Just over a month ago, on May 13, my beloved grandmother, Beulah Mae Mitchell (BuMae to most, Beauty Mae to certain close friends), passed away. Her passing has affected me more deeply than I would ever have imagined, given how long I had to prepare for it. Though I had been acting as her primary caretaker in the 16 years since I moved back to Hickory with my family, her passing makes it feel as though a pillar of support and identity has been taken from me. Her death is also the reason I have been absent from this blog and makes writing even now feel tentative and feeble in its attempt to express how I feel about the impact that her life had on me. Nevertheless, it seems only fitting that I post this on July 8, the day she would have turned 96.
No doubt it will take some time, if not the rest of my life, to unpack the influence this remarkable woman has had on me, and what it means to live life on this earth without her. One revelation hit my wife early on. She had lost both of her parents herself in the preceding year, and at one point when we were sitting together just trying to absorb the impact of all this loss, she said, “There’s nobody left.” What she meant was that the elders in our families, the grownups, the ones we had looked up to all our lives, had almost all left us (my mother, thank goodness, is still very much with us and will be for some time). I said that must mean we were now the elders. I think I’ve resisted adulthood and responsibility as much as possible, or at least compartmentalized it in such a way that I could take it on in manageable doses. In a way it seems that Chrisanne and I have held up our parents and grandparents to our children as the real grownups. Now we have no choice but to assume that mantle ourselves, but I can tell you, even at 50 years of age, it doesn’t sit well, not when I know I can’t even come close to measuring up to the example of the woman I knew all my life as Meme.
Meme was the second wife of my grandfather, and this was her second marriage as well. She never talked about that first marriage, but somehow I gathered from stray comments that the first husband was a drunk, and she had the wherewithal to high-tail it out of the marriage and, possibly at the same time, out of town. This would have been an early indication of her strength of character and spine of steel. Another was the extraordinary family she was born into and that sustained her throughout her entire life, as well as the place – Fayetteville, NC – where she was born and raised. I never tire of telling people how Meme and her twin sister, Eula Gray, were the last of five sets of twins – and four singles! In fact, Gray now survives as the last Jones sibling, and her own birthday today is an occasion that feels more to her like a mourning party than something worth celebrating.
Meme was in many ways a very proper woman who valued her privacy. She didn’t talk about herself much, but I always loved to hear about her days growing up on a farm in Cumberland County. She always referred to it as her “homeplace,” a wonderful word that, like homestead, is not used much anymore and that signifies so much more than property and house. The Joneses grew tobacco and corn, and undoubtedly the large number of children in the family helped with the harvesting, along with the sharecroppers who also lived on the land (I didn’t know about the sharecroppers until Gray mentioned this after Meme’s death). My grandmother would probably say that being the youngest of so many children was a mixed blessing. She and Gray probably got lots of attention from their older siblings, but one result of that attention was that they would sometimes get picked on, particularly by their mischievous older brothers.
I really can’t imagine life during the Depression in a rural county. I’m sure Meme would say that they had little but lacked for nothing. They shared beds and everything else, and their mother, Mary Williams Jones, handmade everything for them, from meals to clothes to Christmas gifts. They traveled miles to attend the proverbial one-room schoolhouse, and in a community that had one each of Baptist, Methodist and Presbyterian churches, their chosen style of old-time religion was Baptist.
Other than that, I don’t know very much about her pre-Hickory history, and it wasn’t for lack of asking her occasionally about these things. In a way, the details weren’t important, because I always had the sense that she carried her roots and upbringing in every fiber of her being, which is the real blessing of having a “homeplace.” It may have been a desperate dream for her to leave Cumberland County, but the dream wasn’t borne out of a denunciation of her humble roots. It was more inspired by knowing that there was a different, if not necessarily better, way of life outside the county, perhaps fueled by stories from her brothers and sisters who had gone before, and she was determined to go after it. At the same time she never forgot the lessons of land and family that made her departure possible in the first place and sustained her while away from it. One of the things I most admired about her was her deep and abiding love of the land, which she practiced in her gardening and intimate knowledge of every variety of plant, flower, tree, bird, rodent or reptile on her property. She was also a devoted and lifelong reader of the Farmer’s Almanac. She marked the time by the passing of seasons, when certain crops and flowers were supposed to be in bloom, when it was time to plant again, or when the hummingbirds were due to return (April 1, feeder hung and waiting) and grace her with their fleeting presence before migrating to their next location. In other words, she possessed the kind of knowledge of life’s rhythms and rituals that runs deep in one’s blood and bones.
