Uncle A.J. was the second born of seven siblings, the eldest of whom was my mother. My mother died in January of 1988 at the age of 69 of a brain tumor. She died just two weeks shy of my 30th birthday. How can it be, with her being gone for almost 22 years, that just writing the words that chronicle her death still causes tears to spring to my eyes?
So I spent time yesterday in a very small town in Kentucky, with my mom's people, who are my people too. Sadly, I barely know many of them. After the death of both of my mom's parents, the last living of whom died when I was 12, that side of my family did not do a good job of keeping in touch with each other. We have no one to blame for this but ourselves, but life and the tyranny of the urgent have a way of pushing the things that are more important out of the way, so that we may attend to the squeaky wheel that demands the immediate oiling.
It's almost haunting to walk into a room, and see one's own dead mother in the faces of so many gathered 'round. But my mother, my siblings, my cousins and I share many physical traits in common, genetic gifts from our grandparents. Several sets of steely blue eyes sparkled at me yesterday, a benediction from my grandfather. Quite a few determined jawlines and pointed chins broke into smiles when they recognized who I was: those chins and jawlines an offering from my Grandmother. And those noses! It was like seeing my mom's nose, all over again, on the face of her sisters and brother. The nose that was cursed by my sister who inherited it, yet coveted by me, who inherited so much of my looks from the prominent proboscii of my dad's side of the family.
Another beautiful aspect of the day was watching the eyes of my children appreciate the beauty of the rolling hills of southern Kentucky for the first time. I felt proud to have inherited a tiny share of ownership in this place, because it was the birthplace of my mother. And then, I found memories of summer weeks of vacation spent at my grandparents' home came flooding back: my grandmother's biscuits with chocolate gravy, or melting butter and Bob White corn syrup; eating government commodity food: the huge cans of oil covered peanut butter, the huge blocks of cheese. Biting into green tomatoes, warmed by the sunshine, sprinkled with salt. held in the hand and eaten round and round, the way one eats an apple, devoured secretly, in hopes of not getting caught. Sitting on the front porch while my grandfather plucked at his banjo, as his sleepy, stinky, tick-infested hound dog Trip lolled on his back in the sunshine. The peculiarly awful, acrid smell of the blue roach powder sprinkled around the baseboards of the little house, and the terrors of the outhouse with the bees, wasps and spider webs, and the stench emanating from the cavernous depths below. I recall sitting on my grandmother's couch with my cousin Charlene, turning the pages to the Sears-Roebuck catalog and picking out the prettiest dresses on each page. She would invariably choose the slim sheath, reminiscent of the impeccable fashion sense of Jackie Kennedy, while I, lacking in sophistication and style, would invariably choose the puffy skirt: still stuck was I in the '50's fashion of June Cleaver.
All this carried on while Porter Wagoner crooned with pretty Miss Norma Jean, on my grandparents' black and white TV set on the other side of the living room. And then there was the lumpiness of the mattress stuffed with who knows what: feathers? Maybe so, but after all these years, I'm not sure. But they were good times, and sometimes terrifying times for a little girl not used to the country. Full of strangeness, and wonder, and fun.
And all this came rushing back as I embraced my Kentucky cousins.
Life is so short; so swift; and so bittersweet.
In the words of the immortal Stevie Wonder:
"Why did those days ever have to go?
I wish those days could come back once more.
'Cause I love them so."
And I wish I could whisper a few words of hope and encouragement to that little girl who was me, sitting on the couch with her beautiful cousin. I'd whisper: "Don't worry. You'll grow up and have wonderful taste in clothes. You may not be able to afford to buy all you'd like, but you'll turn out just fine. Enjoy your cousin! Enjoy these moments! And go sweet talk your Mammy into making you just one more batch of biscuits with chocolate gravy. You'll never see their like again."
So, here's to my old Kentucky home, and here's to family, here's to dear Uncle A.J., and here's to sucking the marrow out of the bone of each day of life we are given.