Sunday, December 16, 2012

Highway to Memories

Saturday I traveled back in time.  And I have a story to tell, a special flower to introduce.  I created Flowers on the Fence to share just such stories, back when I first entered the publishing world as a wide-eyed newbie who didn’t have a clue what she was doing or when or where to do it.  Though I have to say now that I’m a fairly seasoned multi-published author (seven books counts as multi-published, right?) I still frequently don’t have a clue what I’m doing or when or where to do it.  Those books came out at a fairly rapid rate.  Please understand, I didn’t write them all at one time, they’ve been patiently sitting in my closet, some of them for years, waiting for the moment when I, as a writer, had developed enough skill to polish them as they deserved and acquired two publishers who believed in me enough to bring them into the world.  In the press of liberating those books from the closet, Flowers on the Fence fell by the wayside a bit.  It’s been a while since I’ve entered my own self-proclaimed “Writer’s Country Kitchen” to sit and visit.  Sip some coffee.  Tell a tale or two.  Share a laugh, a tear, a memory.

But Saturday? Saturday, I’d like to share.  And the spot to share it is right here.  Welcome back to Flowers on the Fence Country. 

I was born and raised in Middle Georgia, square in the middle of the state, but that’s not where my family’s roots are.  My family, both sides of it, came from a valley that runs up and down the central eastern border of Alabama/western border of Georgia, right across the Chattahoochee River.  Several towns run almost indistinguishably together along that border.  Lanett, Valley, Fairfax, Hugley, Langdale, West Point, though West Point’s actually in Georgia.  Throughout my childhood, I traveled an old State Highway, Highway 18 West, over to that Valley to visit grandparents and uncles and aunts and cousins.  When I was very small, we took Highway 41 up to Highway 18 and cut west over.  When I was seven or eight, Interstate 75 was born and opened, and we took I-75 up to Forsyth before exiting the interstate to hit Highway 18. (Yes, I’m that old.  Born before interstates.)

I loved that drive, the meander through small southern towns, the Courthouses on the squares that required you to circle them rather than just pass them, the old Victorian houses and occasional ante-bellum mansions standing right by tumble-down shanty-shacks.  The old filling stations, the rolling pastures.  Forsyth to Barnesville to Zebulon to Concord to Molena to Woodbury to Pine Mountain to West Point to Lanett and then on down the strip of towns.  Until I-85 went in.  After that you could hop on I-85 outside of West Point and be almost in Lanett.  There’s a cemetery in that Valley where I can stand on one row and see most of the names I know to be in my genealogy tree – Roughton, Lankford, Edge, Anderson, Knowles.  And there’s a book in that Valley.  And I intend to write it. Somewhere.  Sometime.  The story of interwoven families of sharecroppers and mill workers.  The Valley was a textile mill valley for a very long time, and when the mills shut down that Valley suffered just as much as Detroit suffered when the car manufacturers began to decline.  Ironically enough, West Point is now home to a big Kia plant, so things are looking up in the Valley.

Mostly though, for me, that Valley’s where one of my special flowers lives.  My Aunt Reba.  My mother’s oldest brother’s wife, as we’d describe the relationship down here.  How special is Aunt Reba?  Well, let’s see.  She’s 94.  She was born October 31, 1918.  Yes, Halloween.  When I call, I say, “Hey Aunt Reba!” and she always responds, “Heeeyyyyy, Gail!”  (And NO, I’m not her only niece so it’s not a no-brainer.)  She stills lives in her own house, because thankfully her son and daughter-in-law built their house many years back on part of her property and her wonderful daughter-in-law, my cousin Barbara, takes wonderful care of her.  No nursing homes or assisted living for Aunt Reba.

I didn’t see her that often growing up, but when I did – magic happened.  Because Aunt Reba loved me unconditionally.  Just because I was me.  The way she loves everyone she loves.  Think about it.  That’s rare.  Not because of blood, or because she was supposed to, or because I was smart or because I was pretty.  Because I was me.  My cousin Debbie, seven years younger than me, loves her just as much as I do, for the same reason.  My sister Dianne, whom I lost about fifteen years ago now, did too.  When my sister was in the last two years of her life, dying slowly though none of us would admit it, Aunt Reba, then in her late seventies, early eighties, made the drive over to us by herself frequently, staying with Dianne and helping to take care of her for weeks at a time. 

My cousin Debbie emailed me a few weeks ago.  “When have you talked to Aunt Reba?  She’s not doing well, she had a stroke the first of November.”  Well, in the press of day-to-day life and work and everything that goes along with it, I’m ashamed to say how long it had been since I talked to Aunt Reba, so I won’t.  I’d thought about it, of course.  “Oh, I need to call Aunt Reba!  But it’s too late, she’s already in bed!”  “Oh, I need to call Aunt Reba!  But first let me finish this or that or the other so I can talk a long time.” And of course, after I finished whatever that was, something else demanded attention.

That email was a wake-up call, though.  Someday there wouldn’t be a tomorrow for me to call Aunt Reba.  I called Aunt Reba.  Scared to death.  Scared she wouldn’t know me.  Scared she’d sound – like tomorrows were about over.  But I called.  “Aunt Reba?”  “Heeeeyyyyyyyy, Gail!!”  Oh, my Lord, those were wonderful words to hear, spoken with the same enthusiasm and zest for life her voice always held. Her memory seemed as good as ever and if she stumbled over a name or event occasionally, it certainly wasn’t any more often than I do myself.  The only residual problem she had, she said, was being unable to stand or walk too long before she “knew things weren’t right” and she had to sit back down.  This was caused by “sludge” moving on out of the veins, and she would, she assured me, be right as rain by spring, according to her doctor when all of said “sludge” had finished disbursing.  She sounded like – Aunt Reba. And I had a second chance to appreciate her all over again.

We made the trip to Alabama Saturday, my husband and me, on that Highway of Memories, 18 West, and she was delighted to see us.  I came bearing new warm fuzzy slippers and a year’s supply of Find-A-Word and Cross-Word Puzzle Books and pens and pencils.  Aunt Reba and Find-A-Word books and Cross-Word puzzles are interchangeable.  You can’t have one without the other, she’s worked them for years.  Something that I’m sure is a factor in her continued mental acuity.  We had a wonderful visit and I ran out to visit the Colonel for lunch and brought it back.  We sat at her table and laughed and ate and ate and laughed, and I fixed a big plate of the remainder for her supper, should she care to indulge, or her lunch the next day, should she not be hungry that night.  We ate a lot, good company does that, have you ever noticed? 

 We took our leave, and I traveled my highway of memories in reverse on the way back home, treasuring the day.  My childhood re-visited.  My Aunt, still well and alert and in fighting form at 94.  And no, the days won’t slip by now without me realizing its been a few days since I talked to Aunt Reba.  And no, nothing else pressing will come up to prevent me from doing so.  Second chances are limited.  And I’m taking advantage of this one while I can. 

I hope you enjoyed meeting my Aunt Reba, this very special Flower on the Fence.  And y’all come back now, hear?