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In Nebraska this week, it’s colder than the North Pole, I read. In Florida, the temperatures dipped below freezing. Here in Kentucky, life lies dormant in the frozen ground covered by snow. The trees, naked, reach their thin arms toward the heavens like a forest of Holocaust victims pleading for help. It’s January, the duplicitous month, named for the two-faced Roman god Janus who looked backwards and forwards at the same time.
And so Ernie and I begin the New Year, the new decade, saying good-bye to one who has traveled with him from the beginning of memory. Word has come that his vibrant cousin, Dicksie Stamper Bradford, has died from complications of pneumonia after the onset of a winter virus. In the 21st century, women in middle age, leastwise women close to my age, are not supposed to die from things like this. Our emotions run the gamut from anger to disbelief. We remind ourselves, however, that Dicksie didn’t waste much time in life, and it follows that she would handle death in the same efficient manner.
Dicksie’s story is extraordinary in the way ordinary lives can be. She married her high school sweetheart, raised a son, doted on a grandchild, and worked nearly every day of her life. After retiring from her job with Kentucky state government, she began a second career as a licensed real estate agent. Finally, in the last few years, she and Billy escaped to Florida where she was having a ball raising orchids and fishing.
It’s impossible to remember Dicksie without using the word pretty. On her mother’s side she was a granddaughter of Noble Nash Hundley, the colorful Kentucky River steamboat pilot I’ve written about in several essays, and she inherited the physical good looks that marked his tribe, evenly proportioned features, flawless skin. (The Stampers, though, claimed her sparkling blue eyes.) But Dicksie also brought prettiness into the things she did, like the music she made on the organ at her church year after year, and her flair for decorating her home. Turning thrift store finds into treasures, using paint and imagination, her houses, wherever she landed, were always modest showplaces, and of course, spotless. Dicksie’s middle name was Clean.
Dicksie’s father and Ernie’s dad were brothers. She was only 8 months older than Ernie, but early on she assumed the role of his older sister, in part because he had no siblings, but mostly because she played this role for just about everyone in her sprawling family. She and Ernie were among the last Owen countians – among the last Kentuckians – to attend a one-room school, and their aunt, Georgia Belle Stamper Giles, was their teacher at Gratz Elementary. I think about half of the 20 students in grades one through eight were first cousins, and those who weren’t related were informally adopted into the Stamper clan.
Perhaps this unique early experience that interwove family-school-community fostered the sense of responsibility Dicksie had for any who were her “kin.”
There are many stories that could be told, but to be honest, most of them are not mine to tell. I do know that she stuck up for Ernie when they were children, and stuck with him throughout his life. If you were “family,” Dicksie was there when you were sick, helped pick you up when you were down and out, and celebrated with you when you succeeded. It’s appropriate then that her last gift to the family was an extraordinary weekend reunion this past September. The first generation of Stamper cousins are scattered in age across three decades and are splintered geographically. One lives in California, another in New York, a few in Ohio, Dicksie in Florida, and the others here and there across Kentucky. They aren’t a homogeneous group, either, despite their common DNA. Some are ardent Democrats, others staunch Republicans, and their occupations are as varied as the “butcher, baker, candlestick maker” in the old nursery rhyme.
In the 42 years we’ve been married, there had been only two previous reunions, the last one 20 years ago
Undaunted, Dicksie set a date a year in advance, booked space at General Butler Park Lodge, and began summoning the clan to gather. Ernie and I were uncertain if many would show up, but Dicksie proceeded on the “Field of Dreams” theory. If you build it they will come.
And come they did, even unto the fourth generation. Some arrived on Friday night, setting the tone for the weekend with marathon card games in the lobby and conversations that lasted until midnight. Others arrived in time for lunch on Saturday, and by Saturday night’s dinner, the group was 60 strong, spilling out of the private banquet room into the lodge’s main dining hall.
At first we didn’t know each other. Conversations began with “my father or grandfather was ...” But soon we were reminiscing, checking facts and dates, poring over family photographs. From there we went on to share our own life stories, our opinions on politics and the economy, and our worries about the grandchildren. Most important of all, old wounds were healed, small hatchets of discord buried. When we left on Sunday morning, we were a family. Throughout the weekend, Dicksie was our queen bee, presiding with dignity over this event she had organized down to the nuts on the table. When news came of her death, I couldn’t help but think of Tom Sawyer, who attended his own funeral in one of the most memorable scenes in American literature.
Like Tom, Dicksie got to see us all gathered together in one place, and know we loved her. There are lessons to be learned from any life, and Dicksie’s, like everyone else’s, was not without its valleys. But her death reminds me to look forward this cold January day. After all, “if Winter comes,” the poet wrote, “can Spring be far behind?”
(In memory of Dicksie Stamper Bradford, Nov. 4, 1943 – Jan. 9, 2010)