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The summer I was 10, “Death” showed up uninvited at our front door and refused to leave. It wasn’t that I had not been introduced to him before. Growing up on a farm, I learned what buzzards circling in the sky meant almost before I could talk. Something was always dying, a groundhog or wild rabbit, or a ewe leaving an orphaned lamb for me to raise as a pet on a bottle. And per custom of the time and place, I tagged along with my parents wherever they went, attending more funerals in my first decade than most people do in a lifetime.
My beloved Gran, Mother’s father, also had died the summer before when I was 9. But he had been sick with some awful disease for over a year, and I had grown accustomed to the idea that he had to leave. Surely no one else in my inner world would die, not for a long time.
But then came the summer of 1955. It began with exciting news. Mother would be having a baby in early September. I was elated that I was finally going to have a brother or a sister.
In a coincidence that seemed to me ordained by God, Mable Dean, just my age and my nearest playmate, was also getting a new baby at her house that summer. Although she had two older siblings, she was as excited about losing her spot as the baby of the family as I was about shedding my onliness. And so, though we were a tad old to be playing dolls, she and I took in practicing to be big sisters with a passion. On pretty days, we created houses under shady trees, with floor-plans shaped by snarly roots pushing out of the ground. When it rained, my back porch became our castle. In sunshine or drizzle, we dressed and cradled our dollies for hours on end.
My paternal grandmother — my only living grandmother — brought our play to a halt when she abruptly descended into dementia. Perhaps it had been creeping up on her for a long time, but I had been unaware of change. Suddenly, though, she didn’t recognize any of us. Instead, she spent all her days and nights rocking imaginary babies, shushing them, and singing lullabies.
“It’s all she’s ever done,” Mother reminded Daddy and his six siblings.
Playing with dolls didn’t feel the same to me anymore. I turned my attention to my new record player — and rock ‘n roll.
Over the long, hot weeks that my grandmother lay dying in her cherry bed in the corner of the gathering room, my cousins and I rocked around the clock with Bill Haley, jumping and twisting in the seldom used front parlor, until we collapsed, exhausted, in sleep on the Murphy fold-down bed.
In late July, a few weeks after my grandmother’s death, Mother called out to me from her bedroom. “Run down the road to a neighbor’s house and get help,” she said. We didn’t have a telephone in those days, and Daddy was off who knew where measuring tobacco with the job he’d taken on for extra money.
Her tone brooked no questions, and so I ran as fast as Black Beauty and like Paul Revere poured out my story to anyone who would hear. Soon our little house was crowded with neighbor women trying to figure out how to help Mother. The bridge over Eagle at Natlee, destroyed by fire the year before, was still “out.” So someone went to the edge of the creek and hollered and yelled until another someone at the Natlee Store — the location of the closest telephone — could be roused. The storekeeper — Tommy Reed? — called the Funeral Home in Corinth which doubled as the ambulance service, but the ambulance of course, had to detour by way of Frogtown, miles out of the way, to reach Mother.
In time — an hour, two? — Mother was lifted into the ambulance and then whisked over a labyrinth of bumpy backroads to a Lexington hospital. My brother was already dead, of course. He would never take a breath. But I didn’t know that. I thought I had saved him and Mother too by my heroic dash for help.
I went home with Hattie Hunter, our Natlee neighbor and Mother’s dear friend, to wait for the big news. Daddy didn’t come until the next afternoon. He asked me if I’d like to sit with him in the wide double swing on Hattie’s porch, and so I did. At first, I couldn’t believe what he was telling me. I had a little brother, but he died? Mother was awful sick, but she’d be okay? And then I said, well maybe next year Mother will have another baby, but Daddy said no. No, not ever again.
That’s when I began to cry. I tried not to for Daddy’s sake, but I couldn’t help myself. I cried and cried and cried for the life my brother would never live. I cried for me because I would never be a sister.
Soon Daddy left to return to Mother, and Hattie held me in her arms and never ever let go of me again. She held me in her arms and in her heart for the rest of her life as though I were one of her own.
Last July — why July, I couldn’t help but think — Hattie’s long life ended. There are so many stories I remember that celebrate her journey across this earth — such a strong, funny, independent, out-spoken, hard-working, loving woman. But when I stood at her bed a day before she slipped into her final coma, what she wanted to talk about was that long ago July afternoon when her heart broke for me.
And then she said, “I love you, Georgia.”
“I love you, too, Hattie.”
I’m not so smart that I can explain the intersection of life and death and love. I’m not even smart enough to write a good rock n’ roll song about it all. But I think I began to grow up the summer I was 10.
In loving memory of Hattie Hampton Hunter
December 9, 1922 – July 28, 2010