The locket

She stands at the counter, admiring the jewelry. If  Papa were here, he’d get a necklace for me, she tells herself. I know he would . . . I’d keep it in the jewelry box he gave me for Christmas. 

But Papa was gone. Back to the hospital, again. She knew he feared going and she feared it for him, not knowing exactly what treatments he was being given, only that his face was whiter, more hollow, on every return, his blue eyes sadder. 

Her own eyes blur. Wiping away the tears, she finds her uncle, the store owner, leaning over the back of the wooden counter.

“Hello, dear. You like the jewelry, don’t you?”

She nods, tries to smile.

“Tell you what—I’ll give you a piece. Choose the one you like best.”

Her tears flow in earnest then. 

She chooses the locket.

*******

She was fifteen. The year was 1931. A year later, her beloved Papa would commit suicide on his sixtieth birthday, just weeks before she graduated from high school.

I wonder if she wore the locket as she sat by his casket in the living room overnight, or to his funeral.

When I was fifteen, she gave the locket to me:

I open the locket to find a black substance on the left side.

“I thought you said there was a picture of you in here!”

“It’s so old. That picture has turned darker and darker over the years,” she explains.

The image is completely obscured. 

“What did the picture look like, Grandma?” I ask, mourning the loss of it.

“It was a school picture. I had wavy blonde hair. It was pretty.” She smiles slightly as she picks the decayed photographic material out of the locket with Granddaddy’s pocket knife. She rubs the locket with a cloth until it gleams, and then she places it in my hands. 

“I know you’ll take care of it, my dear,” she says. 

As I clasp it, she draws me into her arms. I lean against her like I did when I was smaller, breathing in the light fragrance of her Avon cream sachet. 

The locket is around 87 years old now. It’s made of brass, remarkably shiny, unmarred, despite its age. The front surface is finely etched with antiquated swirls and flowers, and if you look very closely, in the center there’s a house with a little fence and mountains in the background along the horizon.

Grandma, what a prophetic symbol for you, in so many ways.

The Great Depression was a year underway when her uncle gave her the locket. In 1936, my grandmother married my grandfather. My father was born ten months later. To me, the house on the locket represents their rural North Carolina homeplace;  it’s where Grandma’s heart was when Granddaddy, unable to “make a go of it” with tenant farming, sharecropping, and odd jobs, found employment almost two hundred miles away at the Newport News shipyard and moved his family. He was working there when Pearl Harbor was attacked.

Grandma was expecting her second child that year:

We stayed in an upstairs apartment and it was so hot. I could look through the window to see the ice truck making deliveries. People couldn’t get refrigerators because of the war; if you had one, it didn’t have a motor. We used them like iceboxes. I’d stand at that window thinking,  I’d give anything for a piece of that ice right now . . . . 

And she longed to go home.

Those mountains on the locket’s background symbolize numerous obstacles, hardships, trials, everything from the loss of her father to the Depression and the war (her brothers served in the Army and the Marines) to the ten years she did live back home, raising the children while my grandfather commuted from the shipyard on weekends. It was hard, all of it. She endured. The brass locket shines almost like gold—beyond the things of home, beyond every mountain to be scaled, hope always shines bright, not dimming over time. My grandmother’s faith would be challenged; she’d outlive two of her three children, but her faith would hold.

Home, endurance, overcoming, hope, faith, love. All of these are her legacy to me.

And the stories.

All old things have a story. Grandma’s locket is a tangible reminder of the stories she lived and told to me. It even opens like a book for pictures or tiny mementos to be placed inside; pictures of my two boys when they were babies are in it now.  The locket is the story of who I am, where I have come from, where I am going. I like to think that as the generations rise and fall, the locket will be passed down again and again, and that our stories will go on, and on, and on.

 

Cadillac man

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When he was little, he spent hours lining up his Hot Wheels just so.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

“It’s the parking lot at church,” he told me. Car to car, he explained who each owner was according to where they parked every Sunday morning.

He’d matched his toys to the real cars by the types of spokes and wheels.

A mother can be worried and fascinated at the same time.

Around the age of six, he announced: “I’m going to get a Cadillac when I grow up.”

