MY AUNT COLLEEN

stencil-facebook-post-1As 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!”

And my aunt would take off like a sprinter to the back bedroom to retrieve the dresses. colleenandgrandmother

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.

Veterans Day — of Sacrifice, Sadness, and Sorrow

“A time to be born, and a time to die;
…A time for war, and a time for peace.”

– Ecclesiastes

In honor of Veterans Day—Friday, November 11—I offer a short history lesson and a story.

Veterans day was originally called “Armistice Day,” denoting the the end of World War I, when hostilities ceased on November 11 at 11 a.m., 1918—the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. In 1938 Armistice Day was declared a legal holiday each year—a day to be dedicated to the cause of world peace.

Then on November 11, 1947 Raymond Weeks, a World War II veteran, organized a “National Veterans Day” parade in Birmingham, Alabama to recognize veterans of all wars. This celebration led to Congress changing Armistice Day to Veterans Day in 1954 to recognize the veterans of all US wars.Veterans Day

Every Veterans Day, I think about the veterans I know, I think about the veterans I don’t know, and I consider the sacrifice made by veterans and their families. In fact, for the last decade, I’ve called my Uncle Edwin on Veterans Day and thanked him for his service during WWII. Two years ago, he said, “You are the only one who called me today.” I was shocked—and deeply saddened. He died around Memorial Day earlier this year. I thought about him several times on Friday and wished there was a way to call him.

A few years ago, I learned of a family in San Joaquin Valley, California who was mourning the loss of two sons killed in the war in Iraq. The Hubbard family lost one of their sons, Jared, to a roadside bomb in 2004. Months later, they also lost Nathan, 21, after the Blackhawk helicopter that he was in spiraled to the ground during a nighttime mission.

A third son who was also serving in Iraq, Jason Hubbard, escorted his brother’s flag-draped casket into a church so that more than 1,000 friends, family members, and military servicemen could say their final good byes.

Given the circumstances, military officials ordered the surviving son, Jason, to return to the United States and asked that he never again redeploy to a hostile firing zone.

I can’t imagine the pain that a family who has lost a child, a spouse, or a parent in wartime experiences, much less the Hubbard family’s pain in losing two sons. I was deeply moved by the weight of this tragedy and remembered a letter I read years before.

In 1864, President Abraham Lincoln penned a letter to Lydia Bixby, a bereaved mother who supposedly lost five sons during the Civil War. Although it was later determined that only two of her sons perished in the war and that some experts say that Lincoln was not the true author of the letter, it is still significant—eloquently powerful, sincere and sympathetic. No matter who wrote the letter, it speaks from the heart of most Americans.

The Bixby Letter

Executive Mansion
Washington, Nov. 21, 1864

Dear Madam,

I have been shown in the files of the War Department a statement of the Adjutant General of Massachusetts that you are the mother of five sons who have died gloriously on the field of battle.

I feel how weak and fruitless must be any word of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming. But I cannot refrain from tendering you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the Republic they died to save.

I pray that our Heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom.

Yours, very sincerely and respectfully,

A. Lincoln

Friends, fly your flags year-round. Thank military servicemen and servicewomen. Support families who have loved ones who are deployed in dangerous areas of the world. Hug the family members and friends of our fallen soldiers—hug them often. Talk to your children about America’s history and the price of freedom. And never allow yourself or those around you to forget the personal sacrifices that extraordinary men and women have made for our country.

Leon

LeonBlog
We drove for miles and miles without saying a word—lost in our sadness and thoughts. Finally, Mom said, “I thought the service was really nice. What’d y’all think?”

My sister and I nodded from the front seat of the truck that Mom fondly refers to as, “Brownie,” because it’s brown.

“And that cemetery where they buried him was nice, too,” my stepfather, Johnny added from the backseat.

Again, we nodded as we drove home from Uncle Leon’s funeral in Jacksonville, Florida. We were still a bit in shock as we listened to the steady hum of the truck’s engine and watched the South Georgia scenery pass by the windows like a movie.

My uncle, Leon Jarriel, was a larger-than-life figure in our family. When he showed up at family reunions, things got interesting. Like other members of the Jarriel clan, he was a master storyteller who could hold your attention for hours with his tales. I loved to hear him talk, and I loved to hear everyone erupt into laughter at the end of his stories. Laughter was guaranteed.