Even for farmers in Depression-era rural NC, it appears as though education was valued and encouraged. My grandmother graduated from high school at a time when that was hardly the norm, particularly for women, and she even went on to take classes in business college. The only professional experience I was aware of her having was when she worked as a secretary at a law office in Fayetteville. It was around this time that one of their sisters, Marie, had moved to Hickory to open a beauty salon, and she encouraged my grandmother to join her. Of course, this meant that Gray moved to Hickory with her, because, well, they did everything together. Marie moved on not long after that, but my grandmother and Gray continued to run the salon that kept Marie’s name for decades (it was eventually taken over by Catherine Snipes). Meme always said she didn’t do much at the salon other than wash hair, but the job served as a means to an end that enabled her to leave Cumberland County and start life anew in Hickory.
When I look at pictures of my grandmother during the early 1940s, it’s easy to see what a strikingly beautiful woman she was. That and her lean and tall frame must have made her quite a looker indeed, and I’ve often thought about what it was like for her to live in Hickory as a young, single and attractive woman. Obviously it didn’t take my grandfather long to notice her, and it seems that this young man from rural Mississippi (Sardis, to be precise) found a kindred spirit in my grandmother, and they married on Christmas Eve in 1949. Of course, by the time I came along in 1965, I knew nothing about their humble origins, as my grandparents always impressed me as being rather sophisticated and cosmopolitan. My grandfather by that time had started and was having some success with his juvenile furniture company, Custom Craft, they had a beautiful bungalow on Lake Hickory, they were charter members of the Lake Hickory Country Club, they traveled all over the world, and they enjoyed the civilized tradition of cocktails in the evening, sometimes while cruising on the lake in their pontoon boat. That journey from newlyweds to a well-known and somewhat influential couple in Hickory must have been a fascinating and fun one (not without it’s trying times, I’m sure). I was just fortunate, by the time I was born, to be able to enjoy the fruits of their labor, while being largely ignorant of the toil and trouble it took to get there.
In spite of whatever success they had, they always maintained aspects of their lives that kept them connected to their humble roots. Though they were one of the first to build out on Lake Hickory, at a time when their friends told them they were crazy, the home they built and lived in all their lives was a humble one of less than 2,000 square feet. Perhaps my grandfather’s most recognizable trait of his rural Southern roots was the hickory stick he kept tucked in the corner of his mouth and chewed on all the time, a habit he picked up after he gave up smoking and chewing tobacco. Meme always grew as much food as she could, because according to her the produce at the grocery store never tasted as good as homegrown (though she always kept track of when seasonal produce such as her beloved Silver Queen corn or freestone peaches were available), and she was forever canning vegetables and making her fantastic fig preserves. My grandfather attempted to grow trees of every fruit that he loved or had grown up with as a child, and at one time they had peach, plum and apple trees, vines of muscadine and scuppernong grapes, and figs. Whatever they grew meant they had to contend with the critters – raccoons, possums, squirrels, rabbits, foxes, deer, etc. – that tried to eat their bounty as fast as they could grow it.
As you can imagine, their place on the lake was a paradise to me and my sister, and it remains my favorite place on earth to this day. I really don’t know the circumstances that led to my sister and me spending the night at their house so frequently, but it was something I looked forward to with great pleasure. My grandparents were such cool, laidback people, and my sister and I were treated so well when we were with them. Meme lovingly prepared every meal for us, unless Granddaddy decided he wanted to “burn a piece of meat” on the grill. During the day, we’d be left to our own devices, and the property left so much for us to explore, sometimes at our peril. One day while Meme and Ginny were picking blackberries, Meme heard the unmistakable sound of a snake rattle, and without a word or moment’s hesitation she signaled to Ginny to move away from the bushes as quickly as possible. We were forbidden from returning to that spot.
