Farms, Funerals, and Family

My aunt Clara died today. She’s one of the aunts from Arkansas that has been more or less a central figure to that side of the family, or at least that’s how I’ve always viewed her. Maybe I should take a step back and explain that.

There’s a family farm on my mom’s side of the family. It’s not a property I’d ever have any real legal claim to. It would be a misread to think I’m part of some kind of wealthy land ownership situation. But it’s still right to call it “the family farm.” It’s the place where my mom’s mom and all of her siblings grew up. And until recent years it was tended by “the girls;” four of my aunts who lived together and looked after things–Stella, Clara, “Deet,” and Naomi. When I was a kid, “going to see the aunts” was a regular thing in the Summer and it meant spending a week staying in the farmhouse with the girls. I have a lot of fond memories of that. The house was a gathering place for everybody in the family. You’d see all of the cousins, most of the aunts and uncles, and a few people you were pretty sure you were related to, but who can tell? And the girls were at the center of it. They had the gift of hospitality above all else.

In 1994, my mom died and I stopped going to Arkansas over the summer. I was 14. If I’d been in my 20s or so and could drive a car, maybe things would’ve been different. But as it was, I largely only saw Mom’s side of the family at Thankgiving, weddings, and funerals from there on out. And over the years, Naomi then Deet and now Clara have died. Stella is the only one left, and her health isn’t great.

I don’t know what becomes of the farm house soon. Someone probably has an idea. Probably more than one someone. Probably more than one idea. Probably an argument to be had sometime soon by somebodys… As for me, if nobody has claimed it, I’d like to put a bid on the piano in the front room. It’s the only one I ever heard my mother play.

But I’m not sure we’re there quite yet.

Clara was the one who you called if you were playing in the yard and came upon a snake. She’d take care of that for you. And she was the one who knew I’d want to play dominos or the board game Aggrivation every night I was there. She’s the first person I’d ever heard say, “you’re gonna get GOT” in a gaming context. And she was also the one who baked the GOOD bread. I’ve never had bread as good as Clara’s. And I guess I won’t again.

The thing I won’t ever forget Clara doing was something that happened when my mom died. We were at the funeral parlor and there was a family member (by marriage) who was known to be fairly rude and semi-intentionally say the wrong thing present at the wake. Said family member was talking to me at one point. I remember she was saying something about the carpet in the funeral parlor being cheap, as though that’s anyone’s problem. Clara made eye contact, marched over, grabbed my arm, and said, “Derek, have you seen this floral arrangement that so-and-so sent? I just know you’d like it…” and drug me away. Once we were by some set of flowers or another she said, “I didn’t think you should listen to that right after your mom died.” I don’t think I’ve ever said “thank you” so quickly.

And another memory. My brother and I went to Arkansas for Deet’s funeral several years back, but failed to tell anyone we were doing so. We’d gotten a hotel room nearby, but decided to go over to the family house to say hello. We knocked on the door and everybody got excited to see us–we had even forgotten to tell Grandma we’d be there! We were in the house for all of two minutes before we realized that Clara had gone down the hallway to fetch some sheets and blankets to make up two extra beds. “The boys are going to need someplace to sleep.” We had to stop her and tell her we’d gotten a hotel room so we wouldn’t be under-foot. She just assumed we were family, so of COURSE we would be staying. In hindsight, it kind of breaks my heart that we didn’t. Sometimes you forget about hospitality until it hits you over the head.

My Grandma called me about two weeks ago to say she’d been down to see Clara and she wasn’t doing well. She’d been in poor health and the writing was on the wall. I said something about it being comforting to know she’d be at peace…but even when they’re true, those are just the words you say. They don’t really help that much when someone you care about is struggling. Maybe they do later. I’ve never been sure.

While we talked, Grandma started talking to me about liquidating her assets. She had a stroke earlier this year and is now living with my uncle and aunt. “Derek, do you need any quilts? Would you like some old pictures of your mom? Do you have a Foreman grill? Would you like that clock you gave me for Christmas back?” She kept saying she doesn’t have room for things. But she’s 93. We both knew what conversation we were having. It made me nostalgic for the times she used to ask me when I was going to find a nice girl and settle down. Not that I have any answers to that, either.

Time keeps passing and with it people pass away. That’s how life works. It’ll happen to all of us. So it goes.

There is a lot I love about being from a big, Southern-with-a-capital-S family. I love that despite the fact that I haven’t kept in touch in the right ways, I’m always welcomed. I love that Uncle Eddie and I are going to talk guitars when we see each other; we speak the same language. I love that when I randomly bump into one of the cousins it’s easy to say hello. I love that some of us have stayed in touch on Facebook in the ways I’ve failed to in person. But the one thing I hate about it is that when it’s a big family, a lot of mourning gets crammed into a few years, every generation.

I posted on Facebook the same thought that I’m going to use to end this post. If I had it to do over, the one thing I’d do differently is I’d have gone to the farm in Arkansas more often as an adult, and I’d have kept in better touch with Mom’s side of the family. I guess I’ve lived long enough to regret some things. Unfortunately the only way a lot of us figure that out is by outliving somebody else.

I can probably do better from here on out.