My grandmother died last year. She was not sick. She was 97 and just went to sleep and never woke up. Really, can it get any better than that?
Her funeral was at the little country church near Charlotte where my grandfather and great-grandparents are buried. My cousins and I don’t see one another often, but we all made the trip that day. More distant cousins came, too, as did friends of my grandmother’s I remembered from long ago. It was a fine turnout for a woman who was never concerned with having much of a social life (her mantra: Why go to a restaurant when your own cooking is better?) and whose contemporaries were mostly gone by then.
After the service, we walked through the cemetery, pointing out familiar names on headstones. In some way, we are related to the majority of those buried at Shiloh Truelight Church in Mint Hill. My father spent many a Sunday as a boy running across those church grounds. I have only been there for funerals.
Those gathered were a window into my childhood. I grew up surrounded by these people and their parents and grandparents. My grandmother had three sisters and two brothers. Save for the oldest boy, all lived out their lives within a few miles of one another. It was this group that formed the bedrock of the family. The sisters organized the somewhat annual family reunion held in their brother’s expansive backyard. They fried the chicken and cooked up the pies and we all came hungry and left stuffed. I have an old home movie of at least one of those gatherings – you know the choppy 8mm kind where everyone stops and mugs when the camera turns on them. It was taken in the 1960s, when in the heat of summer women wore dresses and beehives and the men donned button-up shirts and spiffy slacks. I suppose it’s fitting that as my grandmother’s final legacy, she orchestrated a family reunion of sorts at the little clapboard church. There were a few tears shed, but mostly there were hugs and laughter, catching up, and of course homemade pies.
And for the first time ever, her three sons, six grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren gathered on the same soil on a crisp afternoon. Having always lived within spitting distance of most every relative she had, I doubt she ever realized that had never happened. We don’t live in the same towns – don’t live in the same states even. Why, oh why, didn’t anyone think to take a picture?
My third cousin Candy was there. Decades had passed since we had seen each other, and as it turns out, we’re practically neighbors. As a child, Candy stayed with my grandmother while her parents were at work. So did little Jerry, another cousin. The pictures in my head of my grandmother’s house with the green shutters on Skyview Road usually include Candy and Jerry running in the back yard. And Candy nervously rooted in the tiny hallway, a piece of string tethered between the bathroom door and her loose tooth. Yes, my grandmother was old school – and I quickly learned to pull my own teeth.
Not long after the funeral, Candy and her little girl met up with my sister and me for lunch. We discovered a mutual interest in family history and have since dug through pictures to share on a family website Candy started.
We quickly found that three heads are definitely better than one when it comes to identifying subjects in grainy family photos. Little Jerry isn’t so little anymore, and we now keep in touch via Facebook (how else?).
A few months after my grandmother died, so did Candy and Jerry’s. Aunt Mabel, my grandmother’s youngest sister, was the last of that generation.
At her visitation, I wondered whether this was the last time I would ever lay eyes on some of these folks, seeing as how the women who demanded their progeny keep up with their kin were now gone, and the regular reunions have long become a thing of the past.
The loss of that generation bumps me up one more. I’m now second from the top and not sure how I feel about that.
One thing I do know for sure. My grandmother would be thrilled to learn she was the spark that brought Candy and Jerry back into my life. I keep thinking of the old church hymn: Blest be the tie that binds.