Sunday, October 16, 2011

Getting Cozy With the Grim Reaper

This last week when the WSB met, we talked about death and cemeteries. Before you think that this was a morbid discussion of such things, let me assure you that the WSB can find humor in almost anything, and they didn’t fail on this occasion.

We all ruminate on death and dying; and at our ages, possibilities rear their heads regularly. In the last year or so, several of the gals have lost a friend or family member. Pasty has been to the local big funeral home so often that they now greet her at the door. That is not a good thing as she has buried a father and brother in that time.

One of the things we were trying to come to terms with is how does a person get comfortable with the loss of a loved one and one’s own inevitable demise? The issue was raised Wednesday because we did not expect Lucy Scarlet to show up. Her elderly father is has been placed on hospice. She has a very close relationship with her dad, and this is a tough time for her. As in many families, one child bears the burden of providing most of the care. That person is Lucy Scarlet. She has been running her parents to one appointment after the other and has been ignoring her own health in the process. We’ve been trying to encourage her to demand some down time. Like that ever works with dedicated caretakers.

Well, she showed up anyway, but she had to pay attention to any incoming calls, as she might need to leave at any time. She also got to talking about her father’s seeming acceptance of what is coming. He has been terrified about dying for several months now, but has found peace with this in the last week or so. She is glad for that, but she still needed to get away and lighten up a bit before what she knows is coming.

I told her that I am surprised at how well some people deal with their own dying. I teach a Sunday school class of older adults; and one of the members, Ann, is a fellow writer buddy. She has just published a book on her West Virginia Appalachian upbringing where death and haints (ghosts) were treated as quite ordinary. The previous Sunday’s lesson was on the Book of Ecclesiastes, which makes three big points.
(1) Life is unpredictable
(2) God is unknowable
(3) Death is inevitable

Ann commented, in class, that she and Elmo, her husband, have already ordered their tombstone and it is in place over their plots. It has everything they want on it already engraved except for their death dates. They decided to go out and inspect the final installation just recently. It was a lovely day and their hillside site was so inviting, they decided to lie down in front of their stone to get the feel of their chosen resting place. And they did just that. Lying side by side with their arms folded as they would be for eternity, they gazed up at the clear autumn sky passing overhead and around at the “view”. They enjoyed every minute of it so Ann tells us, and she saw nothing odd about this at all. The class was divided between those who were falling out of their chairs laughing and those whose mouths were hanging open in astonishment.

I got to thinking about that and wondered how I could pull off the same thing. I have told my family that I think cremation may be the way for me. I suppose I could go to one of the big nursery and landscaping places around here and climb into one of their giant concrete urns to see if I like the feel of that. Of course, trying to explain how an old lady got in the urn and why might be almost as comical as what it would take to unfold me and take me back out.

Tallulah is the only widow in the group. When her husband was dying, he wanted to take part in making his own arrangements. When they went to look for plots, they were told that they could share. They would bury the first to die, at nine feet while the second would simply be buried above the first in the same plot. Since her husband was the first to be buried, she promised him that, since he was face up, she would be buried face down. Make of that what you will. We were screaming with laughter.

Years ago, I lived on a large southern farm that had the first owner’s family cemetery on it. I remember this place well as it had two big long needle pines growing inside its wrought iron fencing. We would go there before Christmas and get lovely boughs and cones for our fireplace mantel. My grandmother’s sister-in-law, Rose, had taken over upkeep years before. Rose’s home was one of the most beautifully decorated in the area as she had a good eye for color, proportion, and design. One day returning from a shopping trip, my grandmother happened to see Rose’s car and a pick-up truck parked by the cemetery. She stopped to see what was going on. There was Rose with two huge black men cleaning the grounds and rearranging the stones. Rose, you see, had been incensed for years by the randomness of the stones' placement; and she was out there moving them into a much more pleasing design. My grandmother reported to us that the two men looked at her as is to say, “She’s paying us to do this job; but frankly, this is one crazy white lady.” Those stones have never been moved back because no one had a record of who was buried where. I have to say it is one of the prettiest little cemeteries I have ever seen.

After all, of this discussion of death and burying, we went to lunch at Ginghams. We got there just as two buses were unloading folks from local nursing homes for Ginghams once monthly “Seniorpoluza.” Tallulah, whose turn it was to choose out lunch spot, had no idea that we would have to navigate a “walker maze” as Lucy Scarlet called it or that we would be trying to get the hostess to understand that we were not with the old folk’s home people. It didn’t help either that we were sitting where we could see one old gentleman slumped over his food in a nearby booth. His boney knees were sticking our of denim Bermuda shorts. He was wearing thin, beige men’s nylon dress socks pulled up to the knees paired with mustard gold loafers. There may be some things worse than dying.

Thursday, October 6, 2011


Growing up, I felt the pangs of sibling competition and reacted in both negative and positive ways. On the one hand, I felt out-classed in the area of mathematics and science by both my siblings because, quite simply, they were better at those things than I was. On the other hand, I could write better and read people better than either of them. As a result, they went into the sciences; and I was first a teacher, then a social worker, and, finally, a writer. We use to say, at work, that we were social workers because we didn’t do math. Oddly enough, the genius husband of a good friend, while watching me do some necessary record keeping for an organization we both belonged to, pointed out to me that I was really quite good with numbers. Once that possibility was opened to me, I found that he was right. It has taken a silly turn in my household where my husband, an accomplished mechanical engineer (a breed known to be non-verbal) does the crossword puzzles while I work the Sudoku.

