Well this is a bummer of a post.
I’m writing from Jonesboro, Arkansas. I was in Goobertown less than two hours ago, visiting the family and enjoying a brief period of happy, nice, sitting around doing nothing time before things get sad tomorrow. It has barely been two weeks since my Uncle Bob’s funeral, and I’m here in Arkansas tonight getting ready for another one tomorrow.
This funeral is for my aunt whose given name was Violet Marguerite Johnston. But no one in this family goes by their proper name. (I myself am often called Wayne.) She went by many names… Sometimes Marguerite, sometimes Marge… But pretty much everyone in the family at one time or another settled on calling her “Deet.” And even that was often altered to “Deetie.” Though there is some disagreement on if it’s “Deet” or “Deat.” I, as is obvious, have settled on the former.
Deet is known as “one of the girls” by most of the family. There were four sisters in the family who all lived in the same house for at least as long as I’ve been alive (and presumably longer). Deet was one of them, along with Naomi (who died in the 90s), Stella, and Clara. The house is on the old family property once owned by Arthur and Lydia Johnston, the family patriarch and matriarch, respectively. The girls lived in the “new” house and the “old” house (which housed over a dozen people in three rooms, with no plumbing) was converted into a barn…then fell over. Deet was one of the people who watched over the family farm. One of the”girls.”
Though everybody in the family is just as important as anyone else, we all seem to hold “the girls” in a special sort-of reverence and whenever anyone in the family said something like, “Let’s all go back to the house for supper,” no matter who said it, we all knew it was THAT house we were going to. The family property started with a patriarch and a matriarch, and ended up with FOUR matriarchs. Sadly, that number is thinning out, as we’re all getting older. Father Time is a real douchebag.
Deet had developed Parkinson’s a while back and also some disorder to the effect of dementia or possibly Alzheimer’s, depending on who you talk to. Her quality of life had declined significantly in the past several years. In fact, the last time I saw Deet at a family Thanksgiving, she seemed to have no idea who I was and very quietly (her voice down to a shaky whisper) began telling me about who her sisters and brothers were…which was a very sad moment for me. But in some ways I am grateful for it, because I am now comforted by the knowledge that she no longer is burdened with that.
Following are a handful of memories of Deet. This is the short list…but it’s what came to mind while I was writing this…and I think these are good.
- When I was a teenager I was a huge Queen fan. I still am now…but back then it was all I listened to and talked about. I remember very specifically being in Deet’s car with her, and for whatever reason it was just the two of us. She asked me about the band because I was wearing one of their t-shirts. I told her about them and about how Freddie Mercury had died of AIDS recently. We then talked about the fact that Freddie was a homosexual, and she told me that she didn’t think it was anybody’s business what people get up to behind closed doors. At the time I remember being shocked that someone of her age and what I incorrectly presumed were her political leanings would say that. I always admired that.
- When I was a little kid, like all kids my age, I was really into the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I had a formidable collection, just like everyone. I remember being at Walmart with Deet and looking around the toys. She told me to pick one out. I did…and I still remember that it was—don’t judge me—the Raph Space Cadet figure. She bought it for me, and because we were there so close to Christmas that year, she got it back to the house and wrapped it before giving it to me, so she could watch me open it.
- One Summer we were at the house and I though I don’t really remember all of the details, I remember that my brother brought his friend Tim with him, and that somehow throughout the day, I’d torn my pants and was afraid somebody might make fun of me for it. I didn’t want to be embarrassed in front of Dave and Tim or any of the cousins, for that matter. Deet found out about it and stitched up the pants for me before anyone was the wiser. She was a life-saver, that one…
- Deet is also responsible for one of my favorite turns of phrase. She would not be happy with me for putting this on the Internet…but then again, she also probably didn’t really know much about the Internet in the first place… My apologies to anyone in the family who’s bothered by this…but because of her, I find myself sometimes saying, “Tough titty, hard suckin’.” There might be some who think that is a knock against her character—although to my knowledge she only said it ONCE… But that’s the kind of thing that made me like her even more. For the most part she was saintly…but she also said that! 🙂
- The last time I was in Arkansas for an overnight stay, I was there with my brother and sister-in-law. Coincidentally, it was just a few days before my 27th birthday. Deet had been told I would be there, but forgot to mention it to anyone else, so when I walked in she had a look of “Oh, right!” on her face that still makes me smile when I think about it. She spent most of the time we were there showing us all different things that she wanted us to see, asking questions about how things were going, and so on…being sweet and kind as she was. I think it excited her to have us there and show Valerie around, who’d never been before. During the trip, she told me I’d “grown to be a taller man than I thought you would,” which I’m pretty sure was meant to be flattering. She also talked to me about the book I was reading (I was reading Frank McCourt’s “Teacher Man” for the first time), and even though she had no interest in it, she made polite conversation about how many teachers we have in the family. And the day we were getting ready to leave, Deet remembered that it was my birthday—I’d been trying not to bring it up, as it was a complete coincidence–and she made sure to wish me a happy one. (No one had told her it was my birthday at any point. She just remembered out of the blue.) That was in 2007, a couple of days after I’d just resigned from my job at the Ferguson Church and my life was very much in upheaval, and I was not in a very “good place.” And Deet remembered my birthday, and for a little bit it was okay. I’m in Arkansas now, once again just a few days before my birthday. And this time I’m here to say goodbye. The timing somehow seems right.
Deet lived to be 92 years old. 92! She was loved by everyone who met her pretty much immediately. We lost a good one. But on the other hand, at least I know there’ll be someone glad to see me and show me around once I get to Heaven. Because she’s definitely there.
I’ll talk to y’all after I’m back from Goobertown.
Music listened to on the trip so far:
- John Mellencamp – Scarecrow
- Hayes Carll – KMAG YOYO
- Flogging Molly – Speed of Darkness
- Drive-By Truckers – The Big To-Do
- Johnny Cash – American II: Unchained
- Creedence Clearwater Revival – Some “Best of…” Dave had in the car.