My grandparents had a simple dock where they kept the pontoon, and it was fun just to go down there and see the brim and crappy swimming among the pilings, to find gelatinous egg sacks affixed to broken limbs that had washed up on the bank, or even occasionally to drop a fishing line in the water, using the grasshoppers we caught in the tall grass as bait. We didn’t fish often, but I remember that on the few times we caught and kept anything, it was Meme who taught us how to scale and clean the fish. This was a telling distinction between her and my grandfather. The both loved the outdoors – it was Granddaddy, after all, who had the vision of building the house on the lake, perhaps against Meme’s better judgment – but he seemed to appreciate nature more as a wondrous backdrop against the comfort he took, especially in his retirement years after selling Custom Craft to Bassett in the 70s, in stretching out on his sofa next to the large living room window that looked out over the lake and reading – always reading – Louis L’Amour and Zane Grey westerns and books on history. Meme, on the other hand, always seemed immersed in and physically interacting with the land, with her hands in the soil as she tended to her garden and landscaping. There was never a shortage of work to be done there. Nature is unceasing in its growth and intrusions, a reality instilled in her as a Fayetteville farm girl.
When Chrisanne and I started making our regular visits with the kids upon moving back to Hickory, it was interesting to see how Meme had become much less carefree about our kids running wild on the property. I imagine this comes with age and increasing immobility. There was a time when, if anything were to happen to my sister or me, she would have been able to respond immediately, but her inability to do so with our children made her much more anxious. She always wanted them within earshot and in her line of sight. The hill rolling down from the back of their house to the lake is a relatively steep one, and she would always get nervous when our kids ventured down that way.
The reason Chrisanne and I came back to my hometown of Hickory was family, and Meme was at the forefront of our thoughts in making that decision. I don’t remember if she had yet been diagnosed with Parkinson’s, but I feel that was very likely a factor in our decision. My grandfather had passed away in ’96, just over six months after Chrisanne and I were married, and we were cognizant of the fact that she was alone and getting on in years (she was 80 when we moved). All doors seemed to be opening for us in that direction, but I also had a keen appreciation of Meme as a private individual who enjoyed her solitude and felt that we needed her blessing in order to make this move. Outside of aunts and uncles on my mother’s side, she was pretty much the only family – Mitchell family, at any rate – that we had left, and by this time she and Hickory had become synonymous, since visiting her was the only reason we ever came anymore. If we moved to Hickory, we told her, she’d be seeing a hell of a lot of us, and was that okay with her? Of course, she said yes.
Beyond seeking her blessing, I realize now that so many of the underlying reasons for the move remained unspoken between us. For instance, never once was there a formal conversation about me taking on the role of her primary caretaker. In fact, she never would have stood for us moving to Hickory for that reason. To have such a conversation would have meant openly acknowledging her declining condition and need for help, and I never felt comfortable in going there, just as she never wanted to burden me over such things. It seemed important to facilitate her independence and autonomy as much as possible, and so I took it upon myself – with help from Chrisanne, Ginny and others – to step into the breach only when necessary. The arrangement we had, along with increasing amount of care, just developed on its own from that understanding we seemed to have with each other.
Immediately upon moving, we established Thursday afternoon as our designated time to visit with her. It didn’t matter what job I may have had at the time, I always took off early to do this (shh, don’t tell my employers!). This is when we would visit, pay her bills and tend to whatever other needs she may have had. Naturally, with the worsening of her Parkinson’s symptoms, these became increasingly medical. She lived alone for the most part. For a brief while Gray lived with her, since she also lived alone after her husband Bill passed away, at least until a fall prompted her to move into Lutheran Home East (now Trinity Village). Meme was too fiercely independent to ever consider such a thing, even though it would have put her with her twin sister, and all along she was adamant that her greatest wish was to remain at home for as long as humanly possible. As a compromise, we arranged for her to have in-home care, at first contracting with a group of private care ladies who stayed with her during the day. At the time, she was still ambulatory and able to do for herself, so it took some time for this woman born of the Depression not to feel like she was burning money when the women seemed to be sitting around doing nothing but annoying her by talking too much. We explained that their presence was insurance, in case anything were to happen.
One day while watering flowers on the porch outside the sliding glass window of the study where she spent most of her time, Meme had a fall of her own that prompted a trip to the emergency room. That was when we convinced her that round-the-clock care would be necessary. Steps like this challenged the autonomy she had known and enjoyed all her life, and her initial response was always one of resistance. We explained that even though she had in-home care at the time, it did not do her any good at the time of the fall, because she had been lying on the porch for some time before the caretaker on duty arrived that day and found her. At any rate, it was better than the alternative of going into assisted living. Over time, even with the disruption of frequent staffing changes, she came to appreciate (or got used to) and depend on the caregivers who looked after her, and I was touched by how many of them came to adore her as one of their own. Anyone who spent time with her came to know right away she was a woman of strong and unique character. She might have been elderly and increasingly frail, but, my goodness, her mind stayed as sharp as a tack all the way to the end, and those who spent any amount of time with her recognized this vitality of spirit and personality immediately. This is one of the great blessings of her life that became a curse only toward the very end.
