This was originally published Feb. 26, 1982.
As we get older, every winter takes its toll.
It was long after the holidays before I opened all the Christmas mail. One of the cards was from my mother’s cousin Lucy. “I am still alive,” it said, in a frail little hand.
And I felt an awful pang. There she was, way down in Miami, where none of us rooted in red clay should finish out our lives.
Like so many others of our ilk, it was where she had gone years ago, with her sons Dave and Bobby, to make a better living. At least for years we all had one another. She and Mama would sit on the porch rocking and remembering. “You ’member the time the Red Elephant burned?” one of them said to the other, one of the last times they were together.
The Red Elephant, it seemed, was an old store on the main street of Central, S.C., where they lived when they were little. Somebody had sounded the alarm and brought the fire wagon clattering down the road. I don’t remember (to my sorrow) who the woman was that lived in the house with the picket fence out front.
But the exchange went on: “You ’member she kep’ her calf staked out in the front yard? And she was standin’ out by the road, watchin’ the commotion, and the calf got scared and pulled up its stake and jumped the fence.”
“Yes and the stake caught in the palings and pulled the fence behind it. And that old woman straddled the rope to try to stop the calf, and she got the fence across her behind, and she set up a howl. ‘Whoa! Stop!’ And the calf got panicky and loped right on. That’s the way they went to the fire, the old woman and her calf ...”
They would whoop and throw back their heads and Mama would hold in her teeth. They told wonderful and fascinating things about those who were not present, with appropriate inflections and expressions. Between them, I am sure they knew everything that ever happened in Pickens County. Good and candid. They were the walking history book that never would have made print.
Mama died six years ago. Cud’n Lucy, who was younger, died last week.
Our dwindling kin gathered again at Graves Duckett’s funeral home, at Central. (Even Graves himself has long since been gone, and his labor’s in the hands of his descendants.) Though we be fewer, we do grow, in a certain sense, one noted: “I added up our ages to about 2,000 years.”
We are not always sad in Graves’s parlor; it is our meeting house. Our reunion hall. We come on planes and trains and in cars, from all those far-flung places where we live and sometimes don’t belong. Whoever we are, in those other lives, we are Totsie and Teeny and Red and Bud and Bitsy, when we fall upon each other’s necks in joy and consolation.
The pain of our mortality gets to us in some moments. Cud’n Betty came in with her nurse, negotiating her walker up the aisle to say her goodbye, wistfully and silent, to the fragile remains in the casket. She was tiny and beautiful, as she has been since birth, the great Confederate lady with her little pink hat perched on perfect curls. The sorrow in that vignette got to me: There are so precious few great ladies anymore.
We have been to Lawrence Chapel so many times, to stand by so many open graves. One cannot walk but to walk upon our folks. Nature is nearly always kind to us, though we tend to die in winter.
We remembered the day nine years ago that we buried Aunt Bird, Lucy’s mother, who had lived to almost 102. We walked through patches of snow, that day. But the mountains sparkled in the sun.
And it was warm for us, this time. A beautiful false spring, rustling in the dry leaves of the church yard. The lilac bushes on Bird’s grave were showing clumps of tiny purple buds.
Up the road toward Six Mile, the pastures greened on that old land where Aunt Bird and her daughters had been raised. The surface things change. Old houses burn and crumble; new ones rise sometimes in designs that look freakish (to me) on that landscape. Modern thoroughfares like “Bluebird Lane” have joined the Maw Bridge and Madden Bridge Roads upon our maps.
Twelve Mile River once carried its mud to be thinned and cleaned in clear green Keowee; now it is lake, all sullen after thaw and rain.
But we do not live with that; we live with what it used to be. It is our land, though we come to it only to put another of us down.