This is one of those posts that begins “I can’t believe it’s been 30 years.” It has. Today.
Thirty years ago, my extended family make-up and experience was changed forever.
First, a little background.
My father was the youngest of nine children. He grew up in a small town in Southwest Virginia where I came along some time later. If you’re familiar with the 1970s show The Walton’s that was much like my father’s childhood.
But what people don’t seem to realize is that the Walton’s weren’t poor. Face it, anyone who owned a mountain, a timber mill, a truck and a five-bedroom house with indoor plumbing in the middle of the Depression was not poor. Earl Hamner, who wrote the books on which the show was based, may have been poor as a child. John Boy Walton was not. You want real? Show me Elizabeth falling in the outhouse.
But, I digress. Times were both good and hard for my father’s family. As the next to youngest of my generation, some of the stories get fuzzy. A couple need to be told.
It was February, 1920 and my grandmother was in bed with the flu. This was a few months after the Spanish Flu pandemic. I don’t know if my grandmother’s illness was connected, but her two young sons were ill as well. Grandmother was also pregnant.
In that cold Virgina winter of 1920, my uncle William Rhea Fletcher passed away on Saturday, February 7. He was four years old. As life is taken, life is given and my Uncle James was born on February 9. Two days later, Emory Vivian Fletcher died at the age of two on February 11. How my grandmother bore that mixture of joy and grief, I do not know.
Nine years, and a couple more sisters later, my Dad was born in 1929.
Growing up for me was centered around the same home place. My grandmother died before I was born, but my Dad’s oldest sister lived in the house with my grandfather until he died in 1968. She stayed on in that house until she passed.
I was close with my cousins. We always said we were more like brothers and sisters than cousins. Being the next to the youngest and the only one who lived in the home town, I was the favorite.
They would tell you I was spoiled. That’s not our story here.
As I wrote last Father’s Day, my Dad died while I was in college. He was 49 and was the first of his adult siblings to pass away. We were stunned and we all dealt with our grief in diferent ways. But as families do, we moved on.
My mother and my aunt worked in the same office at the local textile plant. So they were very supportive of each other.
Each day after work, and on Saturdays, I’d go over to the home place to practice piano because we didn’t have one in our house. I was there the last day I saw my aunt, the next youngest after my dad. She had been by to visit her sister. It was cold or rainy or something. She stopped in to say something to me, always with a smile. I don’t remember what she said. But, I’ll never forget her face.
The next day, or the day after, she and my mom were at work. My aunt had a massive heart attack. They were never able to revive her.
That was March 13, 1983.
The funeral came and went. The family from out of town came and went. Once again we tried to move on.
My Uncle James, who had retired to our town after a career in the Army serving in WWII, Korea and Vietnam had moved back home after his divorce. He later remarried.
Uncle James had to go into the hospital for heart surgery. I can’t recall excactly what he was to have done. My faulty memory tells me he postponed the procedure due to my aunt’s funeral.
But on March 23, 1983, ten days after my aunt passed away and on what would have been my Dad’s 54th birthday, my Uncle James passed away at a hospital in Roanoke.
I should stop and note at this point, that I’m 54.
One of my cousins flew in from Detroit. When I picked her up from the airport I said “we have to stop meeting like this.”
It was only natural for things to change after that. All the “kids” were now adults and there were obvious empty spaces at the table.
Just before Christmas that year my dad’s oldest sister, the one who had moved back in to the home place to care for my grandfather fell, and agreed to go to a nursing home. What we didn’t know is that the doctor had told her that her kidneys were failing. Christmas was on a Sunday that year. At the end of the service a note was passed to the pastor. Aunt Ethel had passed away.
I miss each of those people. My dad, of course. But both aunts and my uncle, as well as those who have gone since. They each loved me and taught me so much in their own different ways. I know without a doubt that Aunt Ethel prayed for me every day of my life.
I share those memories with my cousins. We try to get together now once a year, realizing that we’re the old ones now. The cousin that I picked up at the airport died from cancer more than ten years ago.
Family gatherings are different now. I say to my wife and sons that I can’t explain to them what it was like.
I don’t know. Writing this just seem so awkward now. But at the time it was so much more dramatic, so much more intense, so much more real. The life, and the family, we had always known was gone.
Maybe there’s no real point to this post. Maybe I just had to write it.
Maybe it’s part of what I realized back in January when I wrote about a change of venue for my novel. I need to write what I know.
I know these people in my heart. And I will always keep them there.