In the wake of the passing of my last remaining grandparent, I’ve been meditating a good deal on what makes a family “us,” and I’m coming more and more to believe that it is two things: a commitment to being a family, whatever “family” might turn out to be, and shared experiences, even if the sharing is one family member telling another about an experience, long afterward.
Duh, you say.
But bear with me, here. I’m also coming to understand that in each generation, there’s one person who serves as the repository for family stories, and apparently, in my generation, in my family, I’m that person. Might be because I’m the oldest. Might be because it feels a little like a responsibility, to remember and to tell and to preserve.
But it might be because I’m a sucker for stories, too, because I am that. I’ll be telling some family stories here on the blog from time to time.
This is my favorite Nell story, and I think it’s my favorite because it involved just her and myself, and because it’s such a lovely example of the “teachable moment.”
When I was a child, Nell used to smoke. She was a light smoker, as I remember, consuming no more than a handful a day, and her big house held only the faintest whiff of tobacco. She told me once that it was because when she was young, “Everyone smoked, so of course I didn’t want to be left out.” I didn’t question it at the time – if I’d thought of it, I would have: Did Uncle Fred smoke? Did Big Aunt Doris? If everyone smoked, why didn’t Pawpaw J.T.?
Smoking, as I heard in Sunday School, was not only bad for you but an insult to the Lord who made your body. No one went so far as to say that smokers were bad Christians, but I once overheard someone making an objection to the inclusion of one man on the deacon board, on the grounds that the man smoked.
My mother’s cousin Hazel smoked – a lot – and a visit to her house was both exciting and faintly nauseating, because I’d get to play with the only cousins close to my age, but I’d get headaches while I was there, and come home smelling like an ashtray.
Smoking, then, was an activity that I couldn’t fit into my worldview. Mama said it was bad, my Sunday School teacher said it was bad, and it smelled bad. But Hazel smoked, and she loved me. And Nell smoked, and she loved me more, and they weren’t bad.
One Sunday afternoon, the summer I was eight, on a visit to Nell and J.T.’s house with my parents, everyone except me and Nell were out on the side porch, sipping tea and chatting and watching my sister run around on the grass. Nell was in the kitchen, making more tea at the sink, and I was sitting at the kitchen table playing with her deck of cards: counting them, fanning them out, trying to teach myself how to shuffle and waiting for her to come play Rummy with me. Nell had finished her cigarette, and came over to the table to crush it out in the ashtray.
She put it down and went back to stirring the pitcher of tea. I had a idea.
I picked up the cigarette butt and smelled it. It was no longer lit, but a wisp of smoke still curled up from it. It smelled like burning leaves, which it was, I realized, and her lipstick – and like – like sin, too. With a quick glance over my shoulder at Nell’s back, I put the butt up to lips and breathed in through it the way I’d seen her and Hazel do.
And promptly coughed my head off.
Nell spun around and regarded me without comment, her groomed eyebrows high on her forehead. I managed to meet her eye, still coughing, tears running down my face from the effort.
Finally she pointed a long, big-knuckled forefinger at me and said, levelly, “Don’t start.”
She took the tea out to the side porch, came back in, and sat down with me for my Rummy lesson. Nothing more was ever said about it – I don’t think she even told my parents – and I never had the slightest desire to smoke from that point on, but great compassion for people who did. Nell quit for the first time shortly after the incident. She would later take up smoking again, and quit again, re-start and re-stop, finally giving it up for good twenty-five years later, after her youngest daughter’s father-in-law died of lung cancer.
There is a danger, of course, in only remembering the good stories – the ripping yarns, the gut-busting-funny ones, the sweet ones. My mother might ask, “What’s wrong with that?” but I know, and you probably know, too, that such a philosophy makes the hearer woefully unprepared for Real Life. People turn on their brothers, they scream, “I hate you!” at their mothers, they poke fun and cry for no reason and get drunk and fall down stairs. And then we forget.
I don’t want those stories to be forgotten. Because what makes up a family is people, and people have warts as well as the “family nose.” So I’ll be telling a few warty stories, too.
My grandmother Sarah Lou, whose parents are buried in a small family plot on a farm not our own, was once grieving that the plot wasn’t kept up as she’d like, and I admitted to being puzzled. “Why does it matter?” I asked. “Once you die, you’re not in your body. I don’t think it matters to me what happens to my body or my grave after I die. Put me in the ground with a little respect, and then I don’t care.”
She was, to say the least, upset with me. It mattered a great deal to her, and she grieved that she wasn’t able to go visit her parents’ graves. She was always like that – physical things meant a lot to her. She could point to every single item in her crowded apartment in the basement of our house and tell you exactly where she got it, and when, and why: “Willie Maude gave me that singing stuffed bear for my birthday. I bought that big shell in Florida, visiting Maurice, when your mother was a college girl. That big iron pot was my mama’s laundry washpot.” Physical things were important to her because they stood for people, and gifts meant love.
Granted, I was a teenager at the time, and not a particularly tactful one, either. But I still feel like that. I don’t feel a great need to put up big fancy headstones or place flowers every week. At my other grandmother’s funeral last week, two of the grandchildren were overcome with tears at the graveside, thinking of her body in the cold ground. I myself was overcome with the reading from Revelation: “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord, for they rest from their labors,” because in my head I was hearing the lovely chorus with those words from John Rutter’s Requiem, “Lux Aeterna.” I’ll see Nell again someday, and Sarah Lou too.
I can see them, and hear them, in my head right now, telling me stories. The photo up top is them, of course, at my brother’s wedding six years ago, Nell on the left and Sarah Lou on the right, taken by my sister (I think).