I looked at all the flowers that were still fresh and beautiful. I had just gathered what was left of the fresh floral arrangements I had created for a party in honor of her son and his new wife a few days earlier. The pure white Casa Blanca lilies fragrance was intoxicating and the gorgeous white roses breathtaking.
I couldnt just toss these beautiful flowers away. So, I decided to take a chance and call to see if Neva Fickling happened to be at home and up for a visit.
Neva, who had been battling Stage IV lung cancer for some time, answered on the second ring. I was surprised when I heard the sound of her distinctive and easily recognizable voice. Neva, I said. Its Mark Ballard. Are you up for a visit and some beautiful flowers? I asked, to which she replied, Of course! I would love to see you, and you know how much I love fresh flowers!
I packed up the flowers and headed to her home, something Id done many times during the last almost 30 years.
On my drive, I smiled as I took a journey back in time to our first meeting. I can still remember it in vivid Technicolor. I was 23, recently married and living in Atlanta at the time, when my parents told me about the newly formed Cherry Blossom Festival. We were planning on moving back to Macon, so I decided to do a painting of the beautiful Ingleside Avenue antebellum home of Mr. and Mrs. Fickling Sr.
Since I didnt personally know the Fickling family, I decided I would present my painting to Mr. Fickling at his birthday party in Third Street Park during the festival. It was my hope that I would get to meet his daughter-in-law, Neva Fickling.
I had heard she was involved in the arts throughout the entire state. As a young artist, I not only needed patrons but, more importantly, advice and contacts. Silhouetted against the beautiful cherry trees, there stood Neva in a wonderful pink outfit. Shaking in my shoes, I finally mustered up the courage to approach her.
While I was growing up, she was known only as a former Miss America who lived in Macon. I had heard my mother speak of her on many occasions. Although Mother had never officially met her, she had admired her from a distance and followed her Miss America reign, her return back to Macon and her marriage to Bill Fickling Jr.
I nervously introduced myself and asked if I could call her to arrange a meeting so she could see my portfolio. She graciously said yes not knowing how I would drive her crazy until she did! I called and called until we were, with her incredible schedule, finally able to set a date and a time.
As I drove to her home to visit, I might as well have been going to a castle to visit a queen. I was shown to her living room and, as I waited for her, I tried to take in all of the gorgeous surroundings. Her beautiful grand piano stood out like a large and shiny trophy to me. My mother had always told me how beautifully she played the piano.
As Neva walked toward me, I could feel my mouth quickly turning into dry cotton. I feared I wouldnt be able to speak. I had already practiced many times in my mind what I would say to her, but I was more concerned with whether she would like my work.
She immediately made me feel right at home and, studying every detail, looked at all my drawings and paintings. She was very complimentary and even purchased a framed original charcoal rendering I had done of the old Wesleyan College conservatory, where she attended college. I was amazed as she pointed out certain areas of the building where she had studied and even sun-tanned prior to the Miss America competition.
During the years, Neva has been more than just a friend. She was instrumental in my involvement with her husbands Charter Medical Corp. She contacted the interior decorators and I began to create paintings for many of their hospitals all over the nation. She urged me to get involved with the Cherry Blossom Festival, and so I did.
I have often sought out her advice on my projects and worked on many of hers. She even honored me by being a guest on one of my television shows, where we showcased some of her exquisite Miss America gowns.
This time, when I arrived at her home with a car full of flowers, a still gorgeous lady who was battling cancer with all her might immediately greeted me. We hugged and I began to arrange the fresh flowers for her as she looked on. I spent the entire afternoon with Neva. We reminisced about our first meeting and all that had changed for me since I was that young man so scared to meet her. We laughed and had the best time on her porch.
As she pointed out where to place the arrangements around her beautiful home, I realized it would probably be the last task Id do for her. I asked if we could take a photo together since I had so many photos from over the years taken with her. She kindly agreed.
I hugged her as I left and we smiled. Somewhere deep inside I knew it would be the last time I would see her. It was a wonderful and sunny afternoon I spent with not only Georgias only Miss America, but also my friend.
When she passed away a week ago today, I was in the middle of designing the Cherry Blossom Festival pin for the upcoming 2013 festival. I knew Neva would have been so happy because she always loved the fact that I used my artistic talents for the festival. Im truly blessed to have been able to spend that afternoon with her at her lovely home surrounded by beautiful flowers, which she loved so much.
The other day, I remembered a book she had given me many years ago. The wonderful coffee table book was, of course, about flowers. As I opened the cover I saw what she had inscribed and smiled as I read Love and good wishes to Mark, my most talented artist -- Neva Langley Fickling -- Miss America, 1953. I will treasure it always just as I will our special friendship!
Mark Ballards column runs each week in The Telegraph. Send your questions or comments to P.O. Box 4232, Macon, GA 31208; fax them to (478) 474-4930; call (478) 757-6877; e-mail to email@example.com; or become a subscriber to Marks Facebook page.