The last 10 years or so must have been very trying for her, but she would never let us know the half of what she was going through. She may have let her guard down every now and then in the quiet evening hours with only her most trusted caregivers, but when it came to me, my family or any of the friends who continued to visit on a frequent basis, she worked very hard to keep up appearances. I’m not even sure how much she shared with Gray (they talked on the phone every single day without fail). She was, after all, the “big sister,” even if she was born only four minutes before Gray (a fact Gray was always quick to remind her of)! There comes a time when we must all come to grips with the fact that our weaker flesh betrays the more enduring energy and ideals of our spirits.
Meme was of an age, in her 90s, when physical limitations inevitably appear, but the progression of her Parkinson’s symptoms certainly exacerbated that decline, and we saw how she was gradually being deprived of more and more of her independence. She was no longer able to drive, and before long she had to support herself with a cane, and then a walker. Occasionally, she needed to use a wheelchair, but that became an issue only at the very end of her life. In the last few months, she required oxygen to help her breathe better. Nevertheless, no matter what her physical condition, no matter how much help she had to have, she insisted every single day on getting up out of her bed, getting dressed, showering regularly, fixing her hair (let’s not forget she was a former beautician), and walking as much as she was physically able. In front of her house is a circular driveway in the middle of which sits a massive magnolia tree that was given to her and my grandfather by my great-grandparents as a housewarming gift, and her exercise, as often as she could, was to take several trips around the that tree. In other words, she never gave up on living, even if it meant taking one breath and one step at a time.
It’s true that she had grown very weary of her condition and what life had reduced her to (and at her age, who wouldn’t?). As a woman who loved nature and the outdoors, she was forced to view it on the other side of a sliding glass door from the sofa in her study, where she sat for most of the day, every day. As a woman who had prized her independence and self-sufficiency, she now depended on others to cook her food, wash her clothes, fix her hair, get her in and out of bed and even such indignities as helping her to use the toilet. Physically, life was closing in on her and was becoming an intolerable routine. What was the point if all she did was sit on the sofa in her study and watch television? Hell, even her hearing and eyesight were failing. We tried to encourage and facilitate a life of the imagination by bringing her books on tape, but those only went so far to entertain her and help to pass the time. Meme had never been one for escapism. One of the greatest pleasures Chrisanne and I had in her final months was reading to her, and the caregivers would do this for her as well. Her church, Corinth, would mail Pastor Bob Thompson’s printed sermon to her every week, and we all would read that to her at least once, even when, toward the end, she fell asleep instantly upon starting. One year Pastor Bob led the congregation in a reading of the entire Bible, and she and her caretakers would follow along with everyone else.
Whatever physical and spiritual agonies she was enduring, she left that mostly between her and her God. She was a woman of deep faith, which was something I always admired. Growing up, I sometimes talked about religion with my grandparents. I got the sense that Granddaddy was a doubter like I was, though he wouldn’t let that stop him from being a devoted member of Corinth and being instrumental in establishing the church’s memorial garden, where he and Meme are now both buried. I got a kick out of a story he shared from his youth in Mississippi (I think?) when he went door-to-door selling Bibles. The thing about these Bibles that he thought was such a hoot was that they had a timeline of the earth and the history of mankind on the inside cover that spanned a mere 6,000 years. Meme probably listened to our conversations with bemusement, thinking, “Silly boys.” Her faith certainly was tested in those final years. She was ready to go, or for God to take her, long before it happened, and she would fervently wish for this in her prayers night after night. I can imagine how her disappointment in waking up to another day of a physically trying and spiritually unsatisfying existence soon turned to questions as to why He was choosing to keep her here when, to her mind, she had long outlived her usefulness. After a while of watching her suffer like this, I found myself wishing this for her too. Still, her faith led her to believe that God’s will or plan is not for us to understand, only endured. And that is precisely what she did, with far more dignity and grace than I can imagine or ever have myself.
