We had no air conditioning in the black Oldsmobile that carried our family across three states to visit the matriarch of a very large family. It was summer and my father’s neck above his polyester red sport shirt was sunburned darker than the shirt itself. My mother and I sat in the back seat, sucking ice cubes in a futile effort to stay cool. Warm wind, scented with exhaust and the sometime sweet smell of ripe corn, wafted in the windows and beat our hair back against our heads with force.
Somewhere along the way I lost track of where we were but I never forgot where we were going. We were headed to Ohio to visit kinfolk, my mother’s aunt and cousins and her grandmother. Because my own late grandfather, a man who departed life long before I drew breath, left his Appalachian home for the city, my mother did not know her own grandmother well. She had not seen her since the summer before her father’s death when he loaded his family into an old Model A to go home. He intended to stay there and die with his own folks but his wife, city born and bred, had other notions.
He returned to the city to die and was buried there, in a crowded cemetery beneath tall cedars. His mother never saw him again nor did most of his siblings. Only his sister, Mae Bell, had come for the funeral. It was to Aunt Mae’s home that we were going, to visit her and to see my elusive great-grandmother.
Mae and her husband had been among the great exodus of southern folk who went north to find factory work after World War II. They settled in mid Ohio and as soon as they could, they bought a small patch of ground. The house sat in the center of a tiny grass patch surrounded by corn. The fields came right up almost to the house.
Aunt Mae greeted us all with hugs and kisses, ushering us into her very small but immaculate home with pleasure. There was no doubt that we were kin, connected by blood and bound by love. My great-grandmother was asleep in one of the tiny bedrooms. When her daughter prepared to wake her, she took me along.
Because of my small height I was at eye-level with the sleeping woman, who lay on a very low bed, more of a cot than actual bed. Her skin was the shade of old parchment paper and lined.
Sarah Neely opened her eyes and looked into mine. Any notion that she was not alive vanished as her black eyes met my blue ones. Her eyes were filled with vitality and burned with a life force that could not be denied. The woman within the aged shell was very alive. She sat up; a hand going to her white hair that was in disarray. As Aunt Mae explained in soft tones why she had awakened her, my great-grandmother said in a voice like slow, sweet honey,
"Oh, I must look like a haint, just like an old haint."
She and I connected in the moment that our eyes met. She knew that I belonged to her, that I was blood of her blood, bone of her bone. She did not quite recognize my mother, suave and fashionable in a summer dress as the tow headed little girl who had once chased chickens on the farm. Each time that Aunt Mae told her who we were, Grandmammy would say in her thin voice,
"I had me a boy went out to St. Joe and died there, name of Pat."
Each time my aunt would speak with patient, gentle tones and tell her that this was Pat's daughter and grandbaby. All that Grandmammy would glean from this was that I was her grandbaby, which I was from her. Her gnarled worn hands caressed my smooth, still baby like skin with joy. She gave me her love without question and with an open heart.
I never saw my Grandmammy again. She died a few years later after living a long life of valor. She was laid to rest without a stone to mark the place because no one had any money for such but remembered by those whose lives that she touched.
Wife of Elijah and daughter of a man named Mink, my Grandmammy remains in my memory and burns like a coal oil lamp against the night. The love she gave is timeless and the memory of a woman who lived in a time so different than my own is something I treasure in my heart.
Lee Ann Sontheimer Murphy
1515 Greenwood Boulevard
Neosho MO 64850