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My mother was raised by her cousin, a woman who drove a tractor and slaughtered hogs. When World War II was in full swing, the two of them got on a train and moved from Middle Tennessee to Chicago so that Ernestine could go to work in a factory. They moved back to Tennessee after the war, and when I was a girl, I spent weeks in the summer at Ernestine’s, smelling and tasting and drinking in the place where my mother was raised.
I’m thinking about this now because Ernestine is long gone, her land on a busy highway turned to commercial real estate and a residential subdivision, and my mother won’t be with us forever. Along with her sister Bernice, recently moved at age 89 to a nursing home near Ernestine’s land in Clarksville, Mama is the last of two survivors of her branch of the Morrison clan.
It feels scarily like the end of something important, like a rope slipping through my hand that I cannot grip and hang on to. With my mother will go the stories of the generation just before hers, my people who I can barely remember from my childhood when they were already old in my eyes, and lost to a past world.
I was lucky enough to meet many of them, and my mother has told me stories of the ones I never met.
Mama’s Uncle Charlie was a good-natured bootlegger who spent time in and out of jail. His sisters, Aunt Sally and Aunt Georgie, lived out in the country in the house where they were born, nursing tragedies and caring for each other as they grew old. Aunt Sally propped up in bed in a fluffy pink negligee, her silver hair a mass of cascading ringlets; Aunt Georgie, plain and kind, bustling around the house, feeding everyone and listening for the tinkling of Sally’s bedside bell.
Lois, Mama’s cousin by marriage, dressed her son, an only child, in frilly dresses for the first seven years of his life.
What’s striking, out here in the middle distance, on the other side of the continent in the second decade of a new century, is how remotely our lives resemble theirs, how in a mere 50 years their parlors and porches, the overpowering smells of their abundantly productive kitchens, their overalls and chewing tobacco, their rows of corn, their scarecrows, their lazy chatter on front porches on summer evenings as they snap beans have disappeared from our lives and are lost to us, except in faint recollection.
When I moved recently, I hung a patchwork quilt top on the wall behind my bed. Its patches are thin and faded and it has spent the last 40 years folded away in my grandfather’s cedar chest. Now, opened to the light, it ushers me to a place of reverie, of remembering the hands that stitched it.
When Grandaddy moved from his farm to town, after Mammaw died, his sister, Aunt Ida, moved from Hopkinsville to Bowling Green to cook and clean for him. She was widowed too; that is what brothers and sisters did back then. Aunt Ida was skinny as a stick and moved, at nearly 80 years old, in stocking feet, like a young girl. Her white hair was often in a net and she wore calico aprons tied at the waist.
When she moved to Grandaddy’s, she brought with her a wooden quilting frame she set up in one of the bedrooms. She always had a quilt in progress, as did my mother. And when they had stitched their patches together into blocks, then joined the blocks into a top, they stretched the tops out on Aunt Ida’s quilting frame, sandwiched soft batting between the tops and plain muslin backs, then stitched them together by hand. The patches of the quilt top on my bedroom wall comprise faintly familiar fabrics, swatches from Aunt Ida’s cotton housedresses, from shirts and aprons and kitchen towels. They speak of long, quiet afternoons and the days of Aunt Ida’s life, always busy, always productive, her hands working alongside my mother’s.
Yesterday my kitchen smelled like hers, buttermilk chess pies cooling on the counter. We never went to see her when there was not a pie, and my children have never visited their grandmother when there was not a pie. Maybe this will be the thin thread that I can hang onto and pass on, the legacy of pies in the house, a quilt top on the bedroom wall, a heart tuned at once to the future and to the fading mysteries of the past.
Kathryn Eastburn is the author of A Sacred Feaest: Reflections of Sacred Harp Singing and Dinner on the Ground, and Simon Says: A True Story of Boys and Murder in the Rocky Mountain West. You can comment and read or listen to this column again at The Big Something at KRCC.org. “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.
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