In February of 1994, Greg and I returned to the States after our time living and teaching in northern Namibia. We flew to the east coast and then spent a couple of weeks visiting Greg’s folks in Buffalo. While we were there, I studied for and then took the GRE because I was entertaining the idea that I should go to graduate school or something.
In December of 1991, Greg and I drove his car to Buffalo taking a fairly direct path that included stops in Montana, Chicago, and Ann Arbor. We then left his trusty Toyota Tercel in his folks’ garage for safekeeping while we were in Namibia. Hugh and Judy took seriously the job of looking after the car and moved it every so often so the tires wouldn’t squish (or something like that.) When the battery died, Judy gamely rocked the car back and forth a bit, in attempt to achieve the same end.
For our return trip from Buffalo to Seattle, we decided to take the less direct route so that we could visit friends in Washington DC, my mother’s family in Georgia, Greg’s aunts in the southwest, and my grandfather in Arizona.
We packed up the car with our belongings from Namibia (including countless Namibian baskets), a variety of treasures from Hugh and Judy (including sterling silver from Judy’s vast collection and odd things from Greg’s childhood bedroom such as a yellow jumpsuit supposedly worn by a member of Devo in an actual concert), and then headed south.
Each step along the way, as we departed the home of whichever friend or family member we visited, the car grew more and more full. Although Greg and I had just celebrated our first wedding anniversary, we hadn’t yet moved in together in an apartment or house of our own so most of the people we visited pressed lovely wedding gifts upon us.
In Washington DC, we stayed with my old friend Brian Wong. He didn’t feel comfortable with the idea of us leaving all of our worldly possessions in the car overnight so we three carefully unpacked the entire car into Brian’s living room. The next morning we re-packed everything and then just before we left, Brian came out carrying a large box that held a beautiful new espresso machine. “Do you have room for one more box?” he asked.
In Arizona, Greg’s aunt Ethel and uncle David found space in the backseat foot well for a box of china that once belonged to some distant relative. And in Georgia, my aunt Betty gifted us with a few special things, explaining to her sister Rachel that “They have nothing.”
Our stopover in Georgia is where things got interesting. At the time, two of my mother’s aunts—Betty and Rachel—and her uncle, Sam, lived in or near Thomaston, Georgia, an old mill town where my grandmother Christine was born and raised. Aunt Betty lived in the house she shared with her mother, my great grandmother, Celia Dearing Sears, until “Mama Sears” died in 1976. Mama Sears and aunt Betty bought the house from the mill when the mill divested itself of the housing they had provided to workers.
(On a subsequent visit, Betty Sears drove me around the streets that surrounded the mill and pointed out the various houses in which they’d lived. She told me that they qualified for a certain sized house [“two rooms,” for example, or “three rooms,”] based on the number of family members working at the mill at the time. She showed me the slightly larger house they had while her father was alive and working at the mill and then pointed out the smaller house they were moved to immediately after her father died, leaving them with one fewer mill worker in the family.)
We were late getting to Georgia. It seems quaint now to consider the logistics of a road trip without cell phones, the Internet, and GPS. Back then you had to drop coins in a pay phone to update someone on your progress and you could actually get lost while navigating unfamiliar roads with paper maps.
On this particular trip, we were delayed by a day or two when we had car trouble in Spartanburg, South Carolina. I don’t recall the nature of the trouble but I do remember three things: the lady at the garage directed us to a lovely café across the road in which to wait for word on the condition of our car, the same lady flattered me shamelessly (“You’re from Seattle? I’ll bet you were in that movie, Sleepless in Seattle, with that pretty red hair…”), and they were proud when they managed to repair our car for much less than the price they’d quoted rather than simply taking advantage of the opportunity to gouge the out-of-towners.
The delay in South Carolina meant that we rolled in to Thomaston, Georgia a day or two later than expected. When we pulled up in front of Betty Sear’s little yellow house with the porch swing, we were greeted by a note taped to the front door, directing us to aunt Rachel’s house a few blocks away.
As I recall, aunt Rachel’s house appeared to be a bit the worse for wear compared to Betty’s place. Rachel’s little house was white, lacked a true foundation (I think it was on blocks or bricks or otherwise elevated), and felt a bit more sad. Rachel greeted us in the midst of a diabetic frenzy and apologized for having eaten a little package of peanut butter crackers when her blood sugar dropped instead of waiting for us to arrive.
Rachel was a little woman with twinkling blue eyes. She wore a yellow blouse that had a few dribbles down the front, some sort of a rat on the top of her head to provide a bit more height to her hair, and white pants. She quickly explained that Betty had fallen and broken her arm and was currently in the hospital, she offered to let us stay with her instead if we liked, and let us know that her husband, Lawrence, had been in the hospital too but had been transferred back to the nursing home that morning.
“Would you like to visit him?” she asked.
We said we would like to see him but maybe tomorrow instead. We looked around her little house—Rachel had been a quilter and she pointed out the quilting loom hanging from the ceiling in one bedroom—and then we (gently) suggested we stay at Betty’s instead since Betty would certainly be home soon.
Greg and I settled into Betty’s house. We visited Betty in the hospital, which was the very hospital where she worked as a nurse and we enjoyed watching how well her fellow nurses tended to her. She seemed a bit anguished not to be at home hosting us. Greg and I had dinner out, returned to Betty’s house, and slept soundly and peacefully in her comfy guest bed.
The next morning, everything changed. Despite our suggestion that we would like to visit him in the morning, Lawrence died in the night. Within hours of his passing, the ladies from church began showing up on Betty’s porch and in her kitchen delivering plates of food, pitchers of sweet tea, buckets of fried chicken, and sincere condolences for our loss. Betty’s kitchen became the hub of activity, with Rachel on hand most of the time to receive their support with a level of grace that astounded me. Family members from all around descended on Thomaston. We met aunts, uncles, cousins, second cousins—far too many people to keep straight.
The church ladies bustled around, refilling plates, gently reminding us to eat because they feared we might miss a meal because of the depths of our grief. Greg and I, befuddled, responded to the situation in the only way we knew how: we called my mom. Mom hopped on a plane to Atlanta that very day and Greg and I drove through the dark to meet her flight and then went straight to the Waffle House to regroup and strategize.
Mom provided the guidance we sorely needed. With her help, we navigated the living rooms and dining rooms and kitchens. She demonstrated when to receive the plate of food or glass of tea and when to make ourselves useful clearing plates, washing dishes, or emptying the garbage. She legitimized us, somehow.
We met Lawrence for the first time during the viewing at Coggins Funeral Home, laid out in his casket, hands crossed over his chest. We watched Rachel receive her visitors, we chatted with distant relatives in hushed tones, and we asked one of the Coggins brothers if he could show us the room where they displayed the caskets. We slipped down the hall with him to visit the showroom and weren’t completely surprised when mom’s cousin, Maxine, and her husband, Turtle, followed us and pointed out the caskets they’d already chosen for themselves. Greg and mom gamely played along.
On the day of the funeral, we sat in the front row with Rachel and then kept her company in the Town Car on the way to the cemetery. Although it’s true that we did engage in a few shenanigans that afternoon, for the most part we conducted ourselves with restraint and the utmost respect.
A day or two later, Greg and I continued on our way home, the long way around, our car weighed down with a few extra items from our beloved Betty Sears, including her gorgeously seasoned cast iron cornbread pan.
Offering: Betty Sears’s cornbread pan, used by me, but not often enough.