Uncle Leon and Aunt Sally at the Ohoopee River in the Fifties.

Uncle Leon and Aunt Sally at the Ohoopee River in the Fifties.

When I was a young child, I loved to see Uncle Leon’s family pull up to my grandmother’s house, because my philosophy was, “the more cousins to play with, the better.” Cousin Ricky was much older than me, but Ona, Tracy, and Amy were closer to my age, and so I spent time with them running barefooted through the freshly-plowed dirt, walking to the pond, or playing spoons on Grandmother’s large kitchen table.

But back then, Uncle Leon scared me a little bit. He picked on me and teased me, and I thought he was being mean. I wasn’t sure how to respond, so I kept my distance.

“Oh, he picks on everyone, Honey,” Mom would say. “He only picks on you because he loves you. It’s his way.”

It took several years for me to understand. I grew to adore him.

He died too soon—at seventy-four.

In a large caravan of cars and trucks, our large family travelled from Collins to Jacksonville, following behind my Uncle Wallace and my Cousin David, who drove a little faster than my mother wanted to go. In the rearview mirror, I watched her crane her neck to see Brownie’s speedometer at several points in the journey. Then I heard her mumble, “Lordy, Lordy.”

We said our goodbyes to Leon, told stories, and hugged one another before getting back on the road.

“Have I ever told y’all the story about going to get my driver’s license?” Mom asked as we were crossing the Georgia state line. “I was sixteen and Leon was fourteen, but we were about the same size. He was with me the day I went to Reidsville to get my license, and somehow, we convinced them that Leon and I were twins, so they gave Leon a driver’s license, too.”

She paused for a moment.

“When Mama found out, she was mad as hell,” she added.

I glanced back and saw Mom smiling at the memory as we drove on.

Just outside of Reidsville, we passed a sign that read, “Tomatoes Ahead.”

Mom in the tomato patch shortly after Uncle Leon's funeral.

Mom in the tomato patch shortly after Uncle Leon’s funeral.

From the highway, we saw rows and rows of tomato plants accentuated with big, red fruits, and though we were dressed in heels and our nice funeral clothes, and though June’s late-day heat was bearing down on us, we pulled off, grabbed a bucket and filled it to the rim under a beautiful blue sky. We paid the attendant ten bucks and continued home.

We sliced them with some cucumbers and my Uncle Wallace’s Vidalia onions, sprinkled them with a little salt and pepper, and sat down at the table together.

“Leon would’ve loved going to that tomato field and picking a few buckets of tomatoes,” Mom said. “I wish he were here.”

We ate through our grief. The fresh-picked tomatoes were not a cure for our sadness, but I think they helped. Uncle Leon would’ve been pleased.

Freelance writer Amber Lanier Nagle has written nonfiction articles for Georgia Magazine, Grit, Mother Earth News, Points North and dozens of other magazines. Her book, Project Keepsake (www.ProjectKeepsake.com), is a collection of nonfiction stories about keepsakes. She facilitates workshops for writers of all skill levels on topics such as freelance writing, writing family stories, and writing creative nonfiction pieces. She’s editor of Calhoun Magazine, Dalton Magazine, and Health, Mind & Body and a columnist for the Vidalia Advance.

Death in the South

DeathintheSouth
Mrs. Gump: “I’m dying, Forrest. Come on in, sit down over here.”
Forrest Gump: “Why are you dying, Mama?”
Mrs. Gump: “It’s my time. It’s just my time. Oh now… don’t you be afraid, sweetheart. Death is just a part of life.”
—From Forrest Gump 1994

I rose early that day faced with the long, four-hour drive down to my stepfather’s home in Southeast Georgia. I suppressed my many melancholy feelings by singing along to the radio and focusing my attention on each milestone along my journey—Atlanta’s downtown connector, Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, the large outlet mall in Locust Grove, Rose Hill Cemetery along the banks of the muddy Ocmulgee, and the point where the brown dirt on the sides of I-16 transitions to the white sand hills abundant in the lowland areas of Georgia.

“Which shoes should I wear?” Mom asked just moments after I arrived. She had hung her funeral attire on the door of the spare bedroom with two pairs of black pumps parked underneath.

“I don’t know. Maybe those,” I said pointing to one pair.

She agreed with my decision and dressed as I washed down a pack of cheese crackers with an ice-cold Coke. A half hour later, I was behind the wheel again, but this time, I chauffeured two others—Mom in the backseat and my stepfather in the front.

