As December 2 approaches, I remember my brother’s birthday is on the second of the month, and I remember that the anniversary of Colleen’s death is on that same day. She died in 2010 at 82. We buried her at Rosemary Primitive Baptist Church just north of Metter amid so many other Laniers.
Colleen was my aunt—one of my daddy’s older sisters. She was born on a “hotter than Hell” day in June in 1928, just before the Great Depression. My grandmother was picking blackberries that day when she realized that the baby was coming.
Colleen wasn’t like most children. She was special. At the time, society used the term “mentally retarded” to describe people with intellectual disabilities, and there were very few resources to help intellectually disabled folks, or the families struggling to raise them.
As a result, she never attended school for more than a few days at a time. I remember my father saying that he took her to school with him a few times, but it never worked, and so she stayed at the farm under the watchful eyes of my grandparents—keeping my grandmother company and doing chores around the house.
Today, she would have thrived in special education classes. Today, I believe that Colleen would have learned to read and write. I think about that sometimes and feel sad for her, but I don’t think that she ever wasted a moment being sad about her life.
Though cognitively limited, she was born with more gifts than most people. She had the gift of love. I felt it in each and every bear hug. She loved people and never met a stranger. She loved family. She smiled a lot, and you couldn’t help but smile back at her.
And she was given the gift of help—always pitching in to be of assistance and never complaining.
And is the case with so many special individuals, Heaven allowed the light of eternal childhood to shine within her—a blessing, really.
Speaking wasn’t easy for her, and few people outside our family could understand her when she spoke, but that was okay with us. We loved her, and her words weren’t really important.
She had a memory like an elephant and kept a journal of her life in her head. She could tell you detailed events from the past, and started her stories with, “Way back ‘er when…”
Of course, she knew how to hook a worm to a line to catch a fish in Papa’s pond, but she knew other stuff, too. One time when we were in the car driving from the Union Community into Metter to shop at Thain’s Five and Dime Store, I noticed some yellow wildflowers dancing next to the road.
“What are those pretty flowers, Mama?” I asked.
Before my mother could answer, Colleen pushed out the word, “Goldenrod,” and smiled at me. She appreciated flowers as much as I did.
And she and I shared a love of animals, too. She always had a dog and a few feral cats that she was trying to tame. There was a door to nowhere in Grandmother’s kitchen back then, right next to the sink. It opened to no steps—just a five or six foot drop to the ground. I remember tossing stale morning biscuits from that doorway and Colleen summoning her band of wild cats with her struggled speech. Those cats came flying from all sorts of hiding places to get a crumb or two.
My sister and I had long hair, and when we visited, Colleen often brushed, combed, and braided our hair. She pulled our hair so tightly in the braids that we could barely shut our eyes. It hurt. I wasn’t crazy about her braiding my hair, but I tolerated it.
She spent time in the mornings with the adults drinking coffee and flipping the large pages of the newspaper, though she couldn’t read them. She had learned to blend in.
Papa died in 1973 and left Colleen and my grandmother to live by themselves. As my grandmother aged, Colleen was asked to do more and more.
“Go get them dresses Nell made us and show ‘em to Wander,” Grandmother would say to my aunt. “Run, Colleen! Run!”
Every day, my grandmother would watch for the mail carrier to deliver the mail. When it arrived, she’d say, “Colleen, get the mail. Run, Colleen! Run!”
I never understood what the urgency was. I think my grandmother was just trying to keep things interesting. For the most part, Aunt Colleen was very obedient—for the most part.
My grandmother had a few secrets that Colleen knew about, and she was bound and determined not to let Colleen tell anyone, but protecting her secrets was a bit of a challenge when the two women visited our house. My father liked to stay up late and sip on a tall glass of bourbon and Coke. He’d invite Colleen to have a drink with him—an adult privilege seldom offered to her. She loved drinking with Bus (that’s what she called my father—I don’t know why). My grandmother couldn’t stay awake after 11 o’clock and wanting to keep her secrets locked in the vault, she’d give the order, “Come on, Colleen. Let’s go to bed.”
“Uh-uh,” Colleen would reply shaking her head back and forth, then she’d take another long sip of her drink.
My dad would say, “Go on to bed, Mama. Colleen can stay up with me.”
But my grandmother would nervously sit back down in the living room and attempt to hold her eyes open. Ten minutes later, she’d try again. “Come on, Colleen. Let’s go to bed.”
“Uh-uh,” Colleen would say defiantly. It was the only time I ever saw my aunt disobey my grandmother. She stood her ground. It made my grandmother furious.
Most of the time, my grandmother would give up and leave Colleen and my father in the living room to drink, watch television, and talk. But one night, having something very important to hide, my grandmother grabbed my aunt by the arm and made her get up and go to bed with her.
Colleen got angry that night. We could hear the two women in the bedroom arguing—my grandmother telling her to put on her gown and go to the bathroom, and Colleen objecting loudly.
That’s when we heard it—the sound of someone’s hand slapping another someone’s face. Then we heard my grandmother wailing, more from shock than pain.
We rushed to the back and separated the two women. Colleen got to stay up that night after all, and my grandmother—who blamed the entire incident on my father and never forgave him for the scuffle—fell asleep crying in her pillow.
Colleen settled back down on the couch, picked up her drink, and balanced it on her lap as if nothing had happened. Before I fell asleep that night, I heard her say to my dad, “Way back ‘er when…”
I don’t know what they talked about that night, but I know that Colleen was quite content. She was always happy around my daddy.
And that’s what I remembered on December 2, 2010, the day she died. I thought about her, her struggle with words, and tight braids, and wild cats hungry for biscuits, and dancing Goldenrod, and bourbon, and so much more. Yeah, she was special—one of the most special people I’ve ever known.
Amber Lanier Nagle writes from Northwest Georgia. She specializes in Southern heritage pieces. Buy her book, Project Keepsake at www.ProjectKeepsake.com or on Amazon.