they helped make me who i am in ways i may never know

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we’ll never know if granddaddy died on 12/19 or 12/20. he simply went to bed on the 19th and never woke up. the death certificate says 12/19, though, on account of that’s the date his son – my uncle gene – was killed years before. the town’s doctor (the small town wasn’t big enough to have a coroner – shoot, we were glad to have a doctor there) thought it fitting that father and son died on the same date.

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i still ache for them – all of them, even though uncle gene died before i was even an idea. i’m named after him, you know. there are still people around who actually knew him, and when i say “tell me about him,” the first thing they all say is “he was funny.” i have two lamps he made from turned wood, i have his wallet (complete with the photo of his girlfriend), and i have photos of him on a tractor – probably not the tractor he was using to pull up stumps when it flipped over on him, killing him. but maybe. i don’t know. granddaddy reportedly found him, shoved the tractor aside, then my wiry little granddaddy picked up my rotund 18 year-old uncle and carried him all the way back to the house. the next day, in a fit of grief, granddaddy drove a silver stake into the ground to mark the spot.

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when i ask people what they remember about my granddaddy, they all – every one of them – say there wasn’t a dishonest bone in his body. that he was a good man. some even tell me about a time when he (the town’s banker) loaned them grocery money cause they left their checkbook at home. i have the clock that sat on his mantle; the tag he kept on his key chain asking finders, should he lose his keys, to return them to brooks bank; and i write sitting in the chair he sat in at the bank. it still has the original green leather.

nobody seems to know my grandmother very well. they tell me she was quiet. i remember her arriving home from a vacation, getting out of the car and walking straight across the street to see me – even before she went in her own house. later memories are of her being still, quiet, and lethargic, which i now know was a condition resulting from a series of strokes, but back then i didn’t know what was wrong until the day i was converting the pump house into a studio and got stung by wasps several times on each hand. by the time i got to the front door of our house, my hands had swelled up so much i couldn’t bend my fingers, and hurt – oh my goodness how they did hurt. then just like that, my little girl brain knew why grandmother sat quietly in the chair with a washcloth over her hands that were always idling in her lap. i spent three days like that, but the swelling went down, the pain subsided, and i was back out turning over bushel baskets upside down to become stools. grandmother never saw the results of my labor.

granddaddy and grandmother . . . well, if i ever walked as one who was once cherished, it’s because of them. they adored me, their first grandchild, and the feeling was mutual. they clothed me in ruffles and lace (i could seat 6 on the petticoats they bought me to wear under the dresses they bought me); shoes in every color; frilly fold-down socks; dozens of pairs of gloves. i even remember one dress – brown plaid. white collar with piping to match the dress fabric. sash. one of daddy’s favorite stories is of little me driving nails into the floor at granddaddy’s feet as he (granddaddy) sat in his rocker watching the news on tv. “JEANNE,” daddy said loudly, startling me out of my reverie. “junior,” granddaddy told him firmly, (daddy was named after granddaddy, and he hated being called junior, probably because he spent a goodly part of his life working to distinguish himself from his dad) “jeanne is in my room now. she can hammer wherever she wants to.” i rest my case.

i have lots of stories starring grandmother and granddaddy stored in my memory bank, but there are still stories i long to hear, questions i’d love to ask – questions and stories i didn’t know to ask back then.

i’m told that the internal voice that scolds me, saying i should not be living in the past or grieving because these people died long ago and besides, they weren’t my spouse or my parents or my children, they were only my grandparents. i’m told this is actually a caring voice, a voice that just wants to keep me safe. i’m told i should love this voice, thank it for protecting me, for caring so much about me . . . but i’m feeling more like thanking it through clenched teeth (by way of suggesting, you understand) to shut up and leave me to my grief and remembrances. i don’t care how long it’s been, i still miss them something fierce. and i don’t care about any alleged hierarchy of appropriate grief, they were my grandparents and we adored each other. and i don’t care that i never met my uncle, i can and do still love him and mourn him sight unseen.

maybe it makes sense on paper that i should be over this grief all these decades later . . . but on my heart, this grief will not be denied.

[ ::: ]

Jeanne Hewell-Chambers has spent most of her life collecting photos, stories, and information about the day in May 1933 when bandits knocked on her grandparents door and held the family (grandparents, midwife, newborn gene, and 5 year-old crawford) hostage overnight until the bank opened the following morning. next year she intends to pull it all together, and she’s very excited about that because she knows that event somehow impacted her life, shaping her into the women she is today even though her daddy was only five years old at the time and not even thinking about girls and raising a family.

8 Comments

  1. Jennifer

    I know I’ve said this before, but your words are a book I want to keep reading.

    • whollyjeanne

      thank you, jennifer. you know, i got up early this morning intending to delete this post because that stern, opinionated internal voice won out overnight. but i come here and find your supportive comment, and the voice just harumphs and goes quiet. so yes, thank you. thank you SO much.

      • jane

        tell that voice one more time for me… I love your Grandparents and Uncle for loving you.

        • whollyjeanne

          i love the way you interpret the world and relationships, seeing beauty everywhere.

    • jane

      I agree Jennifer

  2. wordsmithtom

    Turn that inner voice over your lap and apply Violet Jone’s instrument of attitude adjustment….Seriously, it is very hard to be a detatched editor of one’s own emotional vehicle. I’m fortunate I had a good editor when I did my family memoir, and I still had all kinds of trouble selecting “appropriate” inclusions. What to leave in-what to omit-what to change to protect the innocent. Helps to have imput that does not care so much. Still, because you do care, you will presevere. Don’t forget to get in touch with Betsy Garner: I know she has a lot of info on the F&M Bank and she did know your father. Looking forward to talking to you at length about this project: exactly where you want to go with it. Non judgmentally, as your dear, caring friend. OK.And, to prove my vulnerability, I’m willing to swap edition time on my “unfinished” book of poetry I’ve been collecting for 40 years yet have never published as an entity. I’m ready to move forward with that, and next year is a good time for me to do so.

    • whollyjeanne

      tom, you have yourself a deal. and i agree: next year is a fine time to go forward with your book of poetry. i look forward to talking and reading and reading and talking. ready when you are.

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