Freshly plowed dirt roads. Live oaks draped with cascading Spanish moss. Weathered clapboard houses. Barns strangled by tangles of kudzu. Saw palmetto. Towering longleaf pines.

The three of us arrived at the funeral home in Richmond Hill and entered the building. Dozens of relatives—some I had not seen in over a decade—ambushed us. We mingled, hugged, waved, dried tears and pressed our way through a sea of grieving people to the open casket. My cousin, Yancey, dressed in a navy blue fisherman’s shirt, lay peacefully before us as if he were taking a nap.
I stood next to my cousin’s body and spoke to him with my thoughts.

I hate seeing you like this. I’ll miss your wit—we all will.

I had not seen Yancey in a while, although he and I shared conversations and photographs via Facebook. He was my Aunt Joyce’s youngest child—her baby boy, even at forty-seven years old. His rotund body seemed a perfect match for his larger-than-life personality, but his heart and his lungs couldn’t support the surplus weight. Health problems plagued him in the end. His death was somewhat expected, but still, when my sister called and told me he had died, I was simply shocked. I gasped. News of death has that effect on me every time.

I hate saying goodbyes, and I’ve said a lot of goodbyes in my lifetime.

My Papa Lanier died of emphysema when I was seven, and I remember the weight of his death on my family and the pained, primitive yowls of my grandmother and my Aunt Colleen in the days that followed. They seemed inconsolable.

As a child, I also attended funerals for Uncle Lee Roy, Uncle Louis, and many other relatives, and each time, Mom would escort me up to the body and say, “You might want to look, Honey. It will be the last time you get to see him.”

I didn’t want to look, but I did. I saw death laid out before me—the lifeless, empty shells of people from my life. I witnessed the anguish of the survivors who occupied the front pews of the churches. I smelled the overpowering aroma of Chrysanthemums arranged in baskets and stuck in large, flashy sprays. I listened to the comforting messages of preachers guiding my imagination to images of winged souls flying up to Heaven. Unfortunately, I heard the other kind of sermons, too—the hellfire and damnation kind designed to terrify a congregation, wounded and weakened from loss.

“If you want to see him again, you must repent your sins and accept Jesus as your Savior today,” some preachers howled while standing over the casket. “Only then can you be reunited with your loved ones in Heaven. Come to the front of the church now and reaffirm your faith. There may not be a tomorrow.”

Friends and family members streamed forward. No one wanted to be left behind. No one wanted to spend eternity in Hell. No one.

Even as a little girl, I found the fire-and-brimstone sermons of some funerals distasteful. To me, the words “today could be your last chance for salvation,” sounded a lot like a used car salesman’s cheesy pitch—“What do I have to do to get you in this car today? It may not be here tomorrow. Better go ahead and buy it now.”

My grandmother Lanier died in 1990. My father wept for her.

My daddy joined Grandmother and Papa on the other side in 1992, and I cried for him and my mother who became a widow at fifty-five. We buried him in denim jeans and a flannel shirt because that’s what he was most comfortable wearing. My father was a Mason, and so a band of Masonic brethren wearing white gloves and ceremonial aprons surrounded his body at the graveside. One man wore a hat and spoke directly to us.

“Our Brother has reached the end of his earthly toils. The brittle thread which bound him to earth has been severed and the liberated spirit has winged its flight to the unknown world. The dust has returned to the earth as it was, and the spirit has returned to God who gave it.”

The service brimmed with poetic phrasing and symbolism—my kind of sermon. At one point, the man with the hat placed a sprig of cedar on my father’s casket.

“This evergreen is an emblem of our enduring faith in the Immortality of the Soul. By it we are reminded that we have an imperishable part within us, which shall survive all earthly existence, and which will never, never die. Through the loving goodness of our Supreme Grand Master, we may confidently hope that, like this Evergreen, our souls will hereafter flourish in eternal spring.”

I loved the thought of my father existing in eternal springtime somewhere.

We buried my father that afternoon then went to a family member’s house and ate. Women of the family and community had prepared a generous spread of fried chicken, chicken and dumplings, potato salad, cornbread, sweet tea, chocolate cake and other delicacies. Taking food to a grieving family is the epitome of Southern grace, like saying, “I’m sorry for your loss. I care. And don’t ever forget—you are loved by so many.”