“Oh, you are?” I responded, attempting to keep a straight face.

He nodded his head emphatically. “Yes. A blue one.”

His grandparents drove a blue Sedan de Ville. My husband’s stepfather bought it new in 1989, with forty miles on it.

I could understand the appeal. My boy was obsessed with cars. When I was growing up, I loved my grandparents’ car, too: a vivid red 1964 Ford Galaxie 500 (see A long time ago in a Galaxie far, far away).

The boy has always known exactly what he likes and doesn’t like, what he wants and doesn’t want. There are no proverbial shades of gray with him. He loves dogs. He loves music, especially old gospel songs. I joke that he was born seventy-five years old and he has never disagreed. When he fell in love with Cadillacs at age six, it was forever.

He began collecting Cadillac memorabilia, knew all the latest models and years. He knew the old ones, too.

“Ma-Ma and Pa-Pa say the Cadillac goes to me when they’re gone,” he said, his big brown eyes aglow, around age ten.

The de Ville was, at that point, twenty years old.

“I’m glad they want you to have it,” I tell him, even as I think Buddy, by that time the old car won’t be worth having . . . 

Pa-Pa, a jolly, larger-than-life Scotsman, took meticulous care of his Cadillac, but after his death in 2014, it just sat in the driveway. Undriven. The seasons came with their ravages, year after year: summer’s blazing sun, autumn leaves gathering layer upon layer, winter’s snow and ice, spring’s thick coating of pollen.

Ma-Ma died last fall. We began cleaning out the house, my husband’s childhood home.

Our boy said, “It’s time to get the Cadillac.”

My husband and I looked at each other.

We looked at the de Ville.

It looked forlorn, awful.

But, to honor Ma-Ma and Pa-Pa’s promise to their little grandson long ago, we decided to see what could be done.

We had the car towed to the place where Pa-Pa bought it almost thirty years before. With a new battery, it fired right up, despite four years of sitting completely idle. It got new brakes, new fluids, new tires, and a much-needed bath.

The service rep called my husband: “You’re not going to believe it’s the same car. Everyone here thinks it ought to be in the showroom.”

We were skeptical . . . but the rep was right.

The boy—now a man—drove his father and me to the dealership to get the Cadillac, to bring it home.

It sat in the service area, waiting, gleaming, as if age and time had no meaning.

Touching the hood lightly with his fingers, our son whispered, “I wish Pa-Pa could see it.”

He took the wheel. His dad rode shotgun beside him.

I followed behind, marveling, as my son, at last, drove his shiny blue Cadillac down the country back roads into the setting sun.

Somewhere over the rainbow

skies are blue

and the dreams that you dare to dream

really do come true.

I note that when Judy Garland sings this line in The Wizard of Oz, she’s leaning on a big wheel.

*******

On the de Ville’s front grille is a medallion with the Roman numeral VI. Our son learned that this is a Heritage of Ownership emblem given to Cadillac owners for each vehicle. 

This was Pa-Pa’s sixth Cadillac.

Heritage emblems are not given anymore.

To love that well

Drema Gaye Spencer

Drema Gaye Spencer. Her first name means “reverie,” or dream. Her middle name, “merry, lighthearted.” Her surname is Old English for “guardian,” “object of awe,” “dispenser of provisions.”

She stands on the precipice between childhood and womanhood, facing the camera directly, her hooded eyes steady and confident. She does not know it yet, but she will be like the mountains framing her background, where she and her seven siblings loved to run, calling to each other across the distance, teasing, playing jokes, laughing with wild abandon at their own mischievous humor. As intense pressure, heat, and time formed the ancient Appalachian coalfields, so the course of her life would forge an internal fuel, the deep, burning drive to keep going under the weight of crushing adversity.

It’s the early 1940s. World War II is in full swing; her three brothers have enlisted in the Navy. The family has survived the Great Depression in the place it struck the hardest, where the economy has always been precarious. When she arrived with the January snows of 1926, her coal miner father hadn’t had steady work in a year due to frequent safety shutdowns; the West Virginia Office of Miner’s Health Safety and Training references nearly 700 fatalities for 1925.

