Growing up, I had three living great-grandparents on my mother’s side: Myra Houk (Granny) and Mack and Virginia Breazeale (Papaw and Big Grandmama). But we weren’t just vaguely aware of each other’s existence, we knew each other. Granny saw me take my first steps and decided to move to Nashville to be closer to me. Big Grandmama and Papaw’s farm was only a three hour drive away.
I may have been born in the city, but I’m a country girl at heart. We went out to the farm a lot when I was little. I loved it. When we arrived, I always ran up the concrete porch and rang the dinner bell to announce our arrival. I liked walking down to see the cows. There was a cluster of cedar and pine trees in the back yard. The light looked different in there, and a part of me always thought it was a little bit magic. We played football while Big Grandmama was finishing Thanksgiving Dinner. We shot glow-in-the-dark rockets one Christmas and stared at all the stars. We hiked up the big hill and played Pooh Sticks at the creek.
Inside was a treasure trove of interesting things to keep me busy. I would play Sleeping Beauty in the upstairs bedroom, where there was a real giant spinning wheel. After reading Farmer Boy for the first time I was delighted that Papaw kept an oxen yoke above the fireplace. A beautiful old cuckoo clock that scared me a bit when I was really little, but fascinated me when I was older. Best of all was the old game closet filled with my grandmother’s toys. I liked playing with the beads on the abacus and riding around in the little toy car. There was always something good cooking in the kitchen and tempting deserts hidden in the dining room.
I learned a lot at the farm. I learned that a cow doesn’t actually say moo, it’s more like “merrrrr.” I discovered how to play Sudoku and pick-up-sticks. For some reason I have a very vivid memory of learning about conditioner for the first time, and how nice and soft it made my tangly hair feel. I learned about colorblindness, and how that meant some games were harder for Papaw to play since he couldn’t see all the colors. I learned that no matter how thirsty you are after a game of football, you always, ALWAYS double-check the milk carton to make sure it’s not buttermilk. I learned about buttermilk the hard way.
I remember when I was little how confused I used to be about what a family was. (I once prayed that God would give my grandmother children because I wanted some friends to play with when I stayed with her.) During one family event I announced that Jeff and Andy had won the award for “boys who look the most alike.” I was astonished when I found out they were brothers. I thought it was funny that Big Grandmama was smaller in stature than my Grandmama, and asked why we called them those names in that order.
“Big Grandmama is my mommy,” Grandmama explained.
“Jeff and Andy are my cousins,” my mother said. “Just like Alyssa and Ashley are your cousins.”
My tiny mind was blown. At the farm, I learned what family is. And my family was a lot bigger than I thought it was. Later, I realized that most people don’t know their extended family like I did. I knew my great-aunts and second-cousins. I knew my great-grandparents and had solid memories of them. I didn’t understand at first what a blessing that was.
I learned some harder lessons at the farm too. When I was in my early teens and first starting to write books, I dreamed of staying at the farm one summer during college so I could write. It never crossed my mind that Big Grandmama and Papaw would ever leave. I learned about dementia and Alzheimer’s. I saw how difficult aging was. I saw people smiling, but I sensed the pain underneath as our time together grew shorter. At the farm, I learned what true love means. Love is patient. Love is answering the same question over and over again. Love is kind. Love is being happy that you brought joy to someone, even if they don’t know exactly who you are. Love is not self-seeking. Love is making funny car noises when you’re pushing a family member in a walker from room to room. Love always protects, always trusts, always hopes, and always perseveres (1 Cor. 13: 4-7).
Papaw was 88 when he died. I was 17. As people shared memories of him, I realized I never really got to see who he was before the Alzheimer’s. I was sad of course, but I never really felt grief. I didn’t know him. He was suffering, and we knew it was getting closer. I didn’t go to his funeral because I was in the middle of a summer theater camp. But it changed me, because suddenly I realized I had family members who were getting older, who were closer to death. I had a fear that I would lose all three of my great-grandparents within a year. I knew I had to make the most of the time I had left.
Granny moved into an assisted living home a few months later. By Christmas, we found out she most likely had cancer. Her memory was getting steadily worse. I hastily finished my book so she could read it. It was a terrible first draft, but it didn’t matter. I visited her often in the last two to three months of her life. It became my job to go and sit with her, even when she was sleeping most of the time. I was there when she woke up, startled and unsure of her surroundings. I comforted her even when she didn’t know exactly who I was. I answered her repeated questions a million times. We knew her death was coming. She hadn’t eaten in almost three days, and was rarely awake. She was 94. I was 18. She died exactly one year and two days after Papaw. It was brutal. Her funeral was the worst day of my life. I didn’t know it was possible to feel that much physical pain. The first two years were terrible, but I learned to cope.
I couldn’t visit Big Grandmama as much. But I started sending her postcards. At this point, I believe she received some from Kentucky, Oregon, Louisiana, possibly Wyoming, Ukraine, Austria, France, Poland, and possibly Germany. When quarantine happened the weekend I was supposed to visit, I decided to write her letters. I told her about our new house and our garden. I had sent her 3 in all. I was planning the 4th when I got the phone call about her passing. She was 97. I was 22.
I didn’t want to believe it. I had seen her only a few days before. She had just recovered from pneumonia but she was fine. When we talked about it at the funeral, we realized we had seen the signs. We just expected it to drag out a little longer. I’m glad it didn’t. She didn’t like the food and was losing a lot of weight. She was bored and lonely. She was tired of living. She had asked her pastor a few months ago why God continued to keep her here on earth. On Tuesday, she got to see her oldest daughter, oldest granddaughter, and oldest great-granddaughter. On Wednesday she face-timed her other two daughters and another one of her granddaughters. It was unusual for her to initiate phone calls. On Thursday, she woke up and had breakfast. She walked, and then came back to sit in her recliner. Her nurse came in a little while later and she was gone, a smile on her face.
Death is strange. It can be heartbreaking and painful. But it’s also peaceful. As her pastor said at the funeral, “You only lose someone if you don’t know where they are. But we know where Mack and Virginia are.” After five long years they’re together again. They can remember together. And that makes it easier. They’re buried together at the family cemetery out on the farm. We were able to have a small family funeral, followed by lunch out on the front lawn. Almost everyone was able to make it, save a few with health risks or from virus hotspots.
Big Grandmama would have turned 98 today. The house belongs to Amanda now, her youngest grandchild. She named her daughter after Big Grandmama, and, we learned a short time later, her son after Papaw. She’s renovated the house inside, made it her own. It’s still got it’s old charm though, and the memories will never leave. The cows have been sold and the trees have been cut down. The bell is home to wasps, so I haven’t been able to ring it in years. Everything is different, but it’s good. Life moves on, but it doesn’t forget.