The arrangements were destined to wilt in obscurity, if not for the saviors in the parking lot. Volunteers from Random Acts of Flowers Tampa Bay opened the double doors of a cargo van and hoisted the vases inside.
The blooms would have another shot at life.
Two days earlier, 110 people had come to Curlew Hills Memory Gardens in Palm Harbor for the funeral of Gail Natale. They sent sprays of lilies and birds of paradise, eucalyptus and chrysanthemums.
Gail’s daughter, Lisa Dailey, snipped a few roses, hydrangea and greens for the memory box, then let the rest of the flowers go.
Flowers are simple in a tangled world, a way of saying things humans can’t. They calm and connect us. Ancient Egyptians used them to decorate tombs and mark the passage of life. Victorian women carried them to send secret messages.
We take them for granted, too. Some people have never had a flower delivery in their life.
A Tennessee man named Larsen Jay fell off a ladder in 2007. He received lots of bouquets in the hospital, which kept his spirits high through surgeries. When he noticed other patients didn’t have any, he wheeled himself down the hall and gave them away. He went on to found Random Acts of Flowers, which has three locations around the country.
In Pinellas County, volunteers fetch castoffs from funeral homes, Publix stores, Whole Foods and weddings. Recently, Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard donated thousands of flowers from the funeral of City Manager Bill Horne. Toward the start of the pandemic, a bride reached out. Her wedding had been canceled, and she was stuck with the bouquets.
Volunteers meet in a Dunedin warehouse, where program director Monica Kok’s family once ran a tool and die shop. They divide flowers, discard dead petals and snip stems clogged with floral foam. The next day, more volunteers make new arrangements. Sometimes, it’s school or corporate groups, but mostly, it’s retired women sharing carrot cake and singing along with Alexa.
Drivers take the new bouquets to nursing homes, hospitals and hospices. Before COVID-19, volunteers went from room to room and saw the reactions.
“It triggers a memory,” said Janette Donoghue, executive director of Random Acts of Flowers Tampa Bay. “The stories that will come out. They remember a prom or a wedding or something happy.”
Sometimes, people aren’t sure how to react. “I don’t have any money,” they say, before realizing the flowers are free. Or they have Alzheimer’s and don’t understand, like volunteer Carol Pearson’s mother, who once received a bouquet. Sometimes, the flowers touch the family members even more.
Sometimes, there are surprises. To mark the charity’s 75,000th bouquet, volunteers delivered to a group of veterans. The men cried.
“I never thought I would get flowers until I died,” one said.
More than a dozen volunteers got to work as Kok reviewed the day’s plans. Arrangements would go to a hospital in Tarpon Springs, an assisted living facility and to hospice nurses for home care.
“Make sure your bouquets are regular-sized, good-sized,” she said. “We don’t need to skimp today.”
Some volunteers were former florists with an eye for balance and color, rescuing leaves from the waterline and bundling for height. Others were still learning.
“Now, you know the rule,” said Shari Schwartz, who grew up in her family’s Ontario flower shop. “Would you like to receive this?”
“I would,” said Audrey Caruana. “Thank you, Shari, for your help.”
As they tied ribbons around vases, they couldn’t have known how much Gail Natale would have approved.
She was a former secretary with the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office, a grandmother and a member of a ladies golf team in Trinity. Along with her husband, Ralph, and another couple, she owned the Clearwater deli Pickles Plus. Customers called her Mrs. Pickles.
She would have been good at this. She loved interior design and changing out her sofas. She would have laughed with these ladies, too. Her house was immaculate, but she always spilled food in the same place on her shirt.
Gail got up on Sept. 14 short of breath and later suffered a cardiac arrest. She was 77. Her funeral flowers scattered into a dozen different bouquets in the warehouse, into boxes, onto carts and back in the cargo van bound for AdventHealth North Pinellas.
That’s where Marie Barnowsky sat in bed. The former hairdresser, 74, lost her husband nearly 20 years ago. He’d been her childhood sweetheart.
She’d been in and out of the hospital with congestive heart failure. While she was hospitalized this time, her brother died. She was grieving, trying to find joy by dancing with her nurse.
“If you can’t laugh,” she said, “the other thing you can do is cry.”
That day, she’d struggled to get up and called for help. Help arrived, along with a bouquet of coral roses, green hydrangea and yellow mums, in a vase tied with a bow. Marie breathed them in. She said it was the nicest thing anyone could do.
Contact Random Acts of Flowers Tampa Bay at (727) 754-7974 or raftampabay.org.
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