Sometimes I think you need a little of your own history in order to be able to understand history. I can’t remember never knowing about those relatives. They were on my Grandma Hall’s side, residing on the farm in Amelia County, Virginia. Patsie — we never call her Grandma — would sit at her oak dining room table, framed by the gold wall paper and talk about these people — Nonnie, Lou, Ralph and countless others, all making my head swim with Old Relative Fatigue.
Although I had visited the country, fed the cows and had my picture taken in front of the tobacco crop, I had yet to value these relatives. By the time I met them, they were well over sixty, country folk, and most with only an eighth-grade education. I was a city-raised missionary kid, spending my childhood in Japan. These relatives hugged me too often and acted like they knew me. After the turkey sandwiches, lemonade and a few rides on the porch swing, I was eager to go home.
As a college student and throughout my early twenties, whenever I’d sit around her dining room table eating fried chicken, biscuits and salad, I’d hear some anecdote from Patsie’s farm-raised days. At age seven, she played in the field one gloriously sunny day instead of sticking to her chore — picking tobacco. She recalled the spanking for her disobedience. Classmates at the county school teased, calling her “Tar Heel” because she and her family had moved from North Carolina, the Tar Heel State, to Virginia. As if this wasn’t bad enough for a young girl to endure, she was also ridiculed for her freckles. Hearing that freckles disappeared if washed with the early morning dew, Patsie often scrubbed her cheeks and nose with the moisture. Not only did her brothers laugh at her for this ritual, but her freckles remained.
Affectionately, Patsie told tales of her sisters and brothers, and Aunt Chachi, who lived with Mama, Papa and the children. What kind of name is Chachi, I would muse. Patsie talked about them like they were a part of us, which made me feel I should be interested. So I’d pose a question or two. Other than my infrequent remarks, it was mostly just Patsie reminiscing as the sun sank into the horizon, ending another day. I don’t have time for this, I’d think. There were exams to study for, dates to go on, and a big world I wanted to travel.
A short while ago, I took my children to visit Patsie. The now ninety-year-old silver-haired woman sat in the red winged-back chair and somewhere in the hot, sleepy summer afternoon I was aware she was again filling me in on the relatives of Amelia County.
I listened to accounts of Ralph and Nonnie and the others. I learned that of her eight siblings, four were still living. Her sisters had recently paid her a visit from the country. They’d brought blueberry preserves and apple pie.
But what I really wanted to learn was much more emotional than preserves or pie. I found my voice asking about Johnny, her youngest sibling. Of course I’d heard the tragic story before; Patsie had told it as she recalled all the other stories. Johnny had been on the running board of the car when he was twelve. Carl, his older brother, had been driving. “Don’t let the boys ride on the running board,” Patsie’s father had warned, but Carl hadn’t listened. Over a bump on the country road, Johnny slid off the running board to his death.
Of all the times I’d heard this story, I’d never cried. But on this afternoon in July, the tears welled and curved along my cheeks. Reaching for the photo album on the coffee table, I held the black-and-white photo of my great-grandmother and looked into her young face. I touched her hair and arms. I knew these arms ached because they no longer were able to hold her precious Johnny. “I know, I know,” I whispered at her picture. While blood had united us as relatives, the more definitive bond was that we were both bereaved mothers. For I, too, had a child die — my son, Daniel. It had not been a car accident, but a cancer-related death.
Although there were six decades between the deaths of Johnny and my Daniel, as mothers our lives had no doubt been similar after the deaths of our sons. Days of anguish, doubt, sorrow and frustration of having chores to do and other children to care for when our newly-broken hearts begged us to sit and sob. I cried for this woman in the black hat; I cried for me.
These days, I am listening to the tales of those relatives. I sit on the edge of my chair and take it all in. For those relatives, though far removed from my city life, are a part of me. Patsie believed they always were. It just took awhile and some history of my own to recognize this.