This is a story that could only take place in a small town. Probably only.
At least, that's the comfortable self-delusion I'm wrapping myself up in and I won't be letting it go for the duration of the diary. The passing of time and life and the rituals we learned at our foremothers' knees can and do serve us well, in the most unexpected times and ways.
Today I'm grateful that my mother and aunts and grandmothers all were small town Southern girls. Even though I'm not, it remains a part of who I am because it is who I came from. In that funny way that the universe has of reminding us just exactly that: who we are and where we come from, the internet sent me a gift in the form of an electronic obituary. A few lines in the ether described the passing of woman in her eighties, living in a nursing home in Clay County, NC. In all honesty, that's really all it was. Except that, in the tradition of good Southern stories, there was something more to it.
His name was Gary. And I loved him as only a young girl with no older brothers experiencing her first crush can: intensely and over-dramatically. He lived next door to my Grandmother and so I had known him all my life. I think he might have been aware that a girl some 11 years his junior hung around the sidewalks and the yard next door during the summers. And then we experienced a family tragedy, and he was kind to me, treating me like a person rather than a child. I was 9 and he was soon to be 20.
What I didn't know was that he had signed up, and was preparing to go to basic training at the end of that summer. The next time I visited my grandmother he was gone, but I managed to drop in on his mother regularly to listen to her talk of his letters. She'd feed me a snack, ask me about my piano lessons then tell me what her son was doing, or read passages of what he wrote from his camp.
She was proud of him for joining the Army, for wanting to go fight and for choosing "to make something of himself". It's a small town, you see, mostly working class and joining the military for folks there was a step toward an honorable and a promising future, even then in the midst of the increasingly unpopular Vietnam War. She never spoke of where he might end up: the war itself was unspoken, but the military...it was ever present.
That was 1969 and yet, I suspect most folks in that town today probably feel the same way about the military. When I went back home, leaving my grandmother's house and that small town to finish the fourth grade in my suburban Atlanta neighborhood, I started writing him letters, too. Nine-year old girls are ardent pen pals, especially those who imagine themselves in love.
Two years later he was killed in action, his body shipped home and he was laid to rest in one of the town's cemeteries, a different one from the place where my family's markers are found. Different because, well, his folks and my folks, his people and my people, belonged to different churches in town. It happened during the school year which meant the anchoring events that tied his loss to public memory: the visitations, the funeral, the flag-folding ceremony all took place when I wasn't there. The next vacation when I returned, I dropped in to visit his mother and he simply was no more. A flag encased in a triangular glass box hung on the wall.
But no one talked of Gary. And I, also heartsick but always my Grandmother's proper granddaughter, knew better than to reach beyond the confines of polite small talk. It felt wrong, so disingenuous, being the melodramatic preteen I was. But I knew the rules, and I was sad for Gary's mother, for all of us, and so I kept visiting and making small talk.
Gary's mother remained my Grandmother's neighbor until many years after my Nana passed away. As I grew older and returned to that house less, I nonetheless tried to make a point of visiting her every trip "home". (Isn't it ironic how the less time you spend in a place the more it comes to be your home?) She always welcomed me with a snack, or later a cup of tea and questions about my own life. Just the kinds of things a nice Southern lady would talk about when visitors came by. Gary was her only child and so there was no talk of marriages or grandchildren, the kinds of topics one normally explores in polite small talk with the older ladies of the town. Just simple inquiries about school, my plans and activities, my siblings, etc. With time, Gary would make appearances in our polite small talk, never openly a focus, but no longer a painful and obvious absence. Across those years I was given a brief glimpse of how loss becomes normalized, thanks to the conventionalized rituals of Southern small talk and the niceties of small town women's culture. It's a lesson I've not forgotten.
At some point in the period between my Grandfather's difficult widowerhood, his later removal to a nursing home and death and then my parents move into my grandparent's house, (a period that covered 20 years) Gary's mother sold her house to a law firm and moved away. With my Grandmother gone and my Grandfather ill, there was no tangible connection for me to seek her out and thus those visits fell away.
I saw her only one more time, at my mother's funeral. An elderly lady came up to my sisters and me as we were standing with my father after the service. She greeted my father, looked at all of us and asked, "which one of you did we used to call ..." and she repeated a childhood nickname my Grandmother had bestowed on me, a name that hadn't crossed the lips or consciousness of anyone in my family for an entire decade.
My sisters and father each giggled a bit, and turned to look at me. I smiled and told her, "that would be me". Then she told us who she was and offered her condolences. She took my hands in hers and told me how much my Grandmother had loved me. "You were such a good girl", she said, "and I always enjoyed when you came to visit me. Grief is lonely, and you're going to learn that, but the people who soothe it for you aren't always the ones you expect." She looked me right in the eye and said, "Thank you."
It was an extraordinarily kind thing to do, possible I think, only in a small town, because of the logistics if nothing else.
All that small talk, it all seemed so fake to me at the time and yet she'd remembered it for 30 years! Remembered enough of it to seek me out and tell me at a time when I needed to hear it. This is the beauty and the strength of Southern ladies and their rituals. Thank you Nana and Aunt O, and Mama J. and L. and H., L., and A and Martha C. and everyone else for teaching me. Again, only in a small town...Well, maybe not only.
This morning I checked my email and my sister had sent me Gary's mother's obituary; having recognized the name, she thought I might be interested. I hadn't checked my messages for a few days, and this notice was sent a few days ago. Mrs. R. had passed away last month sometime, quietly it appears, at the very respectable age of 87. She was laid to rest in the same cemetery where her son lies, put there 40 years ago by a war that still tugs at my consciousness, one I'm thinking about today. Funny that I saw her obituary today, I thought.
But maybe not so funny. 11/11/11 is one of those magic days that only happens once a century. Maybe this is my piece of magic: on a day that we amended from one to honor the end of [a] war to honoring those that have to bear the burdens of waging wars, I'm reminded of how broad that burden-bearing can be.
R.I.P. Gary's mother. I hope that's how you'd like to be remembered today.