One of my all-time favorite songs is a song by Switchfoot, a contemporary Christian band. Today the words are rolling around in my mind and are making this melancholy season of my life a little more meaningful.
Yesterday is a wrinkle on your forehead
Yesterday is a promise that you’ve broken
Don’t close your eyes, don’t close your eyes
This is your life and today is all you’ve got now
Yeah and today is all you’ll ever have
This is your life, are you who you want to be?
This is your life, is it everything you dreamed that it would be when the world was younger and you had everything to lose.
There are many memories trapped in our heads. Sometimes you’ll catch a scent of something and that smell with reach into the depths of your mind and grab a memory and bring it to the forefront of your thoughts. For me it was walking into the foyer of a Japanese Steakhouse. The combination of the cedar on the walls and cooking oil brought fond memories of being at Granny and Granddad Bradberry’s Old Place. Every time.
Photographs dredge up some thoughts and others surface with places, words and voices. However they come, they come. It’s a mystery how the mind works to organize those thoughts and memories. Crossing the state line from Florida into Alabama, where FL highway 71 ends and AL highway 53 begins is one of those places for me.
This past Thursday I decided to go to Alabama to do some family research and visit family. I would go alone, stay in a hotel and bother no one while I rolled around in the memories - both beautiful and bittersweet. And then my Mother called. I mentioned that I was planning this impromptu trip and found myself inviting her. We made plans and Friday morning we met in Lake City to start our short but memory-packed journey.
As we approached the FL/AL state line, like every other time, I could feel the whirlwind of emotion welling up in my core. As I’ve researched my family from this part of the world I’ve become attached to the idea that this is part of where I’m from, these are the people, most of them long gone, that made me who I am. This place that was settled by my people almost 200 years ago is where I started. Not literally. I never lived here. I grew up hundreds of miles away. But this is where my memories were made, where my obsession with family began and continues. The good, the bad, the happy and the sad – my heart is from this place.
As a child memories were forged here that later events could build upon. The memories of those before me, sharing their stories through the years, became my memories. Not near old enough to remember some of those events but they became real to me.
One memory I have is one cultivated from hearing his story from many family members over the years. I wasn’t born yet; I wasn’t a witness – yet, I remember because someone shared his story with me. My grandfather was 32 years old when he died in a traumatic automobile accident not far from his home, where his wife and five children were waiting for his return. My Mother was 12 and the oldest child. I’ve heard her story about his death. I’ve heard the other children tell the story of their Father’s death. I’ve heard my Grandmother’s story of his death. I’ve heard the story of his death from other relatives. I’ve read the newspaper account and the cold, hard facts represented on his death certificate.
In 2004, my daughter and I went to Cottonwood. We went through cemeteries, transcribing tombstones and photographing items of interest. In a moment of irony, we actually got directions to one cemetery from a gentleman who happened to be the driver in the other car that was in the accident that killed my Grandfather - a very surreal moment.
When we got to Clayton Church cemetery that Sunday morning, I was struck by the contrast of the old rundown church building, embraced by a beautiful living oak tree and a dead tree in front of the building. I snapped a photo and didn’t think twice. That photo sits on a wall in my living room as a representation of the fact that old things pass away. And while they pass on, and fresh, new life grows all around it, the old things linger as a memory.
I made a mental list of the things I wished to accomplish on this present day journey. First stop, vital statistics office. I made a list of death certificates that I wanted to obtain for genealogical purposes. All but one were over 25 years gone and didn’t require anything more than information and money to obtain. There was one that I wanted that was more recent but I had the qualifications needed to obtain it.
I also had a made a mental list of those who I wanted to visit while in town. Aunt Gayle, my cousins Allan and Paula, Uncle Truman and Aunt Clyde, older cousin Nell and another older cousin, Ona Lee. Time was short and I prepared to locate the older cousins and hoped they were well enough for a visit and dreaded finding out I might have been too late. Then, somehow, I needed to fit in a visit to that old church and tree again.
We met up with Aunt Gayle and my cousin Allan for breakfast on Saturday. After that I made a stop at the public library. While there, I received a call from my cousin Diane and a plan to visit Nell was made. She warned me that her Mother, Nell, has little recollection of people any longer. I was appreciative of that information and let her know that this visit was more for us. I needed to see Nell.
