Honoring the Dead

A while back I wrote a social media post for the “52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks” genealogy challenge. The week’s prompt was Oldest, and I wrote about the oldest cousin on my mom’s side of the family.

Little Bill died in a tragic vehicle accident at the age of seven, leaving me as heir to the title of oldest. His siblings thanked me for memorializing someone whose life was too short to leave much of a legacy of his own.  

A friend of mine shared that the oldest child in her family had been a ‘blue baby,’ living only nine weeks. When her parents moved nearby in their later years, she learned more about the brother she never knew. She learned about her parents’ abiding love for him. She discovered he was always alive in their hearts. Now that her parents have died, too, she feels called upon to keep his memory alive. That need fuels a deep connection to this person who had never been much more than a myth to her.

I’m currently working on a book about my mother’s life and times. That means her siblings, her parents, her grandparents, too. Almost all of them are long gone from this world, so part of my process involves calling up memories, begging them to awaken from their slumber deep in the recesses of my mind, sometimes birthing random mental snapshots into full-blown narratives.

I was having trouble getting my grandparents’ story to make much sense on paper. I found myself fervently wishing they were still here for a face-to-face. (Actually, this is something I regularly wish for.)

Sometimes, it feels as if they have heard me. My eyes wander beyond the keyboard and I see their ethereal presence. It’s not my imagination; they’re there. Side by side they stand, he in his dark brown dress trousers, their legs as wide at the bottom as at the top, the way they were back in the ’50s. She’s wearing her usual fare: a cotton shirtwaist dress, small brown print on a beige background, her stockings rolled tightly an inch or two above her knees just the way I remember.

I only see my grandparents from mid-thigh down. But I feel them standing together, their arms touching, their eyes boring into the top of my head. They don’t answer my questions. But their presence is powerful. They are urging me on, assuring me if I keep at it, I’ll figure it out. But reminding me it’s all up to me now. They can only cheerlead. And they do. Silently, but hard.

I don’t dare look up. I’m so afraid the gossamer thread that binds us in this moment will drift off, my grandparents with it, and I want them to stay.

 

 

I, too, feel a deep and abiding connection to these people who no longer walk among us. They continue to have much to offer. I want to be the keeper of their flames.

Coming ‘Round the Mountain

Coming ‘Round the Mountain

Coming ‘Round the Mountain (part of my Blowing on Embers series)

Public domain photos retrieved from Wikimedia Commons titled Winning horse and buggy with driver at the Wynnum Show, Brisbane

Is there anything quite like the sweet scent of a dew-kissed early morning—especially in our green southern mountains? Every time—every single time—I catch a whiff of it, I’m transported back to those too-rare childhood trips to visit my maternal grandparents.

It was an excruciatingly long drive from the South Carolina flatlands to North Carolina’s southwestern mountains, even longer for the three children relegated to the back seat.

We claimed our territory before the first hand ever touched a door handle. No one wanted to be stuck in the middle, surrounded by sibling arms, legs, and torsos. We knew we’d have to take turns, but hope sprang eternal.

The window-seat sitters were intolerant, and arguments began almost immediately: your feet are on my side . . . I don’t have anywhere to put them . . . keep ’em on the hump . . . Mama, he’s touching me. And so on.

Our trips usually began late on a Friday afternoon so Daddy could get in most of a day’s work and we’d still have all day Saturday for visiting—and resting up before we had to make our return trip on Sunday afternoon. In the days before interstate highways, the drive lasted more than six hours—an eternity to us children. A couple hours in and we were miserably fidgety. That’s when the questions began. When will we get there? How much longer? Are we there yet?

Mother tried diverting our attention with car games. We looked for license plates from other states; we searched for words on billboards that started with the next letter of the alphabet; we tried to be first to spot whatever animal or object one of our parents called out to us.

Once our brown, two-tone Ford Fairlane began climbing and winding, we knew we were getting close, which only made us more restless. That’s when Mother began leading us in all the verses of She’ll Be Coming ‘Round the Mountain, with its ever longer refrain. In my mind’s eye we were singing about Mother in an earlier era. I imagined her in a bonnet riding on the front seat of our song’s buggy, maybe even wearing scratchy red pajamas.

For Dad, navigating those ever steeper, narrow, curvy roads in the dark after an already long day at the office was harrowing enough without being distracted by the fussing and whining emanating from the back seat. No wonder Mother was so desperate to keep us occupied.

Everyone knew what was coming when we inevitably got on Dad’s last nerve, and we didn’t want to hear it any more than he wanted to say it: “Ask me that one more time, and I’ll turn this car around right here.” Not likely. Returning home would have made for an even longer trip, and no one wanted that. Occasionally, the threat was, “One more argument and I’ll stop this car and give everyone a spanking.” We rarely got spanked and never on a car trip, so why pull out that old chestnut? Sheer exhaustion, most likely.

Somehow, we always reached our destination in one piece and not too awfully frazzled. A few hugs, kisses, and a midnight snack later, we were hustled off to bed and bundled under the covers.

And then it was morning. This was the moment I’d been looking forward to since we first got in the car. I woke under a pile of Grandmother’s homemade quilts, fog drifting through the windows I’d opened the night before so I could feel the kiss of the deliciously crisp mountain air on my face.

Before anyone else stirred, even my early-rising grandfather, I stole outside to walk barefoot in the cool, damp grass. I breathed in the clean scent of a world washed in dew, nibbled on a green apple that had fallen from its tree, and slipped under the graceful, draping branches of the giant weeping willow on the edge of the yard—my sacred hideaway. It was the perfect spot for a little girl to daydream, think private thoughts, and grow.

And worth every minute I was stuck in the middle.

Any hour of the day, any season of the year, every time I see sights like these I know the mountains are my meant-to-be home.