She’s just a teenager with a head full of dreams for the future.

Maybe she could teach English literature and composition—What fun that would be! Maybe I’ll even visit England one day.

Innately musical, singing harmony with her sisters in church, she also harbors aspirations for the stage. She knows she has true dramatic and comic talent, which, along with her natural beauty, lands her roles in high school plays. Her blue eyes sparkle: Well, I AM a good actress. Very good. Eventually, of course, I’ll get married and have children. I do want children . . . Sometimes she can almost see their little faces, these someday-children. I hope one’s a boy with brown eyes.

So she looks at the camera and smiles, the mountain beneath her feet, her childhood behind her and her whole future lying ahead.

But I, being poor, have only my dreams; I have spread my dreams under your feet; Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

-William Butler Yeats

The reality is that just a few years after this photo was made, she married a man who would be killed in a mining accident, leaving her with a toddler and a baby at twenty-three.

Several years afterward, she married a widower, an Army man with two older children. Eventually they had a boy and a girl together.

Her boy with brown eyes.

When her husband completed tours of duty in Korea and Vietnam, she cared for the six children by herself.

When the brown-eyed boy was four, he developed acute bronchitis, necessitating an emergency tracheotomy. His temperature spiked to 107 after surgery. The nurses packed the child in ice. The hospital doctors told her that her little son might not make it. She sent for his father, away at Army summer camp; a police escort was dispatched to meet him at the airport. As the boy drifted in and out of consciousness, she sat by his oxygen tent, praying, weeping.

The boy survived.

She wrote him a letter on the inside back cover of a book of Bible stories.

4:00 a.m. In hospital.

Dearest . . .

When you are well and safe at home again, I’ll read you this little note I’ve written to you during the hours I sat by your bed and watched you sleep so soundly . . . Mommy and Daddy have been so scared . . . We love you so much, our little son . . . Little angels have been all around your bed since you have been sick and Jesus sent them to watch over you and keep you . . . soon all the suffering and fright you have had will pass from your little mind but Mommy will always remember and thank God for giving you back to me.

Your Mother

She could never speak of the ordeal without tears.

Staggering losses were yet to come.

When the brown-eyed boy was twelve and his sister nine, and all the others grown and on their own, her Army man died suddenly, instantly, with a heart attack.

Widowed twice—each time with a boy and girl at home to care for.

Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

-I Corinthians 13:7

When her sobbing son asked, “Who’s going to take care of us now?” she wrapped him in her arms.

“God will. And I will.”

And she did.

Survival ran in her veins like coal beds through the Appalachians. She dug deep within herself, tapping into the hardy DNA passed down by her ancestors, into the wellspring of her faith, into the fierce love for her children, and carried on. When her son was consumed with fear of something happening to her, she said:

“I have prayed and prayed that nothing will happen to me until you’re grown. And I am convinced that God will allow it.”

For the next ten years, she poured herself into her children and her home.

Still she laughed. Still she sang. She called her brothers and sisters, who still teased each other with jokes old and new. She gardened. She arranged flowers. She organized a women’s political group, taught Sunday School, went to her son’s basketball games all through high school.

She managed, and managed well.

When her son said he found the girl he wanted to marry, she gave him her blessing and the diamond engagement ring that his father, the Army man, had given her.

The brown-eyed boy—now the man—gave the ring to me on my twentieth birthday, long, long ago.

For the boy who lived (apologies, J.K. Rowling) is my husband; the woman in the photograph is my mother-in-law.

When I came to know her, I first admired her elegant, impeccably-kept house, which she was forever redecorating. And the food, the food, oh, the food! Her table always looked like something from Southern Living, down to the coordinating linen napkins and rings. Her iced tea was always blissfully sweet and there must always, always be lemon slices with it. I came to appreciate her ever-present wit, her spunky humor, her fashionable attire. Being well-put together was a priority to her. I browsed her bookcases on every visit, knowing she’d have a new bestseller for me to devour. I was instantly at home in her home.

When she was sixty years old, a third man proposed to her. She hesitated. “I’ve buried two husbands. I don’t want to bury a third.”

