Living Columns & Blogs

In Scotland Neck, a visit with old friends, a burger at The Freez, and some Christmas truths

Susan Byrum Rountree
Susan Byrum Rountree newsobserver.com

My mother stands at my father’s grave, pulling weeds. We’ve come for Daddy’s birthday on this early December afternoon, and it’s clear the family plot needs some attention. We’ve toasted him with a “square Nab,” as he called them, and some buttered-popcorn-flavored Jelly Beans – who knew they existed?

“Mama, don’t pull the weeds,” I say, recalling other times when pulling a few weeds ended up with a hospital stay.

When she’s safely in the car, I wander over to other gravestones in the churchyard of this beautiful old church, paying my respects to families who helped raise me, their names shaded by magnolias more than 100 years old.

We’ve had a busy morning, stopping first at my father’s favorite hamburger joint as we drove into Scotland Neck. We don’t get home often, but there are days like today when it seems crucial to visit this place where I was born.

“I don’t think I’ve ever actually been in The Freez,” Mama says as we walk in. I spent my teen years here downing pizza burgers and eying boys. By the grill stands Beverly, the owner, who has worked in her family shop most of her life and is trying now to retire. She sees my mother and comes to the window, hugging her across the counter.

“We miss you,” Beverly says, “It’s so good to see you.” I know Mama is touched to be missed.

We dine on hamburgers and fries, remembering that Daddy, in fact, requested a Freez cheeseburger for his last meal, which my sister and I ordered for him knowing he couldn’t eat it.

From there, the cemetery, then down a winding country road to find the house of my oldest friend, a man who was 9 months old when I was born and became his neighbor. Ralph gave me a friendship ring in fifth grade with black and yellow hearts on it (for the Wake Forest Demon Deacons, our family team). And he was the first through the back door the morning after Daddy died, bringing a pie he made himself. (I have no idea how he knew.) He took a picture of our house, framed it and gave it to my mother when she moved away.

He wasn’t home, so back down the road we go, passing the house of Edna Earle, who worked at the department store my whole life. We remember the country store where we bought Moon Pies and YooHoos on our way home from swimming.

And then, on to the house of my mother’s across-the-street, then down-the-road neighbor. Marie’s husband died before Thanksgiving, and this was my mother’s first chance to visit the friend she met at 27. As they sit close to each other in the living room, I marvel at them, women who nurtured their friendship through the fullness of their lives – raising children, supporting husbands, caring for aging parents, losing their loves. My mother talks, tears up, smiles, and then they hug goodbye.

“I know how it feels,” she tells Marie. And she does.

Another house, another visit – Hanna and Toad – more lifelong friends. Years seem to melt away from my mother’s face as she sits in the bright kitchen with these people she loves. On the way out of town, we blow a kiss to the old house, and I wonder where the new family will put the Christmas tree.

Our final visit is to my friend Anne’s farmhouse, where her mother waits upstairs to turn 99 next month. She is frail and tired but her eyes light like a child’s on Christmas morning when she sees us. Our visit is short, but in a text later, Anne writes: “I expect you know how heartwarming it is for Mama to know somebody remembers her.”

In these days leading up to Christmas, this is the truth of what the season means to me: Remember others, tell them how much they matter.

The other day, Santa stopped by my office, and when in his jolliest voice he asked: “And what does Susan want for Christmas?” I could think of nothing. What I want most this and every year is both too much and too simple. But if I’m watchful, I open such gifts every day. My mother’s laughter. My son placing the angel on top of the tree. FaceTime mother/daughter chats. Watching the dog stretch. Square Nabs on a gravestone. The love of old friends. And a day spent seeking home.

Susan Byrum Rountree is the author of Nags Headers and In Mother Words. She can be reached at susanbrountree@gmail.com.

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