Not all rivalries are sibling in nature. In our family, competition was everywhere. It seems to have been born out of a sense of self that dates back for generations on both sides. My great-grandmother, Sarah Ann Meader Johnson Rixie was born on the Isle of Wight just as the US was recovering from the Civil War. She and her family were my last immigrant ancestors to come to this country. She soon learned that among the old settlers, you needed something that set you apart and made you worthy of attention.

She was fond of telling her story to her children and grandchildren. The Isle of Wight is located off the southern coast of England in the English Channel. Its rolling meadows and quaint sea towns made it right for sheep herding and tourists. The most famous of the latter was Queen Victoria. She loved the little island and visited often coming across from Hampshire on the royal yacht. When she arrived, the schoolchildren would come to the pier in Ryde and greet her. One child would be chosen to go forward, present the queen with a bouquet and make a curtsey. In 1874, that child was my great-grandmother, Sarah Ann Meader. It must have made quite an impression on her as my father said that she acted like she was on a first name basis with the queen for the rest of her life.

Her daughter, my grandmother, was widowed when her children were young and she had to go to work to support her three children. The oldest boy, Charles, went to live with the paternal grandparents. Sarah took over the care of my Aunt Stella and my father. Sarah didn’t care much for boys. She found them noise, dirty, and difficult. Sarah had only girls whom she had raised with good English manners and equally good English sense regarding skin care. She jumped at the chance to pass on her expertise to her granddaughter. As a result, Aunt Stella grew up with a rather inflated idea of who she was. It didn’t hurt that she was also petite, cute, and a great dancer. She could Charleston well into her 70’s and did at the slightest hint of interest. This attitude was accepted in the family as just being Stella.

One of the favorite family stories of her volatile temper, she told on herself with great pride. When she married Uncle Jimmy, she had already turned down a number of suitors. He was an Irish Catholic with a biting sense of humor and the fatalism that haunts the Irish. They married in the midst of the depression. Wedding gifts were practical and much appreciated. It seems that Aunt Stella had warned her husband before the ceremony that she sometime had migraine headaches. He did not take the warning seriously. They came back from their honeymoon and were busy putting away their new dishes, a wedding gift. These were apparently depression glass and had been carefully collected into a complete set. As she stood on the counter putting the last of the dishes into the cupboard as he handed them to her, Aunt Stella said that she was glad they were finishing up as she was developing a headache. Uncle Jimmy said that he thought maybe those headaches were all in her imagination. You could have heard a pin drop for a second, then the dishes started flying. She slammed every one of them into the sink as she yelled at him that her headaches were real, and he better not forget it. Needless to say, the word got around to his family that she was a delicate lady who needed to be treated with kid gloves. This was accepted by all but one of the family, her brother-in-law’s wife, Beryl, who considered herself to be every bit as precious and delicate. So the rivalry began. While the two were openly friendly and enjoyed many good times together, the competition was always just under the surface. Whatever Stella did, Beryl would out do; and the same was true of Stella trumping Beryl.

Beryl never had children and Aunt Stella had only my cousin, Mary. When the two women were nearing the ends of their lives, Mary took them both in so that they would not have to go to a nursing home. In order to do that, Mary had to hire a daytime helper. The family agreed that Alice would be ideal. She was Aunt Stella’s house cleaner for years and knew the family well. She agreed to take on the job.

Things seemed to go smoothly until Mary came home one day to learn the truth. According to Alice, these two old ladies fought over everything as they each tried to vie for the most attention. Alice had had enough and wanted to quit. Mary asked for a few days while she addressed the issue with her mother and aunt. Alice agreed to give her a chance to settle them down. Mary sat the two women down and read the riot act to them. She let them know that they had tried Alice’s patience to the breaking point; and that if they lost her services, she would have no recourse but to place them in a home.

Miracle of miracle, it worked. Alice reported a week later that the ladies were behaving beautifully with a minimum of discord. She would stay on as long as they continued. Mary breathed a sigh of relief as she sent Alice on her way that evening. She also sat her mother and aunt down to tell them the good news and to compliment them on their good behavior. They accepted the praise with beaming faces. Beryl said that it was all true and that they had only had three little arguments that very day. Aunt Stella agreed then threw in for good measure, “and I won two of them.”

Saturday, October 1, 2011

A Southern Lady Solves a Problem

This last week, I was out of town. The first part of my trip took me to West Plains, MO, which is almost impossible to get to from here. I was there for the Missouri State Poetry Society annual convention. As a member of the state board, I was expected to show up, and I was glad that I did since I was able to reconnect with some good friends in and out of state who also happen to be exceptional poets.

