief.”
Gail was silent, but Stephanie sensed her friend knew just how she felt.
Taken from “A Scent of Jasmine” by David Dockery (OakTara, www.oaktara.com). The entire novel is available from amazon.com, christianbook.com or barnesandnoble.com. Used by permission of the author and publisher. David Dockery is a Mississippi geologist and member of Pocahontas Baptist Church near Jackson. To read the first chapter of Baptist Press’ serialization of “A Scent of Jasmine” by David Dockery, go to http://www.bpnews.net/BPnews.asp?ID=34444. For subsequent chapters, search for “Scent of Jasmine” (with phrase in quotes).