A Life Finished

My grandmother died Saturday morning a little after 8:00. In a way, her passing was a relief because my father and aunt had agreed to let the hospital staff disconnect her IV and feeding tube. The neurologist had said that the stroke had done too much damage. Her brain would never heal; the blood was simply not getting there to get the job done. She was moved to a hospice room on Thursday evening and could have lasted as long as two weeks.

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(With my grandfather; taken around 1956)

Saturday, Sunday, and Monday were spent in this bubble of grief. On the drives back and forth from Woodruff, I felt so disconnected from everything. If it’s ever possible to make time stand still, I’m sure the feeling will be similar to what I felt those three days. Saturday night, as we made our way out of town, we passed a house with a chimney churning smoke into the air, and I marveled at how the smoke wasn’t going anywhere. The brick spout on the house pushed more and more of it into the air, but it simply hung over the road as we passed under it.

It’s one thing to see your mother cry, but for me it was totally surreal and heartwrenching to see my father break down. I could say it’s the stereotype of how men aren’t supposed to cry, but the experience was more than that. His mother was his heart. My aunt was her caregiver, but my father was her protector. He had done so all his life.

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(My dad and my aunt with her on her last birthday)

My aunt had to call and get them to correct her obituary. They had her age as 79, which would have made her 13 when she had my aunt. Of course, even when the corrected version ran yesterday, it still didn’t represent her. Sure, she worked at Mills Mill in Woodruff for more than 30 years. She was the fourth of 12 children, and she survived all but her youngest sister. She also left behind a son, a daughter, five grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren. But there are so many things the obituary left out.

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(With her grandchildren on her last birthday)

She had a love of tomato sandwiches surpassed by no one else I’ve ever known. Of course, she had to because she planted so many tomato plants in her garden. One year she had 96 plants! And when she pulled them from the vine, she always put them on the dryer on her back porch — so many that you could step back there and breathe in the smell of them. She planted so many, and she was always giving them away. All summer long, when you visited her, she sent you away with tomatoes. Even when she couldn’t have what she considered to be a full garden (tomatoes, corn, green beans, butter beans, okra, strawberries, and probably several others I’ve forgotten), she always had at least a row of tomato plants.

She was a widow for almost 35 years. She once sat in her back yard and silenced teasing about finding a new man with this statement: “I don’t need no man. I come as I please, and I go as I please.”

If we misbehaved, she would threaten to “go out and cut a hickory,” but I don’t ever remember her putting a hand on us. I remember going to spend the night with her and her taking me and my brother to the grocery store and buying us whatever snacks we wanted. Speaking of snacks, you could always find a jar of dry roasted peanuts, Ritz crackers, peanut butter, and a box of Little Debbie Raisin Cream Pies on her counter.

I’ve never found anyone who could make okra like she did. It wasn’t really breaded and fried, but somehow she cooked it with a little cornmeal and make it crispy. She slow-cooked her hamburgers in the oven so they came out moist. She cooked cube steak that way also, and it turned out so tender that it fell apart.

Her yard had the most unique layout of any house on her street. It sloped from the front to the back and then leveled off. She had two monstrous oak trees in the back yard — perfect for hiding Easter eggs. On one side of the house, where the slope must have been particularly steep, there were steps made of rock, but not individual rocks, just one large rock mass. I’ve never seen anything like it.

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(On her 80th birthday with her birthday present and one of my aunt’s neighbors)

And that yard was immaculate. When she was outside, she was constantly picking up leaves, twigs, and trash. She would water her garden at 10 o’clock at night. I still remember being out there with her, the smell of wet earth and fresh water.

She loved the beach. She’d walk along the edge of the water with her pants legs rolled up and pick up seashells.

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(With me on the Battery in Charleston in 1992)

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(With one of my friends from high school on a trip to Hilton Head in July 1990)

I could fill entry after entry with stories about her, but I’ll stop with the one thing I’ll miss the most — the chance to make her laugh. She had this quiet chuckle, and her hazel eyes would squint so tightly that they looked like they had closed. Her shoulders would shake, and you couldn’t help but laugh at her laughing. It was fun making her laugh because there was no way for her to fake it. There was nothing fake about her.

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