But he was a good man; she took a chance on him. For the next three decades, they celebrated the coming of grandchildren and the first great-grandchildren.

Three years ago, she was widowed for the third time.

There were no children at home to care for now.

She was, for the first time in her nine decades, alone.

With housekeeping being too much for her, it was time to go to the home of one of the children or to assisted living.

And her genes, or her Appalachian roots, or the rising dementia—or all three—kicked into overdrive.

She would not go.

The house had become her whole identity. It was where she’d provided for the last of her children. It symbolized her strength, her ability to survive. This was her mountain; she would not be moved. She dug in her heels. Deep.

Until the stroke.

After surgery, when her family was allowed to see her in intensive care, she greeted us with a smile. “I can’t believe I’ve had a stroke! Can you believe it?” she said, as if she were sitting in the den at home, making everyday conversation, even as the nurses watched her monitors. Blue eyes sparkling as bright as ever, she reached out her warm hand to grasp mine. “Hey, you’ve got a birthday coming up. We’ll have to celebrate.”

I held her hand, marveling.

She rebounded for a short while, working hard at her rehab, thinking she could go back home. She couldn’t. She went into a nursing home instead, for, as the weeks wore on, her strength waned.

So did her mind.

The one thing that waxed bright and hot was her fighting spirit. She grew more determined to go home, even as she grew weaker, less hungry, more and more tired.

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

-Dylan Thomas

She raged. She burned within like a coal seam fire, until her energy was spent at last.

Lying in her nursing home bed, she stood on the mountains again, seeing her brothers and sisters in the distance. She called their names over and over—only the ones who’d already died. She carried on conversations with them.

“I can’t go on up,” she told these siblings that the rest of us couldn’t see. “Not just yet.”

She knew us, called us by name when we last gathered with her, at Thanksgiving. Within the hour, she couldn’t recall who we were, or why we were there.

Still she sang.

There is coming a day, when no heartaches shall come

No more clouds in the sky

No more tears to dim the eye

All is peace forevermore

On that happy golden shore

What a day, glorious day, that will be . . . .

“My throat hurts,” she said. “I can’t sing any more.”

“It’s okay,” said her children. “You don’t have to.”

They moistened her lips and mouth with water.

And still she sang.

If we never meet again this side of heaven

I will meet you on that beautiful shore.

And then she sang no more.

She rested a while, then, with her eyes closed, turned her face toward her brown-eyed son, my husband.

“Where do you live?” she asked.

“North Carolina,” he replied, smiling through his tears.

“Oh, my son lives there,” she said.

“Yes. I am your son.”

She opened her eyes the tiniest slit. “Well. You’re all grown up.”

It was the last thing she said to him.

I have prayed and prayed that nothing will happen to me until you’re grown. And I am convinced that God will allow it.

A few days later, my husband, his younger sister, and my son, the youngest grandchild, sat by her bedside all morning, watching her labored breaths. Finally they told her, “We’re going to go eat lunch, Mom, but we’ll be right back.”

The minute they finished eating, the nurses called. “The time is near.”

They came. They took her hands.

She took two labored breaths, and was gone.

She’d waited for them to have their lunch. To the very last, making sure her children had what they needed.

She never taught school.

She was never an actress of renown.

She never made it to England.

She lived one of the most extraordinary lives I’ve ever known.

The diamond on my finger shines as bright as it ever did; I can only hope that a portion of her strength, her courage, her wisdom has passed on to me along with it.

I look at her teenage photo, contemplating all that she will endure.

All that she did endure, and need endure no more.

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou see’st the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire,
Consum’d with that which it was nourish’d by.
This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.
-Shakespeare, Sonnet 73

She loved as deep, as far, as long as she possibly could, with every ounce of her being. That is what I will remember most, her fierce, fierce love. It burns on, and on, and on, bright and warm, forevermore.

