This post first appeared here in November, 2006
Is it possible to love someone through another’s memory? To love and admire someone you never met, someone you will never be able to meet, someone who at the moment of their passing caused an incredible upheaval of grief and gouged an enormous chasm of longing for things that can never be, someone who a large number of people still speak of with reverence, awe, and thankfulness?
I believe it is possible.
I know it is possible.
I know it because I participate in this kind of love and admiration everyday for two vastly different Americans who left this Earth almost a year to the day from one another. My admiration for these two inviduals stems from my mother who shared her memories of them with me during my formative years where they became entertwined and linked indelibly in the murkiness where actual memory and grafted memories blend.
I was six months old on Saturday, November 24, 1962. Naturally I have no real memories of this day. What I know comes from Sister Dear who was six at the time. We had just celebrated Thanksgiving the previous Thursday. More than likely my parents had driven my sister and I to their shared hometown to visit with my Dad’s folks and then my Mom’s. Little did anyone know it would be the last time my Mom saw her mother alive. Sister Dear recollects the phone ringing that Saturday afternoon and nothing ever being the same again. She tells me now that Mother began wailing and flung herself across her bed. Sister Dear remembers simply standing and staring at Mother as she became a grieving, heaving mass of pain. When she remembers that moment she sees a collage of images of mother mixed with the piney hardwood floor of our hallway, the old radio that had been mothers as a teen now used as a phone table in the hallway, and how time seemed to stand still. Sister Dear was watching Mother’s agony as she had been told her mother had been found dead of a heart attack at the age of 62.
It was sudden. It was cruel. It was not what anyone would have expected. In writing that my Mother has left behind she states Nanny was tall and slender with broad shoulders. She had beautiful skin and dark, thick, course hair. She was a great cook and seamstress----most of the clothes my mother wore were handmade by my grandmother. She was always a cheerful person---smiling, laughing, and always hid any problems she might have---plus she always wanted to do something to help people who were less fortunate than herself.
Sister Dear speaks of our “Nanny” by describing her simply as FUN. She remembers having great times with Nanny. In every picture I have ever seen of my grandmother she is wearing a June Cleaver type dress…..shirtwaist, short sleeves, and full skirt. Sister Dear tells that Nanny would place her in the hem of her skirt and swing her back and forth. That had to be fun. Sister Dear tells of waking on warm mornings and gazing up on the wall where a picture hung of a little boy and a little girl. They were about to cross a bridge and an angel was hovering at their shoulders. She has told me this picture actually scared her. We were told as children that the boy and girl were on their way to Heaven. I remember the framed print too…….it scared me as well. Sister Dear has told me she would lie in bed the longest time and try NOT to feel sorry for the kids, but it was hard. As an adult I now understand the significance of that print. My grandmother had bore tragedy upon tragedy as young woman. Her first husband had been shot to death in front of her, and she had lost three children….one to sickness, one got ahold of some medicine that had been left out, and a baby boy had been born dead. The print that scared my sister and I so probably gave comfort to our grandmother and might have been the reason it hung in the spare bedroom.
Once up Sister Dear would walk into the front room and find a big bowl of blueberries on the floor between the screen door and door jam. She’d sit on the gritty floor and munch away. It always seemed, Sister Dear says, that Nanny would just know she was up and awake. She’d turn from her chores in the garden and give a hearty good mornin’ wave, and Sister Dear's day of fun would begin by building a playhouse out of tongue and groove planks and a cardtable Nanny would provide for her. I’ve always been told Nanny loved working with plants and apparently she could get anything to grow anywhere. Sister Dear remembers Nanny always smelled deliciously of outside, sunshine, and fresh turned earth. Things could be done at Nanny’s house that could not be done at home. Nanny always allowed Sister Dear to make mud pies on the porch not with water, but with real honest to goodness buttermilk.
Sister Dear remembers Daddy holding her as they stood in front of the casket set up in the front room of my grandparent’s home, and she remembers the funeral which took place at the one room wooden church with the obligatory outhouse in the back plopped in the piney woods where three generations of my mother’s family scratched the dirt. The land for the church had at one time been part of the family farm, but my great grandfather had donated it to the church folk. Nanny was laid to rest in dirt that was home to her. Sister Dear remembers a long service, our distraught mother who we now know had been given something to keep her calm and quiet, and the long row of our grandfather’s half-sisters who were actually more in line with our mother’s age than our grandfather’s. Each dear aunt took her turn holding Sister Dear in her lap….first Dee, then Blanche, then Claudine, then Nelle, and Elizabeth and then back to Nelle, then Claudine, then Blanche, and then Dee where the whole process started over again.
Mother grieved. Years later Mother spoke of grieving hard. She often said the knowledge that she had to take care of Sister Dear and I got her through, but there were days she didn’t know if she could make it. Our grandfather grieved hard as well. Sister Dear remembers his home being fun. I remember it as dark and dusty shrine much like the Haversham bedroom in Great Expectations. Many things were left exactly like they were the day Nanny left us even down to her pin cushion which always hung on a nail in the hallway with the pins in it just like they were the last time Nanny used it. As I grew older it remained hanging on its nail fading in color with the dust eventually caking over it until it was practically rotten.
The remainder of this post can be found at American Presidents Blog Here