Published: 02/12/2021 3:06 p.m.
So much has been lost, some has to be, some we lose through a lack of care or diligence.
Last month I lost a beloved aunt, Allie Morris. She was the last of this generation in my family, our great matriarch: all of our parents, uncles and aunts have passed away; My siblings and cousins are now the older generation of our family. Maybe I never understood before that that day would come one day.
Aunt Allie grew up on my grandparents’ farm near Middle Sound in Wilmington, North Carolina. Most of her siblings moved away or from the country. She and my Uncle William stayed on the inland waterway for crabs and oysters for years. The sight of them returning home in a flat-bottomed boat loaded with crab pots, their faces burned in the sun and the wind of hair wiped away, is forever burned into my head.
But it’s not a child’s memory. My mother and father had met in the Air Force in England (she was an officer’s nurse, he a soldier, they needed special permission to get married). But the marriage did not survive their return to Wilmington. At the age of 4 my mother fled back to Massachusetts – and that was back when the Mason-Dixon line was more of an international border than the geographic weird it is today.
I only visited once in the next few decades. One summer when I was eight, like an old-fashioned ma cover – picking peanuts, peeling corn, the picture of my grandmother Sally doing to me, a source of patience and love like I had never known before. That summer took on mythical tones over the years and decades – like a reminder of a cool, damp place while living in a desert. The hotter and drier the land, the cooler and foggy the memory.
But then decades of silence as I grew up. There have been some returns. The death of our grandparents, then our father. But the thread got lost until my own child was born, and then my wish that he grow up knowing a place and a people that I didn’t have. So we’ve come back every summer for the past decade.
One of our first visits to him we went to see Aunt Allie, who is now retired and has moved to another farm. I hadn’t seen her in years and the way she looked shocked me! She was exactly the image of the mythical grandmother that I had in my head. Time shook – was I a child again, had I made it back into the arms of the fairytale grandmother?
We never went back to Wilmington without visiting Aunt Allie, often with several of her children and grandchildren splashing in the pool. scream while Aunt Allie coolly killed a 10 foot corn snake hanging from its gutters; My cousins bring their pistols so we can shoot and I, their Yankee cousin, are assigned the “girl’s gun”. And always a long lunch with crickets around their table, with a lively chatter that was as full of sass as the grill was sauce.
And in those times I invented a life with these people who grew up at this table – the shady trees and the fresh water of an oasis that I was looking for a long time ago but never found. About the last time I saw her we talked about the old days. How my father, in order to get out of years of unpaid alimony and child support, agreed to give up custody of his four oldest children so that the stepfather could legally adopt us.
When I told her our stepfather had never done it, we just told our teachers to drop Gurganus and replace them with Gannon.
“But he promised …”
“But he never did.”
I saw a hint of anger on her face. And realized that she was revisiting the kind of adult arguments that children don’t know until decades later. I felt the hole that our leaving had caused a long time ago. And for a moment childhood went through my head.
But we cannot live on illusions or regrets. On my last visit to Wilmington, I had a long, somewhat drunk conversation with my brother, half-brother from our father’s second marriage. I told him how important this summer had been so long ago, how great my grandmother had appeared in my memory as this unique source of love and patience.
He pursed his lips, shook his head, and told me the story of the little boy whose grandmother rejected him. His actual memories are a shocking balance to the myth I had created. A grandchild deprived of love because he went north; another deprived of love because he stayed.
It was Aunt Allie who was the true oasis of unconditional love, patience, and care for those who worked in the desert. Her home was the safe haven, the always open door, the always ready hugs, the always flowing love.
It wasn’t a reinvented childhood that I needed and that I haven’t visited in recent years – it was exactly what was there every day: family. This is her living legacy to me – not a lost childhood lost that does not fix the past, but the teaching of being present here and now with an open heart and an open door.
So much was lost in her death. But what she left behind, love, pure love, will cool the fiery forehead and quench the deep thirst for years to come.
Thank you, Aunt Allie, you are still so much loved, so alive in us. Rest in peace.
Joe Gannon, writer and teacher, lives in Easthampton.