The song

Grandma's organ

I love Granddaddy’s and Grandma’s apartment. The walls are knotty pine and the floors are made of a different wood; they shine under Grandma’s braided rugs.  There’s a booth curving around a table in one corner. It makes me think of the ice cream shop where we sometimes go for milkshakes. This booth is where Granddaddy, Grandma and I eat supper. Sometimes we have jelly doughnuts or apple turnovers for dessert; Grandma is very fond of apple turnovers and so I am I. There’s an odd, glass-less window between the bedroom and the “front room,” as Grandma calls it. I call it the living room. Grandma has curtains on this weird window and I can remember, dimly, my aunt holding me in her arms on one side as Grandma pulled the curtains apart on the other, crying “PEEK-A-BOO!” We all dissolved with laughter. A fancy ashtray with a curved handle that’s either a ram or a goat – some horned, leaping  animal – stands on a tall, thin pedestal beside my grandfather’s worn leather recliner, but no one ever smokes here.

Many wonders exist in this cozy place, but one of the prettiest is Grandma’s organ.

It’s made of polished wood, with curved legs. It stands gracefully against the front room wall, under shelves of family mementos and photographs.

Grandma knows how to play it. She has a piano down home in the country, but it was too big to bring to the apartment. When Granddaddy went to work at the shipyard during the War, my grandmother had to leave her piano behind. So, he bought her this organ one Christmas. 

He knew how much she loved to play.

One afternoon she says, “I will teach you.”

I am nervous and excited at the same time – I have never touched this organ.

Grandma opens the top. She lowers the little stand that holds a book. She has a booklet of hymns and one of Christmas songs; she places the Christmas book on the stand.

“Watch and listen,” she says, her blue eyes soft and bright. “This is my favorite.”

She plays “Silent Night.”

She sings, and I know the song. I sing some of the words with her:

Sleep in heavenly peace, sleep in heavenly peace.

“Now it’s your turn,” she says.”See these numbers? That’s what you play with your right hand. These circles with letters are the chords – you play the buttons with your left hand.”

She takes my hands in her own. 

5,6,5,3 – Si – i -lent night

5,6,5,3 – ho – o -ly night

She puts my fingers on the right keys, pressing the white “C” major button until we switch – gracious! – to “G” and “F.”

I am very slow – it seems a lot to do at one time.

But Grandma guides me, and soon I have played a song.

A whole song.

“Now try it on your own,” she says.

I labor. My keys and my chords are not exactly in sync, but I play. I am playing the song by myself!

Grandma sings behind me. Her voice carries me on.

She hugs me when I finish; I smell her Avon Cachet cream, light and clean.

Her eyes glisten with tears, but she’s smiling.

It was the first of many lessons I’d learn from my grandmother. In those days before I started school, I thought the white major buttons sounded like a wedding; all the minor and diminished buttons sounded like something in haunted houses.

Pretty much the theme music of life – celebrations and dark, mysterious moments. Sometimes I would play the buttons by themselves, listening to the happiness and strangeness of the chords.

I made my own stories out of these sounds.

I realized, decades later, the legacy my grandmother left me: There was always a song of hope and faith in the heart to carry me through the darkest times. That being a wife and mother often meant sacrifice. She was the quintessential teacher, without being formally trained – my foray into the music she loved followed the perfect I do, we do, you do pattern.  She guided my fingers on the keys, my feet on the path, my heart on the things that matter most.

Above all, she believed in me.

There’s no greater gift to a child.

When I was in the sixth grade, I was invited to attend a summer program for gifted students in writing, drama, and photography.

My father couldn’t afford the fee.

Grandma paid it. “Children need to have a chance to do things that matter to them,” she said, with a startling ferocity.

Much later I learned that she wanted to take piano lessons when she was in her early teens and that her family couldn’t afford them during the Depression. A young minister’s wife, however, taught my grandmother how to play.

In everything I do, she’s still there behind me, singing, urging me on, never far away. She is gone, yet she isn’t; her song sings in my soul, in time with the beating of my heart. I am who I am because of her.

Today my youngest son – a college student and music minister – plays her piano and sings the old songs. Her organ stands in my foyer – the first thing that people see when they come to my home.

Her legacy lives, from generation to generation.

I often think how thrilled she’d be to hear my boy’s beautiful playing and singing. “Oh, how my Grandma would love to hear this,” I tell him.

Even as I say the words, I know she knows.