Simply Lou: Gather
article and illustration by Lou Davenport
This has been a year of loss for my family. My Aunt Red slipped peacefully away several months ago. She was the first in our family to reach 100 years. On the morning of her party, she fell and broke her hip. She wouldn’t go to the hospital until she attended her 100th birthday party either. That’s the kind of spirit she had!
Not long after her funeral, my Aunt Mayvonne had a heart attack. The news sounded grim and it wasn’t believed she would make it through the week. But, she “rallied” and lived six more months. “Sassy” and plain spoken til the end.
The women in my family came from tough stock. And they also did things their way and in their own time.
Their deaths hit me hard. They were the last two of 8 children born to Phillip and Lily Williams. And now, they are all gone. “The End of an Era.”
Those eight aunts and uncles had been a part of my world since I was born. I grieved for all of them when each one passed away but this time, it was even harder.
After Aunt Mayvonne’s funeral, many of us were left at my cousin Judi’s house. She had cared for her mother over the last six months. Judi was exhausted and we were all sad, but, Judi summed up what our family does, good times and bad. She simply said, “We gather.”
She was so right and we all know where we got that from. I will never again be so fortunate to know 8 brothers and sisters who were as close as these 8 were their entire lives. There seemed to be a “gathering” of them, somewhere, every weekend, holiday and even during the week! They just enjoyed each others company! I never knew of any “fussing or fighting” amongst them. They just stuck together through thick and thin, for better or worse, in sickness and in health.
Life was not easy for these 8 brothers and sisters. Their mother, my grandmother Lily, was only 14 and from a well-to-do family, when she met Phillip, my grandfather. He was 22 and a widower! They went against tradition and eloped. I’m sure eyebrows were raised and tongues wagged. My grandmother’s family disowned her. Even now, it’s hard for me to imagine my grandmother as a “rebel daughter!” The young couple ended up in Arkansas and settled there. But, when my Uncle Jack was born, all was forgiven. They returned to Liddieville where my grandfather became a sharecropper. He also played his fiddle at dances on Saturday nights and cleaned up the church on Sunday evenings to help feed his family. (He found a small gold ring in the church that nobody ever claimed. He gave that to my Grandmother as a wedding ring. She wore it until it had to be clipped off her finger when she was dying.)
Seven more healthy children followed, all born in the tiny house they had out in the middle of a large cotton field. Times were hard. Work was even harder. As soon as those kids were old enough, they worked the fields with their father. They all survived the flood of 1927 and found safe haven in Crowville. They camped in tents on a hill until they could return home. A few years later, The Great Depression hit. They survived it, too.
I know that my grandmother made all of their clothes. She also quilted and I bet she would have made some beautiful ones if she’d had the time. Instead, she made what she called, “string quilts” of all the scraps of fabric left over. She referred to them as “cover” and it was true, that old house was probably very cold during the winter months. There was no running water and she cooked on a wood stove. No wonder she was a strong woman.
With God’s grace, they all survived but another tragedy would soon follow. When my father was 10 years old, his father collapsed in the fields and died two days later of an aneurysm. I can’t even imagine what my grandmother must have felt. It was left to her and those 8 children to take care of themselves. They “gathered.”
My Uncle Jack and Uncle Bunk were the oldest and were now in charge of rounding up the rest of those kids to bring in the crop. Some of their stories were funny but also heartbreaking. My Father told me that some nights all they had for supper was pop corn. That made me cry. I don’t think my aunts were very enthusiastic about pickin’ that cotton, but, they did. And, they stuck together and got it done.
The decision was eventually made that they would move. My Uncle Jack found a job in Bastrop and brought the family there. They shared a house and once again, every one of them found jobs. My father and youngest uncle had paper routes. They “gathered” and took care of themselves and their mother.
Soon, they all began to get married and have places of their own but not too far from one another and their mother. And, “gather” they did in each others homes and “Mama’s” and had such good times.
I’ve wondered many times how my grandmother instilled such love and respect from her children. None of them ever said a negative word about her. Now that I have gotten older I think I know some of it. They watched their mother work so hard to raise them. She worked as hard as their Father did in many ways. I think when they all decided to get her out of that cotton field to give her and them a more comfortable life. Maybe it was their way of showing her how much they appreciated and loved her. They made sure she never went without a thing. She taught them to first “gather” and then survive. Stick together and love hard.
Grandchildren inevitably followed, including me and a second generation of “gatherers” began. My Mom and Dad moved my grandmother in with us. I got to have a ring side seat to all the “gatherings” and went to all the other “gatherings” at the Aunts and uncles houses. I was an only child, so, naturally my cousins became my brothers and sisters. I don’t think God could have sent me any better ones if I had had brothers or sisters.
When my Grandmother died, the “gathering” did not end. I do believe that my aunts and uncles, along with their spouses, truly enjoyed each others company. They not only loved each other, they liked each other.
All that is gone now since Aunt Mayvonne left us. We no longer have “an Elder.” I wonder how our “second generation” will be able to carry on such a huge legacy that those 8 left. We grew up differently than they did. We have lived in such different times. Our lives are all busy and spread out. Everybody has grandchildren. Our grown children know each other well, but, will they still “gather” when we are all gone?
I know this about myself. I need to “gather” with my cousins and family. I need the laughter, I need to be loud and rowdy. Living alone has its benefits, but I love being with “my people.” Every year that gets harder to do.
Right now, I don’t have any plans for Thanksgiving. I hope that will change. I would love to “gather” and laugh about how the aunts used to argue about whose dressing was best. And rave about Aunt Red’s sweet potato casserole. Life changes and we adapt to it and move on. I just don’t like it very much.
I miss all my aunts and uncles. Each one of them had their own unique senses of humor and every one of them loved to laugh and have fun. They were by no means perfect, they were very human! But, each one of them had an inner strength stronger than steel. And they loved us hard.
I am very thankful knowing that I, too, came from the same stock those strong-willed people came from. Looking back over my life, I’ve survived some hard times for sure. I never gave up but there were times when just “gathering” with family kept me going. I am proud of an inner strength that I see in myself more and more. I learned it from those who “gather,” and then survive.
I hope everyone has a wonderful Thanksgiving. I know I will. “Gather.” It’s good for the soul.
“The older I get
the longer I pray
I don’t know why
I guess I got more to say
And the older I get
the more thankful I feel
For the life I’ve had
and all the life I’m livin’ still.”
“The Older I Get”