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Family Continues To Sell Flowers For Jefferson Barracks Gravesites, Despite Losing Mom To COVID-19

Kristyn Stevens replenishes a row of crosses on Saturday, May 29, 2021. The family has sold gravestone arrangements from the same lot since the late 1980s.
Kayla Drake
/
St. Louis Public Radio
Kristyn Stevens replenishes a row of crosses on Saturday. The family has sold gravestone arrangements from the same lot since the late 1980s.

For the past 33 years, the Stevens family has sold patriotic floral arrangements for graves at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery to visitors nearly every weekend.

The only days they missed were for weddings, baptisms and the occasional snowstorm. They started selling arrangements from the lot at the intersection of Telegraph and Sheridan roads in south St. Louis County before an Advance Auto Parts store was built on it. The burst of American flags and flowers sticking out of the grass, waiting to be plucked by passersby, is hard to miss.

But the roadside rainbow of red, white and blue flowers stopped once Tina Stevens, the family matriarch and founder of Veteran Flowers by Tina, contracted COVID-19.

“It started on a Monday. And by Thursday, she was intubated,” said 31-year-old Kristyn Stevens, her second-eldest daughter.

Tina Stevens and her dad, Anthony Martinez, a Korean War veteran, walk down the aisle during her brother's wedding in 2016.
Kristyn Stevens
Tina Stevens and her father, Anthony Martinez, a Korean War veteran, walk down the aisle during her brother's wedding in 2016.

Tina Stevens spent four months on a ventilator at Barnes-Jewish Hospital. She died on Nov. 16, 2020, a day after her 54th birthday.

“I went up there and did not want her to pass," Stevens said. "But the pain I seen she was enduring was excruciating. So it also was, ‘Mom, if you need to go, it's OK, I will survive.’”

Stevens said she gets her bubbly personality and “her talkin’” from her mother.

Tina Stevens was a people person and knew just the right words to say to people grieving losses, her daughter said. And when customers couldn’t afford one of her arrangements, she’d give it to them for free.

“There's been so many times that I've seen her give flowers away to people who were in the service or their family members,” Stevens said. “They’d say: ‘Hey, I'm crying today. I only have a few bucks on me. I don't know what I'm doing.’ And she’d say: ‘Well, don't worry. It's very hard to come up here and see a loved one. So go ahead, pick your flower and go.'”

And if someone in uniform came up, Tina Stevens would always give them a free flower arrangement.

It’s one of the rules her daughter is keeping in place as she takes over the family business. She used to resent the business as a kid for taking up her weekends.

“Now I feel like each time I come up here, I'm remembering her,” Stevens said.

She uses the same band saw, the same cherry red 1996 Ford truck and the same floral designs her mom did.

The business has been healing for Stevens, even as regulars ask where her mother is. The first time she started selling the floral arrangements again was a few weeks ago — on Mother’s Day.

“I couldn't let it die out,” she said. “And the amount of people that ended up contacting everybody to try to see if we were going to come back up here was overwhelming.”

 Kristyn Stevens writes "Uncle" on a cross for a customer on Saturday, May 29, 2021 during Memorial Day weekend.
Kayla Drake
Kristyn Stevens writes "Uncle" on a cross for a customer on Saturday during Memorial Day weekend.

Tina Stevens started her flower business in the late 1980s as a way to make money as a stay-at-home mom. Her father, Anthony Martinez, a Korean War veteran, proposed the idea and sat with her to sell the flowers the first weekend.

She made $50 that weekend and was in “hog heaven,” as the family tells it. Martinez sat with his daughter most weekends after that, too. In between customers, they would listen to 96.7, a Catholic radio station.

Quickly, Tina Stevens’ motivation to make money shifted when she realized she could help people cope with the pain of loss by helping them honor family members with American flags, crosses and flower arrangements for graves.

“I really do feel like God came down to her to make a difference in the world,” Kristyn Stevens said.

William Hopson of St. Charles has bought flowers from the business for years. The Vietnam veteran comes from a military family and has several relatives buried at Jefferson Barracks.

“My dad, brother up here. My Uncle Bubba. My granddad up here, my grandma up here,” he said. “All of us up here.”

Hopson bought a small cross to put on his dad’s grave on Sunday. “I got to give him some glory.”

This Memorial Day weekend, Stevens prepared hundreds of flower arrangements to sell, as it’s the busiest time of year for the business. She plans to sell flowers every weekend and only made one change to the formerly cash-only roadside stand. She’s added a credit card reader.

“[We do] each particular one with the love and care that you know that it's going to somebody whose family you know served for us,” Stevens said. “That is why we are free today.”

She said as soon as she mentioned she was restarting the family business to her grandfather, the 88-year-old said, “I’ll see you up there.”

Anthony Martinez, known as "Poppy" to his grandchildren, sits in his silver Ford F-150 on Saturday, May 29, 2021 to keep an eye on his granddaughter, Kristyn Stevens.
Kayla Drake
Anthony Martinez, known as "Poppy" to his grandchildren, sits in his pickup truck on Saturday, to keep watch over his granddaughter, Kristyn Stevens.

Follow Kayla on Twitter: @_kayladrake

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