Since West Plains is almost on the Arkansas border, I decided that this would be a good time to go on down to visit my sister and check up on my cousin, Mary, as well. I wound up spending big chunks of time with some of the important women in my life and reconnecting to the stories of others. I have not always appreciated the terms steel magnolias or iron butterflies that are applied to southern women in the same way that the term iron fist in a velvet glove implies a hidden hardness. The women I knew and still know tend to have an inner strength that is tensile rather than rigid as those names imply. My children have accused me of being one of those women who can be unfailingly polite even when I am extremely irritated with someone or something. In fact, they referred to me as Julia Sugarbaker when such situations arose. You may remember her character in Designing Women, a sit-com set in Atlanta. Julia had a strong social conscience; and when someone riled her up, she could deliver a scathing speech that cut straight to the heart of the matter without raising her voice or losing her polite tone. In those speeches, she would outline the full nature of the offence and exactly what she thought about anyone who committed such a breach of good manners. The women I visited this week are just as polite and just as sure of proper decorum. They are also confident and capable and steeped in the family traditions that support those qualities.

My sister has a granddaughter who is a young mother who now wants to hear family stories. Since I seem to be the keeper of the lore of our family for this generation, I told her of our great-grandmother’s unconventional marriage and our grandmother’s vagabond life that brought her to her soul mate and her true home. So many young people think that their generation invented love and passion. It is always amusing to see the light dawn as they come to the universal truth that these things have been going on for centuries.

My father’s paternal grandmother, Frances Jane Roberts, was born on the eve of the War Between the States. (There was nothing civil about that war.) She was the first child of James Calhoun Kellam and Melissa LeFevre Kellam, and she was born on the LeFevre plantation just north of the Arkansas River. Her mother had an uncle who was not much older than she was. His name was Leon LeFevre; but for some reason, everyone called him Uncle Mimi. He never married, but he adored his niece and nearly worshiped the great-niece who became his sole heir. When she was three, Frances Jane’s father died in the Battle of Jenkin’s Ferry south of Little Rock, and Uncle Mimi sent the rest of the family to Texas to wait out the war. On the way, her mother lost the baby she was pregnant with; and one of Frances Jane’s earliest memories was of burying that tiny body beside a rutted dirt trail somewhere in north Texas. After the war, the family returned to the plantation. Since schools were crude in that area, Uncle Mimi sent Frances Jane to a fine girl’s boarding school in Memphis. Like many southern river towns and cities, Memphis was regularly plagued with yellow fever epidemics. The 1870’s, in Memphis had a series of yellow fever outbreaks that culminated in the horrific 1878 epidemic. When the first one occurred, Uncle Mimi didn’t wait. He hired a Captain Ward who sewed the girl into a gunnysack, smuggled her onto his cargo ship, and took her south to the mouth of the Arkansas River and north to the dock at the LeFevre plantation. After a short visit at home, Frances Jane was sent to a girl’s seminary at Cane Hill, Arkansas. Her mother had married a Carnahan in that same area so the little family was back together.

Many people may be surprised to learn that there was a girl’s school in the Ozark Mountains near Fayetteville before there was a college in the area. These settlers were almost all Scots who had come through the Cumberland Gap to claim land grants for service during the American Revolution. What many people do not realize about the Scots is that they have a long history of supporting public education. Seventy to eighty percent of Scots were literate several centuries before any other European nation even considered educating the general population. This is why Scots were at the forefront of the Protestant Reformation. About the only book that was available was a Bible. They read it, saw discrepancies in what was there, and what the church was teaching.

Frances Jane completed her education and became a schoolteacher. She returned to Uncle Mimi’s home and taught in a small school there. She also met the overseer of the plantation. This was still a class-conscious society, and she was far above this young man who was considered the hired help. In fact, he was a wild boy out of Georgia with a rudimentary education and a history of reckless adventures. Good girl meets bad boy and the sparks flew. Of course, her family put their foot down. Like that ever works! The two of them ran away leaving her uncle swearing oaths of murder and her mother wringing her hands. They were gone for a week when early one morning, Uncle Mimi spotted a campfire on an island in the middle of the Arkansas River. Taking two of his farm hands with him, he rowed to the island and brought back the disgraced couple. She was banished to the house; and he, to the barn. They couldn’t hang him right off in case they had to save her reputation. The young people were devastated by the separation, but it didn’t last long. Within a few weeks, the family gathered the minister and marched those two unrepentant sinners up the aisle. They stayed married for 63 years. She could make him smile just by walking into the room. Someone once told us that our great-grandfather was the meanest old man in Pulaski County. We heard many stories about his tough nature and his hard bargaining. What I remember is that anytime he began to get cantankerous around her, Frances Jane would look him right in the eye and say in her soft southern drawl, “Now, Charlie, that’s enough.” And he would smile sheepishly at her and behave himself for the rest of the day.

When I first told my sister this tale, she was shocked. After all Grandmother Roberts, as we called her, was the epitome of southern, lady-like behavior. Well, she was right about that, but Frances Jane was also a girl who knew what she wanted and she knew how to find a practical solution to an otherwise insurmountable problem. That’s what southern women do. While the neighbors may whisper and even look down their noses at some behavior, a true lady holds her head up, makes her plans and carries them forward. She doesn’t raise her voice, and she smiles sweetly as she gets her way.