It was the Spring of 1861 and Catherine was 19 years old. The threat of war loomed on the horizon. Her parents, hoping to protect their daughter, had sent her to stay with her Aunt and Uncle in Missouri. So it was that Catherine found herself in a lovely old farmhouse surrounded by surreal landscape and quiet rest. Besides helping on the farm, she spent the days with her 2 cousins taking long walks, shopping for new ribbons, and stitching needlework projects. Enjoying what would be for some, their last summer as carefree girls.
With little to look forward to, it was a welcome surprise when a town dance was announced. The girls were terribly excited, and became even more so when they heard that the dance would be held in honor of the soldiers who would be marching through the area, many would attend.
With a flutter of anticipation they each planned what they would wear. All the while giggling about handsome captains, brass buttons, and tall black boots. It would have been the perfect occasion to wear their ball gowns. Alas, Catherine had lent her evening gown to her sister who, 1 year younger, planned to wear it to a very formal occasion with her fiancé’. So with the help of her cousins she set to work adding a sash, some ribbon, and a lovely floral headpiece to her simpler day dress.
It was only after she quickly attached the carnations to her head piece. That her cousin Jennifer, leaning over the settee, asked her if she knew what pink carnations meant.
“I’m afraid not,” Catherine confessed, “I only remember that a striped one means ‘I cannot be with you’.”
“Well,” Jenny went to the book shelf and picked up her well worn flower dictionary, “They have a much better message, it says here,” she placed her finger on the page, “They mean ‘I will always remember you.’.”
“Oh,” interrupted Anna, jumping up to look at the book “Sounds terribly romantic, Oh Catherine this could be perfect-!”
“Don’t even start Anna,” Catherine scolded, blushing a little, “Though that is very sweet, much better than wearing a striped one.”
“Especially when a handsome officer proposes.” giggled Anna.
So conversation went as the girls prepared for the upcoming Ball. Secretly Catherine feared no one would dance with her. She felt ashamed of her simpler dress. Between that and her stunning cousins, Catherine was sure to be watching from the side all evening.
With great anticipation the day arrived.
The room was crowded, many more than expected had come. In a last minute decision they held the dance in a rather large barn that stood unused on the edge of town. The day was chilly and the girls were grateful to be out of the wind.
Catherine was pleasantly surprised to find that she was not without a dance partner for the beginning, and waltzed around the room thoroughly enjoying herself. After a few dances, however, she found herself standing at the sidelines. Discouraged, she gazed around one more time and saw a young officer looking her way. He was tall, with light hair, and clear blue eyes.
“Did you want to dance?” He asked somewhat shyly, with a soft southern accent.
“Oh, Yes, Thank you.”
He held out his arm and escorted her to the dance floor. They started up a friendly conversation, He would say something amusing and she would find herself giggling. Of course, the subject of the War came up. Unlike most girls her age, Catherine found it all fascinating and had secretly read any newspaper articles her father brought home, keeping up with the news more than her mother would have approved.
Now she was very glad she had, the young officer seemed impressed with what she knew. She noticed Jenny looking her way. Whether her cousin was cheering her on, or criticizing her for speaking of politics Catherine didn’t know, and right then, she didn’t care.
As the dance began they continued to talk, They spoke of music and their favorite composers. He liked Stephen Foster, who knew, she liked Stephen Foster too.
They had just started the polka when one of her hastily secured flowers fell from her headpiece, “Oh dear,” she reached to pick it up.
“I’m terribly sorry.”
“Oh, it’s not your fault, the real problem is,” she lowered her voice, “ I have no pockets in this dress and so no where to put it, you wouldn’t be able to hold onto it for me?”
“It’s the least I can do after knocking it off,” He took the flower and gently placed it in his coat pocket. “Do they have a special meaning or do you wear them for the color?”
“Yes, they mean,” she paused, blushing, “It does mean something.’”
