This is not, directly, my story. This is a story that belongs to my mother, peripherally, and her father more directly.
Or it’s a set of fabric strips from old shirts that we traditionally stitch together about like this, adding some batting and family backing to make it a little more sturdy.
I never lived in Wilmington. As a girl I visited once, during my grandparents’ 50th wedding anniversary party; from the Holiday Inn we went by Uncle Arthur’s house — one of my grandfather’s brothers. My mother visited Wilmington routinely while growing up, since her father was one of ten (I think) and most of the siblings remained in North Carolina.
My grandfather grew up there, outside Wilmington, on a farm. His mother, I know, was an orphan, and I think his father was as well. My grandfather was the next-oldest child, went to the single schoolhouse until the teacher ran out of teaching to share with him, worked on the farm.
Though my grandfather moved away, Arthur — the oldest — stayed. Arthur’s house was featured in a movie… I used to think it was Say Anything, but my sister says not (maybe this one?)… which was remark-worthy mostly because it meant the family couldn’t use the house during Uncle Arthur’s funeral gathering. Though, I mean, featured in a movie! Not-actually-famous by proxy!
Uncle Arthur’s house was also the setting — if I remember rightly how it was told — for my great-grandmother’s last years. Visiting this grandmother features in my mother’s Wilmington memories; it was, if I know my family, the foremost reason for their travel up from Jacksonville, FL.
My great-grandmother lived at Uncle Arthur’s house when her wits started wandering. (I am not a doctor, and this label seems as effective as the others.) It was familiar, or at least the landscape was. I don’t have a full enough tale of that part of my family to know when (or if) her farm left our family.
What I remember, and return to in my memory, is my mother telling me how her grandmother would, every evening at around 5pm, get dressed in her company clothes — hat, gloves, hose, heeled shoes, handbag — go into the formal living room, and sit down in front of the television.
At six, NBC News with David Brinkley came on. David, you see, had gone to high school with one or more of her children. She’d known him much of his life, rejoiced as he went off into the wider world and became famous.
She no longer remembered that part, though, the “went off” part.
She would see David Brinkley’s face, and be delighted: David had come to call on her! She would honor him, treat him to her parlor manners, and celebrate the visit. Her wits wandered from television’s single directed-ness, but held onto the human-connected memories: David, she knew. Young or aging, she knew him.
My mother told that story as one who regularly sat next to her grandmother, entertaining their ‘guest.’ In all the time I’ve known her, this deep respect for another’s context has characterized her — while there’s no one more scathing in correcting false information, she will talk for hours with a small child or a person with wandering wits, inhabiting the world alongside them. It does me no harm, she vehemently says, and it gives them something good.
I think about that.
When I listen, I can listen all-in. I don’t have to agree, or disagree, or (usually) correct — I can hold what is said in the context of what is offered, and converse within. Oftentimes there really is very little at stake, as the larger world calculates it. And maybe that can be a gift.