As a child, I had visits with Nell. She is three years older than my Mother. However, during the last 21 years, I have made an effort to visit Nell and Theo (her husband) every time I went to Cottonwood. On several of those visits I would request my visit during supper just so I could eat Nell’s cooking. Her Mother and my Grandmother were sisters. Her cooking is my Grandmother’s cooking. Being in her home and visiting was a reminder of my Grandmother. She is the one, to me, that reminds me most of my Grandmother. Personality-wise, they were very different. However, there was always something that reminded me of Grandmom. After Grandmom died, I relied on my visits with Nell “to bring me back”.
Diane and I arranged to meet at 2:30 PM at Nell’s house. Mother and I would visit Uncle Truman and Aunt Clyde at 12:30 PM. It was 11:20 AM, so I had about an hour to get to Cottonwood and get to the old Clayton Church.
After struggling past 3 pit bull dogs to get to the dirt road to Clayton Church, we made it. The first thing my Mother noticed was that the old tree was broken and laying on the ground. My heart sank. I came to photograph that tree and it wasn’t in its previous state! It was disappearing. I took its picture anyway. Mother and I walked through the old church building and prepared to dodge the pit bulls to visit with Uncle Truman and Aunt Clyde.
Our visit lasted just short of two hours. Aunt Clyde, while her body is declining, her mind seems all there. Our visit was good.
We made our way to visit Nell. We arrived and were greeted by Diane. It was so nice to see her. She asked her Mother if she knew who we were. Hoping against hope that she would smile and say, “but of course”. That wouldn’t happen today. She smiled and said, “No, I don’t”. For a moment, my heart hurt. I wanted her to remember me. The more I thought of that the more I realized that it was more important that I remembered her! I’m the one that needed to remember her. Those memories of coming to visit her made ME happy. Nell remembering me didn’t cause those amazing feelings I get when I drive through Cottonwood to exist. And Nell not remembering me didn’t make them diminish!
Diane is amazing. She is the daughter we all wish to have in a time of need. I’m certain all of Nell’s children are this way but I got to watch her in action. She would gently bring Nell back to the conversation when she got distracted or drifted in thought. At one point she asked her Mother if she remembered Aunt Myrtice (my Grandmother). The look on Nell’s face was enough to convince me that she did, in fact, remember Grandmom and her response confirmed she did remember her. My Mother, who was sitting next to her, reminded Nell that she was Myrtice’s daughter Virginia. Nell responded, almost disappointed, and told her “I just don’t remember. I know I should but it’s not there.” My Mother smiled and reminded Nell that it was okay if she didn’t remember her. It was enough that my Mother remembered.
I got out the computer and pulled up an old picture of Nell and my Mother’s grandparents. It was taken in the mid-60’s. I showed the picture to Nell and asked her if she knew who those people were. Her response was quick, “Why, I sure do! That’s Granny and Granddad Bradberry!” I then showed her a picture of her Mother, who has been dead for 60 years. “Do you know who this woman is?” I said. “That’s my Mother!” she said. Incredible! Diane says there are times when Nell doesn’t know her yet she can look at this photograph and remember her own Mother whom she hasn’t seen in over 60 years. I went through a few photos of her Mother and at one point she was certain they were pictures of her. I just let her know that it could easily be her as she favored her Mother some. What I thought to be most interesting was when I opened a picture of her and Theo when they were first married. In the picture they were about 16 and 17 years old. “Do you know who these two people are?” She didn’t remember. I pointed to Theo and said, “He sure is a handsome man, isn’t he?” “He sure is, he sure is.” It was precious to watch her mind remember things from so long ago and disappointing to hear that, at times, she doesn’t remember her own daughter.
My Mother and I talked on the way home how we were glad we got to visit with Nell and disappointed that we ran out of time to see Ona Lee. It was a good visit.
The old tree at Clayton Church used to be young and vibrant. Though I didn’t have an opportunity to see it when it was young, I can imagine it looked much like the others around it. While I’ve been watching it as an old tree now I have begun to see it start to deteriorate. The feelings I had when I saw it had fallen to the ground were powerfully disappointing. As if I could change the course of the tree’s destiny and even if I could, would I? But instead, limited by my own mortality, chose to see the beauty in its fallen state. Thinking about the tree as it used to be, allowed it to become what it is today. Though I must admit, I’m afraid that the next time I visit, it will no longer be there.