Over the weekend, Adrienne and I went to my parents house so we could go to the lake one last time before the boating season winds down. When we first arrived, I noticed a box in my closet labeled "Pat and Betty's Letters." Betty is my dad's mother, Memaw. Pat is Dad's father, but tragically, he passed away in October 1957 when my dad was just six months old. I had heard my Dad talk about the letters before, but I had never actually seen them, so I was intrigued. But, we had just gotten to my parents' house, so I had to go visit with them for a while.
The next night, I couldn't sleep so I decided what better time to take a look at the letters. I retrieved the box from the closet, sat down in the floor, and placed the old shoe box held together with a shoestring on my lap.
I sat there for a few moments, I'm not really sure how long. For some reason, I was frozen. I couldn't immediately open the box. Perhaps I was nervous about reading them, although I'm not sure why I would be. Maybe I was just overcome with a feeling of solemnity. I was about to see my grandfather's handwriting for the first time. Finally, I took a deep breath and opened the box.
I was astonished at the vast number of letters. There had to be at least 100 of them in the box, or at least it seemed like it. They were in chronological order, running from August of 1951, to September of 1956. I started reading from the top of the stack, and was immediately intrigued.
In all reality, I don't know that much about Daddy Pat (as he is affectionately known among our family). My dad obviously never got the chance to know him, and has only relayed things he's heard from Memaw and the rest of the family. I did know he was a Military Policeman in the Air Force, and I knew he had lived in Detroit for a while. I knew he and Memaw lived in South Dakota for a while, and I knew he died of a brain tumor. Other than that, I didn't know much. So, getting a contemporary look inside his life was very intriguing to say the least.
The first letters were nothing of much significance. In fact, if you had no connection whatsoever and were simply reading the letters for reading's sake, you might think they were relatively boring. The first letter was written right after he had moved to Detroit, just three months after graduating high school. Virtually every letter at the top of the stack talked about how he was trying to find a job, how he had just found a place to live. How he would need a good winter coat, because it was already beginning to get chilly in Detroit. He talked about Memaw too, and how they "always had a good time." On Sundays they would go eat at a relative's house (I can't remember who it was) and watch television. He even talked about how he was hoping the Army had forgotten about him. Can't say I blame him.
I didn't read all of the letters...By this point, it was already about 2:00 AM and I was beginning to get sleepy. So, I jumped ahead to the later letters. One of which was amazing. This one was well after Memaw and Daddy Pat were married. It was the second to last letter in the stack, and in Memaw's handwriting. She was writing to Daddy Pat's parents and she told them that Karen and Patty (my aunts) were doing well, and they were waiting to get clearance to leave the base. Daddy Pat was in the Air Force by this time, obviously. She also talked about how he had been to see several doctors. He had already begun to get sick. Seeing that part was painful, but there was light amongst the dark. She said she had been feeling ill for a while, and she was pretty sure why. "Looks like you are going to be Grandparents again," she said. "After two kids, I think I know the symptoms pretty well. If I'm pregnant, I think I'm about 2 months along." The letter was written in September of '56, and my dad came along the following April. Exactly seven months later. She was right on the money. Oddly enough, she said Dad was born on the exact day he was due.
The letters stopped after the next one, because the family was getting packed to move back to Benton. Daddy Pat had gotten discharged from the Air Force for being permanently unable to perform...The cancer. Just over a year later, he was gone.
Reading those letters, and hearing stories about their lives for years, got me to thinking about my Memaw and the incredible and painful life she has led. Memaw was the youngest in her family, and both of her parents had passed away by the time she was only six years old. Her father was killed after getting hit by a car, and I'm uncertain how her mother died. But, she was essentially raised by her older sisters. Even though a couple of her sisters were married with children at that time, I can't imagine what it would be like to grow up without "real" parents. That's just the start.
Memaw and Daddy Pat were married in 1952, and they had three children together. My dad, and my aunts Karen and Patty that I mentioned earlier. They obviously knew Daddy Pat was very sick, even before my dad came along. The incredible fear that she must have felt with two young daughters and a third child on the way, knowing they would grow up without their father, must have been unbelievably devastating. Then, when the time came, she faced raising two daughters and an infant son on her own. And through it all, she was steadfast.
Despite the unspeakable pain, she had to move on. She married my Papaw who had dealt with an equally difficult situation in his own life. He and his wife had a son, my uncle Darryl, and an infant daughter, Sheila, and were driving in his old Studebaker one night when a drunk driver swerved into their lane, hitting them head on. His wife was killed, and he too was left alone with two young children. From what I've heard, Daddy Pat's mother (Granny Edwards) introduced Memaw and Papaw to one another and the rest is history. They are a real life Brady Bunch.