He smiled, a boyish grin and his eyes twinkled merrily. The dances went on and since they were having such a wonderful time, they simply kept dancing together. He was so very pleasant to talk to and Catherine was having such a splendid time. She felt like the evening would go on forever.
He told her that he came from Virginia, he was part of the Cavalry and hoped to one day ride with Stuart’s brigade. What impressed and inspired her most though was how full of commitment and how passionately he believed in the his duty to fight. She smiled admiringly, a great fondness growing in her heart, and the murmurs of love whispering in her soul.
It was all too perfect to stop, until it did. A weary officer entered the barn and after passing around a message, all of the soldiers left in a hushed hurry. He bowed quickly and thanked her for the dances, pausing for a brief moment and looking into her eyes, she curtsied and thanked him as well.
Before she could say anything else, he and the others disappeared into the darkening night, as if they had never been at the dance at all. The barn seemed very empty and quiet, and the wind blew through the roofing like a mournful ghost.
It was only in the morning, waking to the sun streaming through the windows, that Catherine realized she had never caught the young soldier’s name. Whether he never told her or he told her and she had forgotten, was unclear. ‘Oh no,’ she cried aloud, “I shall never forgive myself.”
The days drifted on and she settled into the new normal of her Uncle’s farm. Though was there really any normalcy in a country that was going to war? More and more boys were leaving. The First great battle at Manassas was the talk everywhere. Reports of conflicts began to increase.
The farm started growing extra food for the army and with most of the men away, Catherine and her cousins worked alongside the hired hands. Being so busy she had little time for thinking. When she did have time, often laying in her bed watching the moon rise, her thoughts would drift back to that dance, months ago. Savoring the fading memories like a cherished gift you keep tucked away.
Any hope of seeing him again was slight, and being practical she knew she never would. Life would go on, no it wasn’t fair, but it would go on. She only prayed for the lives of all involved in this bloody conflict.
Soon Battles began to erupt throughout Missouri. One fateful day a rather large skirmish took place outside their town. After the firing had subsided their Minister led a group of townspeople to carry water, help the wounded, and pray with the dying. It was mostly women who followed him to the field. With lanterns, and flasks of water, they walked behind wagons of makeshift stretchers.
Catherine felt that helping was the least she could do. She didn’t want to see these brave boys bleeding and dying but, if she could help ease their pain in any way, she would.
As they neared the field they could hear groans and moans, pleas for water, and whispered prayers. They split up in many directions, she was walking to help lift a soldier on a stretcher when she heard a soft groan behind her. There on the ground lay a young man, his hand pressed to his ribs, curled up in pain, blood covering his uniform. She knelt beside him and offered some water.
“Yes, please,” he whispered weakly..
Catherine brushed the hair from his face and gently lifting his head gave him a drink. She moved the lantern closer, it was then that she saw his face. She gasped, the same blue eyes, it was him, the young officer from the dance. All at once her heart felt like breaking and she fought to hold back the tears. He looked up and, seeing her face, he too seemed surprised and gave a weak smile.
“It’s you, Catherine, right?” He looked up but, speaking was difficult and he broke into a fit of pained coughing.
“I can’t believe you remembered me, I thought for sure you would have forgotten.” She couldn’t help smiling a little. “But please don’t try to talk, you need your strength.”
“Some people you can’t forget,” with great effort he reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a handkerchief. He let it fall open, inside the bloodstained fabric was, her pink carnation, perfectly untouched. He looked up into her eyes and spoke softly,
“I will always remember you.”
They held each other’s gaze afraid to look away for a moment. She reached out and clutched his hand, willing him not to leave. For a few minutes nothing changed.
Then he brought her hand up and kissed it softly, looking up at her one more time, his clear blue eyes closed and his hand fell limp. The pink carnation coming to rest upon the ground, her tears falling upon the petals in broken sobs.
-If a picture speaks a thousand words, have you gazed upon a flower?-MGM