Wednesday, May 4, 2011

21 — a little ramble down the road

i remember the day i met my little niece, kendall. she was a newborn, lying on my grandmother's bed on a summer sunday, and suddenly i wasn't the baby of the family anymore. she didn't look like us — we the fair haired, blue-eyed blondes as babies — she, a  dark wisp of hair framing a pudgy face (now that was like me). As i studied her features, i searched for traces of my brother and sister, my parents in her face.

i remember watching my grandmother — her knotted fingers dancing over kendall's tiny pinched lips in hopes of sparking a giggle — wondering how this little baby with the brown hair and olive complexion would fit into the 'we' we had always been.

this was new to me. all of a sudden, our little family of five had grown to seven — with my sister-in-law, then eight with baby kendall — we would be 10 by that fall, as my second niece, susan hooks, would be born just six weeks later. In another six I would be married. how could it be that we had expanded so quickly, when we had been five for so long?

another five years, and we were 13, with the addition of five little boys and another girl, two of those children my own.

the three girls grew up and fell in love, had the whole fairy princess wedding thing only a few months apart. in between, one nephew found out he was a father of a one-year-old. blink, and our original five had multiplied ourselves by four. you would think we were rabbits.

laura gray
a week ago, we became an uneven number, as kendall had the second great-grandchild for my parents, a baby girl.

21. i seem to recall that my father used to say he wanted enough grandchildren to have a basketball team. now we have two starting lineups with a pretty deep bench on each. (baby laura gray, at 20 inches, is pretty tall, come to think of it.) we could have a whole tournament roster before we are finished with our expansion project.

about a month before lg was born, my parents came to town for a baby shower for her. the first thing my dad said when he walked in the door was that he wanted us to look at our calendars and find a date when he could show us the farms. my father rarely asks his children for much, and so we wanted to oblige.

we are not farmers. but my grandfather grew up with a man who farmed sometimes, and bigdaddy like land. i spent many sundays in my childhood in the back seat of his ford, driving down dirt roads, watching bigdaddy pick up a clod of dirt and throw it, pull a bloom off the cotton plant and crumble it in his fingers. from the back seat of his car i learned how to tell soy beans from cotton, to appreciate the beauty of a perfectly-laid field of tobacco, rows of corn not parched from summer sun. in his own garden, which was massive, i helped my grandfather dig potatoes from the ground, pick corn and tomatoes, helped my grandmother shell butterbeans on the front porch. i knew just about where my grandfather's small farms were — one down the road just north of their little village, the other on the way to nags head, near the great dismal swamp. but daddy, at 82, wanted us to know exactly. and so on saturday, we went.

the first i would call a field. it's where the man who rents it from my father and his sister used to plant a few rows of sweet corn at the edge nearest my grandparents' kitchen, so they would always have corn for Christmas. on one side is what used to be their kitchen window, on the other are their graves. 

bigdaddy chose this burial spot so my grandmother could look out at him, there under the cedar tree that shaded his headstone, as he waited for her to join him one day. the cedar tree is gone now.

on the day of his funeral when i visited my grandfather's grave i felt suffocated, for if ever there was a man all about fresh air, it was my bigdaddy... and there, stuck under all that ground, he couldn't so much as a wisp. an unreasonable thought i know, for if ever there is a man in heaven, it is him. just his body is under all that earth. but still.

there is a story, that on the day bigdaddy was buried, a man who had worked with him had shown up too late to view his body in the funeral home, so while the family greeted relatives and friends inside the church, the funeral guys surrounded his casket, opening it up, so the man could pay his respects. it was a glorious fall day, and 20 years later i think of that day and how my grandfather likely took a great, deep breath looking out at the blue sky above him, the clouds swirling by and was just at peace with God. and life. and death. nobody ever told my grandmother, but i know she would have liked this, his last grasp of air.

when i looked at his grave this week, i found a small blue flower growing next to his foot stone. life. again.

my husband and i drove with my parents to two other small farms that day, then ended our tour in a place i have never been. though as the crow flies not four miles from where my grandparents lived for over 60 years, i had never even seen — nor had known it was there — the family cemetery where my great-grandparents are buried. my grandfather's parents. it sits behind my father's cousin's house.

now my grandfather was the youngest of 13, so my daddy has a lot of cousins. one of bigdaddy's sisters was named mildred minnesota— living in the northeastern corner of north carolina i know not why —  but aint (aunt) minnie is there. as is moses, my great-grandfather, and mary, my grandfather's mother.

my father at the family cemetery
moses died not long after my father was born. no doubt, since my grandfather was so much younger than his oldest siblings, moses knew some of his great-grandchildren. as i stood over my his grave this week i wondered what sort of man he was — born just 10 years before the civil war began, died just six months before the stock market crash of 1929 — he must have had a thing or two to say.

and he must have been a good man, because his youngest child certainly was a good enough man to require someone who respected him so much that he asked the casket handlers open it, one last time, to the open air.

on saturday, as i looked around this little family plot, eyeing the stump of a cedar tree that must have shaded ol' moses from the hot sun, i couldn't help but think that bigdaddy had chosen beneath the cedar tree as his resting spot because his father had done the same.

what does this have to do with little laura gray, you ask. well, i'm getting to that. 

my father, just the other day, asked my mother if she thought when she was young that she would ever live to meet her great-grandchildren. "I never thought about it," my mother said. Somehow I think my father did. His own father met every single one of his greats, those children of my siblings and my cousins who are now grown and making their ways in the world. Though daddy yet has not met laura gray, he will soon, knowing i am sure that he hopes he can meet all of the greats in his life yet to come.

great-bigdaddy moses didn't know me. he died just four months after my father was born. but if you start with his youngest child, add my grandmother, my father and his sister — their spouses and their children each...

i am number 21 on that list. just like little lg is on ours. 21.

maybe someday her grandfather will bring her to the farms, show her where her great-great grandfather built his house and watched over his bluebirds. where her grandfather grew up. maybe he will take her to the family cemetery. i hope, though he is not so much the family storyteller as i am, he will tell her a little something of the people whose names are on the stones, will tell her just how much it means that she is tied to them, and to their land, too.