I have no doubt that a major reason she was able to endure as well as she did was due to the fact that she was able to remain in her home. Every day that she woke up was at least another in which she was surrounded by the beauty and bounty of her surroundings that she had known for nearly 60 years, instead of the sterile interior of an assisted living or nursing home room. I distinctly remember Meme and Granddaddy both expressing their fear and dread of nursing homes. I always maintained with her doctors and caregivers that being admitted in such a place would have been a death sentence in and of itself, and this was an eventuality we fought against with all the means at our disposal. Fortunately, those means were sufficient to bring all the care she needed to her, and we were constantly reassuring her of that fact. Every little change in her routine, along with every sizeable check she saw written out of her checking account (and, believe me, she was aware of every single check), seemed to trigger the worry of a slide down that slippery slope to poverty and institutionalization, but thank goodness it never happened.
For a while, we had been offering to bring Gray out for lunch on the occasional Saturday when they both felt up to it. It was those visits that drove home to me the importance of human touch, because the first thing they did, as soon as they had made their way in their walkers to the back porch overlooking the lake, was to hold hands and lean in toward each other. Gray spoke for them both when on the return trip she would tell me, sleepily and a bit tipsy from the wine they had for lunch, how they would talk about things that no one else but them could know. Besides Gray, I was forever amazed to hear how many visitors my grandmother received only a regular basis, not only from the extraordinary number of friends her age in Hickory (must have been something in the water or in the physical stock of this generation), but a host of relatives from across the state and beyond. This woman was well and truly loved by so many people, and I always thought that if I reached old age with half as many friends and relatives as her, I would be a lucky man indeed.
In the end, it was hospice that spared us that final step of having to seek more intensive medical care outside of the home. She had reached a point where her body was no longer responding to or benefitting from medications or sustenance. In medical terms, they call it “failure to thrive.” She had a hard time understanding it herself, since she ate three meals a day without fail. That didn’t mean, however, that she had much of an appetite or enjoyed her food. Basically, she ate her meals because that’s what she was supposed to do, but food had long since lost its pleasure for her in terms of taste and real hunger. And now it was no longer even providing sufficient nutrition to stave off physical decline. We reach a point, if we live long enough, when our bodies fail us, and for those like my grandmother who manage to keep their wits about them the whole time, this can make for a hellish existence indeed. Our minds and bodies are so integrally woven together, we sometimes make the mistake of thinking they’re one and the same. Our bodies, being the weaker vessel, seem to function in service of the mind, and so as long as our mind is functioning properly we assume the body will follow suit, or at least the mind will coax the body back to health. We don’t typically picture the mind going in one direction and the body in another.
In Meme’s case, it was her heart that was giving out on her in the form of congestive heart failure. Her Parkinson’s symptoms certainly weren’t doing her any favors, but the heart failure at this point was progressing faster than the Parkinson’s. We had the most wonderful hospice nurse in Jean Rowe, and she came out at least twice a week to check on Meme’s vitals and symptoms. It was such a relief that she no longer had to go to the doctor’s office to do this, since the exertion of getting in and out of the car was wearing her out. Whatever prescriptions Meme may have needed, Jean was also able to order and have delivered to her. With the weakening heart, Meme was developing some swelling in her legs, since the heart was no longer able to circulate the blood and fluids efficiently throughout her body, and the swelling was becoming painful. This also meant she was having a harder time pumping fluid out of her lungs, which resulted in a crackle from the congestion. For the first time, she was also starting to lose her mental acuity, sometimes forgetting names and what day it was. We tried to reduce the swelling by giving her diuretics, but they didn’t work. The swelling only got worse.
The reason Jean was so good for my grandmother is because she appreciated how mentally alert and cognizant Meme was, and she afforded her the dignity of making her own choices, after explaining the options available to her. Jean presented her with three choices: 1) try another round of a stronger diuretic, which would only weaken her further by having to get up and go to the bathroom so often, 2) check into a hospice bed where they could administer the diuretic intravenously and drain with a catheter, or 3) do nothing. Jean understood that my grandmother did not want to do anything to prolong her life. She also knew beyond any shadow of doubt that my grandmother’s greatest wish was to remain in her home. Once we all realized that Meme was entering into the final stage of her life, and that the available treatment options would only increase her discomfort, it meant that her best option was to do nothing. At that point, the two main priorities were to keep her home and to keep her as comfortable and pain-free as possible.
[Stay tuned for Part Two]