There was more tragedy in Memaw's life. Her brother lived in a small trailer behind their house for a while and in very mysterious circumstances, committed suicide one night. When he didn't come to the house for meals the following day, Memaw became suspicious and went to check on him and found his body. I can't imagine losing a sibling in that manner, but I definitely can't imagine finding their body. Memaw has endured so much in her amazing life, that I can't even fathom it.
What is most amazing about her, is that despite all of the hardship and pain she has dealt with in her life, she is one of the most caring, loving, and compassionate people I have ever met. If there was ever a person who deserved to be cynical or bitter, it is her. But she is anything but. She loves her family with unwavering constancy, and if she has ever been in a bad mood, I've not seen it.
I like to think that I'm her favorite grandchild. She'd never say so, and I'm not sure why I would be the favorite, other than the fact I'm totally awesome. But, Memaw and I have always had a special bond. She was stricken with breast cancer when I was little, and while our house was being built, we lived with her and Papaw for a few months. She says having Lensey and I there helped her get through the treatments, and ultimately, beat the disease. Perhaps that's why we have that bond, but I'm not really sure. Nonetheless, it's there, and always has been.
Lensey and I used to spend afternoons there after school. I'd spend hours sitting on the dishwasher door, watching Memaw clean or cook dinner. The door was permanently damaged from it, but I don't think she minded. Or I'd sit at my table she set up in the living room so I could watch Nick Jr. and wait for her to bring me a ham and cheese sandwich with the crust cut off, with a tall glass of chocolate milk. Memaw's chocolate milk was always the best.
In my 26 years on this planet, I only remember her even remotely getting upset with me one time. I was about five or six years old, and Memaw decided to make some brownies and I wanted to help. I asked her if I could break the eggs, and she reluctantly agreed.
"You can break the eggs, but be very careful and don't make a mess."
It was like telling a dog not to eat out of the garbage. I really didn't mean to, but I slammed the egg down on the edge of the counter like I was driving a nail. Of course, egg went all over the place.
"Zachery! I told you not to make a mess!" I stared up at her, in total shock. I immediately began crying and ran back to the bedroom.
After a few minutes, long enough for her to clean up my mess I'm sure, Memaw came back into the room to console me and apologize. She didn't really have a reason to apologize...I had done exactly what she told me not to do, and she didn't even yell at me. I was just a fragile little boy, and it felt like she had. But since that point, she has never even come close to doing it again. Not even after I ripped the hook off the door in the bathroom because I was trying to climb up Papaw's belt that he always hung there. Not even after bugging her hundreds of time to take me to Wal-Mart because "Suzy probably needs some food." I knew Suzy (their dog) didn't need food. I just knew she'd buy me a G.I. Joe.
I look at Memaw's life, and see how she is as a person, and I can't wrap my head around it. She raised five incredible children, has been an amazing grandmother to 11 grandchildren, and now, as a great-grandmother, she continues that tradition. She's the most genuine person I know and hasn't deserved such pain and anguish throughout her life. But she lived it, and dealt with it, all the same. The strength she embodies on a daily basis is something that I can't even begin to comprehend.
I feel guilty. My life has been a cake walk compared to some of my closest friends and relatives. I've never had to endure even one significant loss in my life, and Memaw had to endure losing both parents, a husband, and a brother long before that should have even been on the radar. Adrienne and her family have had to endure losing a father, husband, brother, and a friend to hundreds of people much too soon. DJ's father was fine and healthy one day, gone the next. What have I had to go through? Any problems I've had in my life have been so temporary and pointless, the fact I ever worried about anything sickens me now.
Trust me, I'm EXTREMELY thankful for the hand that I've been dealt, and I realize how incredibly blessed my life is. Or at least I try to realize it. But it doesn't stop me from thinking that it isn't fair. Memaw, Adrienne and her entire family, DJ...They're all better people than I am, in so, SO many ways. And yet, they've had to endure more in their lives than I could even begin to think about. I don't want to know that pain, no more than they ever wanted to. They're stronger than I could ever strive to be, and I have nothing but respect and love for all of them.
I look back on times where I felt like my life was falling apart and, now, I just laugh. I don't laugh because it's funny, I laugh because of how ridiculous I was. I've been blessed, there's no question. And having those people in my life (Memaw, Adrienne, DJ) has given me even more blessings because of the inspiration the provide on a daily basis. If I'm ever able to become even half the person any one of them are, then my life will have been a good one.