Thursday, May 3, 2018
This is it, I think, as I enter the main concourse of the Louisville International Airport. I’m ready to cross this item off my bucket list. I’m ready to enjoy the birthday gift that my husband gave me last October.
I’m ready for “the most exciting two minutes in sports.”
I’m ready for the 144th running of the Kentucky Derby, “the run for the roses.”
I’ve watched this event as long as I can remember. On the first Saturday in May, friends, family and especially my mother, would all gather in front of the TV for the running of this famous race. We listened to the sportscasters talk about the horses, the trainers and owners, the jockeys and all the back stories that make up the racing world. My mother dictated the wagering: it was always “a buck a bet.” We threw our dollar bills on the coffee table, eager to see who would take home the big prize money when the winning horse was draped with the garland of roses. Red roses.
From the time we entered the airport on Thursday to our departure on Monday, there were red roses everywhere in the city. Urns, each filled with dozens of long stems, flanked both sides of the concourse. The lobby of the Galt House, the official hotel of the Kentucky Derby, showcased a massive arrangement on a pedestal beneath a stunning chandelier. A votive candle illuminated a single rose in the budvase on our dinner table at Puchini. Tall copper vases filled with the deep reds marched down the center divide of other our dining spot, The Butchertown Grocery. The window of the hotel boutique featured a tuxedo jacket fashioned from a red rose-printed fabric.
Roses, roses everywhere. The roses that defined my mother’s life. These are the roses that my mother graded and packed at the Elliott Rose Farm in Madbury from the time she was widowed at the age of 25 in 1948 until the day she retired in 1987. She handled thousands and thousands of roses of every color and size. She carried the rose filled water buckets from the walk-in cooler to the grading tables where they were measured, cut and checked for any mildewed leaves or any deformed “bullheads.” She never wore rubber gloves like the other girls. Her hands were always water- shriveled, her fingers thorn-punched, her nails broken. She worked a five and a half day week for most of the year, packing and shipping the roses for their trip around the country and the world. Roses for prom corsages, groom’s boutonnieres, brides’ bouquets. Roses for parades and funeral arrangements. And roses for the biggest flower holidays: Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, the Rose Bowl Parade, the Kentucky Derby. During the weeks prior to these occasions, she often worked six or sometimes seven days in a row without a day off. She left the house in the darkness of the early morning and often retuned long after the streetlights came on. All for the special occasions that called for the beauty of the rose- yellow, white, pink and the king of them all, the long-stemmed red.
Saturday, May 5, 2018
The day of the race is gray. Our room at the Galt House overlooks some kind of parking garage so it’s hard to see the actual ground below from our seventh floor window. But by the time we emerge from the elevator into the lobby, it’s apparent that it’s raining. Women don clear plastic ponchos or dry cleaner bags to protect their dresses and hats. Men pair baseball caps with their suits and jackets. Expensive high heels are left behind as rubber flip flops become the footwear choice for the puddles and mud at the track. Umbrellas pop up and down as the shuttle busses, taxis and limos pull up to the front door. There’s chatter and laughter as everyone orders another mint julip or cold beer and talks about the big race.
The pouring rain lets up as we reach the entrance to Churchill Downs and make our way to our seats that are under cover. My flowery, flouncy dress and wide-brimmed hat survive the trip and I settle in next to my handsome husband who’s decked out in his navy blazer and paisley bow tie. I squeeze his hand just to make sure this is all real. And then the rain begins again.
I’m studying my racing program and the names that I have either crossed out or circled for race #12, The Kentucky Derby. Second guessing the wagers that my husband is on his way to place. Sipping a glass of white wine. “People watching” those all around me as well as those down in the infield.
There is a tap on my shoulder. I turn around to find my Papa seated behind me. My grandfather who helped raise me. My grandfather who died some 55 years ago.
I blink and look around to make sure that I am still here, in my seat, surrounded by women sipping bourbon and men smoking fat cigars.
“Is that you, Papa?,” I ask. “What are you doing here? ”
There is no mistaking him. The bushy gray eyebrows that co-mingle above those deep blue eyes. The long face with the prominent nose, the deep wrinkles that frame the thin lipped smile.
“Of course, it’s me,” he says. He tips his straw bowler and gives me a wink. He’s dressed in his navy blue blazer and white flannel pants and sports a white shirt and red tie.
“I came to check on you. To make sure you got here alright, that you have a good seat, remember how to read the program and place a bet.”
I look around again.
“But Mama? Is she here? I thought I saw her at the airport tending to a bouquet of roses. An then in the hotel lobby removing a wilted stem from a vase.”
“Oh, you did. She’s here with me.”
“But where is she?”
“She’s down there in the infield, in all that commotion, having a beer and a smoke. She’s here to watch after me, just like in the olden days when she would drive me home in the truck after the races. Sometimes I would have too much whiskey and she would take the keys away from me and push me into the passenger seat. Those were some good times. She drove the back road from the Rochester Fairgrounds and we always make it home safe, even though she was too young for a license and her skinny legs barely reached the gas pedals.”
“Why didn’t she come up here with you? To see me?”
“Well, she was never one for fancy dresses and I don’t think I ever saw her wear a hat. She didn’t want to come up here and embarrass you in her flannel shirt and corduroy pants.”
“Well then, I’ll go down there to see her.”
“No, no little one. There’s no time for that.” He reaches for his gold pocket watch. “It’s almost race time. Look down there on the track.”
“But is she alright, Papa?”
“Don’t you worry. I keep my eye on her. She took care of me all those years.”
We watch as the Kentucky Derby contenders, their owners, trainers and all their connections walk from their barns onto the track. The rain has not let up and the track is muddy. Men in three piece suits, women in summer dresses and fascinator hats and pink rain boots slosh through the deep mud and puddles. And then comes the call: “Riders UP” as the jockeys are instructed to mount their horses and take to the track.
“Ladies and Gentlemen. Please stand for the singing of ‘My Old Kentucky Home.’”
I open my book and find the song as the first few bars of the song echoes across the track.
“Will you sing with me, Papa? Do you remember the words?”
“No, I have to go now. Your mother’s down at the rail waiting for me. I’ve got some spare change in my pocket and I just might stop at the window to place a two dollar bet on that #7 horse.”
I start to sing along with the other 160,000 Kentucky Derby fans. There’s another pat on my shoulder and when I turn he’s gone.
The horses are loaded into the starting gate and then comes the two words I’ve been waiting to hear for as long as I can remember.
I look across to the infield. Is that Papa’s straw hat? Mama’s flannel shirt? I wave and then focus on the mud and the run for the roses.