After we picked at our food and rested for a while, my family caravanned back to the cemetery and stood beside the mounded dirt and flower arrangements for a few minutes. Mom reached down and plucked a limp rose from the spray that covered Daddy’s grave—a keepsake she eventually dried and pressed between the pages of a Bible. We each selected a potted peace lily to take home.
I found it difficult to turn and leave my father there that day. I believed that his soul had moved on, yet I had a strong connection with the vessel that contained his being. I lingered at his graveside delaying the inevitable.

With its granite and marble obelisks and monuments, the cemetery looked a bit like an outdoor art garden. There was a strange beauty to the setting, although it was a barren land flush with death and sadness. Some of the plots were well taken care of, while others seemed forgotten—faded plastic flowers leaning to and fro and weeds invading the marble rocks.

I continued to stall by wading through the sea of headstones and reading the names, dates, and verses engraved on the surfaces. Finally, my husband grabbed my hand and led me away.

Since that day, I’ve lost others—my beloved Grandmother Jarriel, aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends. I’ve watched my husband’s parents deteriorate mentally and physically and fade away, too. They were both cremated—their ashes scattered together underneath a tree in a forest near Gatlinburg, Tennessee.

I’ve lost pets, and I’ve mourned for them, too—sometimes more than I’ve mourned for people who’ve passed away.

But back to my cousin’s funeral.

Yancey’s niece, Ashley, stood up in front of all of us and shared some lovely memories. I admired her courage and composure and wondered if I could push my pain aside for ten minutes and speak about a loved one at a funeral service. I’m not sure.

After my cousin’s burial, I gathered my passengers and drove off into the blazing sunset while Mom, my stepfather, and Aunt Gloria recapped the events of the preceding days. They talked about how good this person looked and how bad that person looked. They talked about who brought food and how delicious so-and-so’s cake was. They talked about relatives that didn’t attend the funeral or burial service and speculated as to why they didn’t show up. They talked about Yancey, and what a beautiful little boy he had been so many years ago. They talked about my Aunt Joyce and wondered aloud about her future. They talked about life, and they talked about death—sometimes in the same breath.

I’ve reached an age where my parents and my remaining aunts and uncles are all surpassing the average life expectancy. Friends and contemporaries are fighting and losing battles with cancer and other debilitating illnesses. I find myself thinking about mortality more and more these days. I brace—not for my own decline and death, but for the eminent loss of the lights around me who brighten my world.

My mother has always talked candidly about death, dying, and the afterlife. A few years ago, she called and told me matter-of-factly to prepare for a whole slew of deaths in our family.

“There’s no easy way to say it, so I’m just going to come right out with it,” she said. “We have so many in our family who are either really sick or really old, so be prepared. When they start dying, they’ll drop like flies.”

Mom suggested I keep at least two appropriate funeral dresses in my closet at all times and urged me to make sure my husband’s suit still fit him, which I did. She also said, “You might want to plan and visit with some of your family that you haven’t seen in a few years. You never know—you may not get another opportunity to spend time with them.”

Her words made me sad, but her warning proved to be prophetic. Mom’s always on the mark.

As far as her own death, Mom talks about that, too, even though she has the health and stamina of a woman half her age. For the last several years, she regularly sends me a spreadsheet that itemizes all of her bank accounts and personal business. She’s given me a copy of her will and a key to her safe deposit box. I know exactly where she wants to be buried—beside my father’s body at the cemetery east of Collins, Georgia.

Her main concern is my stepfather, Johnny.

“If I go first, please be there for him,” she has pleaded with me. “He’s going to need a lot of love and care. I know you will help him in every way that you can.”

And I will.

Yes, I’ve seen death, and I understand both its finality and its truth. Like Forrest Gump’s mother said, “Death is just a part of life.” It reminds us of what’s important—that we are only here for a finite number of days, that we should live each day as if it is our last, that we should love one another, that we should show compassion and forgiveness to others, and most of all, that we should never take one moment for granted.

Freelance writer Amber Lanier Nagle has written nonfiction articles for Georgia Magazine, Grit, Mother Earth News, Points North and dozens of other magazines. Her book, Project Keepsake (www.ProjectKeepsake), is a collection of nonfiction stories about keepsakes. She facilitates workshops for writers of all skill levels on topics such as freelance writing, writing family stories, and writing creative nonfiction pieces.