The phone rang around 8 p.m. on what seems to me now to have been a Thursday evening. I was 16 and it was my grandmother from Mississippi on the other end of the phone. “Honey, your Uncle Charles is dead” were the first words out of her mouth. The second words were “and they have robbed me”. Grandma, what has happened, I asked. Her reply was a story that I will never forget. My Grandmother was the kind of woman who had a flair for the dramatic and could tell a story and turn a phrase like none other I had ever met.
She began, “Well honey, I gave your Uncle Charles $20 dollars and sent him down to the Colonel Sanders to get us a bucket of chicken for our supper. (Uncle Charles was forbidden to drive. There are laws on the books about drinking and driving…) Before I knew it, the Sheriff was knocking at our door telling me your Uncle Charles had been run over by a car as he left the Colonel Sanders. He had been thrown up on the hood of the car and then over the back. She said, I made them take me up there and I can tell you that there was still chicken ALL over the road and now they won’t give me my money.” I said, “what money?” She said, “my change from the Colonel Sanders. You know it didn’t cost $20 (she didn’t need the money) and you know how they pick the bodies clean at accident scenes..” I could hear a man’s voice in the background “Now Ms. Annie, You know none of my boys took your money” It was the sheriff.. Her voice now trembling, “are you coming to help me bury him?” Not even knowing if I would actually come, I said, “yes grandma, I will be there.” Since my dad’s tragic death four years earlier, my grandmother and I had become quite close. She was my only connection to my dad’s side of the family and I continued to spend summers with her until I married. My mother and I left Nashville the next day for Jackson Mississippi. We drove straight to Mississippi and directly to the funeral home for the visitation. Upon arrival, there stood my grandmother at the head of his casket in her standard matriarch visitation garb, a starched cotton dress with matching cloth belt, short heeled black pumps on her feet and pearls about her neck…. She grabbed me and hugged me so tight. “I’m so glad your here”, she said. “Just look at him. He doesn’t even look like they ran him down in the streets, does he?” Before I could answer, she went on to say how tired she was and how she was just gonna be out that money and she never did get any supper that night….. The funeral itself was a blur to me and before I knew it we were at my Aunt Lena Mae’s for the “funeral luncheon” and then the 8 hour drive back to Nashville.
Things get passed down in our family. I have the bowls that she set her dinner service with. Each time I have dinner and her bowls are passed around the table, I am reminded of her and of how fragile life is. In every generation, there are those who end up seeing after the sick, they bury the dead and they stand fast as a pillar of strength for everyone else to lean on. She was one of those people and she passed that to me. I am now the one that everyone turns to. I don’t mind telling you it is an uncomfortable position sometimes. But I wear it like a badge of honor. Proud to be a part of a family whose roots are firmly planted in the deep south.
Oh, one more thing. Just before she died, she passed her sweet potato pie recipe to me. This made my mother and my sisters furious. That is one secret I will carry to my grave…..