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Sunday, November 27, 2016

Granny Comer and me

My grandfather pioneers manspreading, c. 1956

My maternal grandmother, Margaret Virginia McFayden Comer, died on this day- November 26- in 1972. She was 80 years old, the last three survivors of the seven children of John Calvin McFayden (1843-1920) and his wife Flora McInnis McFayden (1863-1906), and survived her husband, Lindsay Wister Comer, by a decade.

By most measures, hers was an uneventful life. She had a limited education and spent her life, except for its last few years, on farms. She married in her mid-twenties. She wasn't able to vote until she was 27; I don't know if she ever did. She bore eight children: seven sons and a daughter, my mother. She never learned to drive.

I can't say I knew her well in an adult sense of the term. My mother was the last but one of the children- who were born over several decades- so Granny Comer was almost 64 when I was born, a tiny little old lady with silver hair that ran below her waist but when she brushed it before bed, but that, by day, she kept braided atop her head. 

I was only sixteen when she died. I rarely saw her after I was ten and we moved from Raeford, which was an easy drive to the farm outside Ellerbe, to Shelby in western North Carolina, 160 miles away. She was the last of my grandparents.

She was immeasurably patient with the waves of younger cousins who cycled through her farmhouse to give parents a break in the summer. There were seventeen of us, all told, ranging from toddlers to young adults. I guess once she acquired the skill needed to manage six boys in a row, nothing was beyond her.

Being told stories, and preferably old, familiar ones, is what small children look for in a grandparent, and Granny, as we all knew her (she was Maggie, or Aunt Maggie, in the community), had an endless store of them: the ones she had grown up with, tales straight out of Joel Chandler Harris. She told them well, in her low, throaty voice. I can still- almost- here he saying, "Please...please, don't throw me me in that briar patch!"

My grandmother dipped snuff, and constantly had some going. That meant, navigating at kid's eye level through the house, one was, sooner or  later, going to knock over one of her spit cups, strategically placed- usually under beds and couches. It was the sort of mistake you only made once. 

She had a weakness for chocolate, too. This seemed to trouble her Calvinist soul. Birthdays and holidays boxloads of Whitman samplers flooded into her lap; when she moved into Ellerbe in the late 1960s, relatives helping pack up found the ancient boxes in bureau drawers, on armoire shelves, atop breakfronts, and in closets stacked atop the endless ranks of Mason jars of canned vegetables. There were always a few missing candies, but one should never get too accustomed to such luxe living.

My grandfather- Papa to the grandchildren- was a logger, and early on, he and my grandmother moved about Moore County as he logged parcels out and shifted to the next one. About 1920 he turned to farming,acquired a substantial parcel outside Ellerbe, North Carolina, and built a house with three bedrooms, a parlor, a dining room and a kitchen (the last time I was there, I could still see where my older uncles wrote their names on the brick of the fireplace on the front porch in the late 1920s). I don't know when indoor plumbing arrived, but when it did it was sort of bolted onto the back of the house, enclosing one end of a screened gallery porch running the width of the house. 

The house was still heated by fireplace heat in my earliest memories, though that was soon replaced by oil heaters that operated in front of the hearth like a Franklin stove. Under either system, getting out of bed- out from under a mound of handmade quilts long disappeared under the self-help methods employed by my family after deaths- was a dreaded event, to be followed by a trot down the hall, through the kitchen, out the back door and down the porch to the bathroom and its glacially-cold appliances. After my grandfather died in 1962, one of my uncles framed a door through from my grandmother's bedroom-sitting room, which made greeting the dawn less of a polar bear run than before.

My grandparents had an inexplicable progressive streak in them. They saw to it that all of their brood who wanted a college education got one. They gave land, just down the road, for the building of an A.M.E. Zion church.

They acquired a television, I was told, about as soon as there were rumors TV signals were in the air. It was a big, boxy affair with a tiny porthole screen; I think I have a memory of seeing it before it was replaced by a more modern, boxy late '50s model. 

They had some improbably modern furniture in the parlor- "the front room"- including a couple of armless chairs that swiveled and looked like a Nike swoosh. Those were a source of endless fun for me and my cousins. One of us rode, and the others kept it turning as fast as they could. Granny was sure one of us would one day be launched into the air and emerge- bruised, bloodied and cover in lathe and plaster- in an adjoining room.

The house my grandfather built was like the inside of Doctor Who's Tardis, much bigger than it appeared on the outside. Major family events- Christmas, Thanksgiving, Easter, the annual reunion- some how it managed to hold everyone who showed up. 

Granny and Papa's immediate family- the eight kids, their spouses and the grandchildren, numbered 28; five of her siblings lived nearby, several of my grandfather's would come over from Star and Seagrove, and there were second and third and fourth cousins, and more- people whose relationships I couldn't begin to keep straight in my head. They were just part of The Family. 

Cars were everywhere- lining the driveway where it looped around behind the house, linking all the barns and outbuildings, and into the front yard (my cousin Marcus the football team captain with the hair whose contours and waves would have shamed Ricky Nelson, liked to claim pride of place in the front yard for his GTO). 

The front and back porches were full of chairs and people talking; in summer, the children were kept occupied working the ice cream churn (can a taste be remembered, tangibly? I can, for fresh peach ice cream).

Somehow, there was a place for everyone, though in the early 1970s I did find myself wondering, at a card table in the front room for Thanksgiving, if I would live long enough to ever eat with the grownups in the dining room.

Granny, in her widowed decade, was prone- as my mother would say, jaws tight- To Just Do Things. She took up fishing, for example. My grandfather had built and stocked two ponds down in the woods behind the barns; alone, Granny started keeping live bait (in season, the catalpa trees in the front yard were a booming supplier), and getting up at the crack of dawn- pole in one hand, bucket in the other- to head down to the pond with the family dog. What sent my mother around the bend was that Granny wore a Day-Glo pink quilted housecoat Mother had given her to wear in the house, not sitting on a bucket fishing at 7 in the morning.

I couldn't see what the fuss was about. Having bream for breakfast didn't seem any stranger than when Papa took me out to hunt up some squirrels for dinner, but the Steely Parental Gaze of Death persuaded me I had no dog in that hunt after all.

After her dog tripped her and broke her wrist, Granny moved into Ellerbe, into my Uncle Joe's old house. He had built a new one next door. They shared back yards, and my Uncle Clinton and Aunt Evelyn lived two doors down. Granny rattled around the house, sat up late watching Johnny Carson (on visits, I could hear her, down the hall, chuckling, "heh-heh-heh" during his monologs). She was fascinated, as were all Americans, by having lived to see men walking on the moon.

A relative who dropped by after a long absence thought Granny looked jaundiced in early 1971. Surgery followed, but liver cancer was a tough nut in those days, and in a year she was dead. The funeral packed out the sanctuary at Mount Carmel Presbyterian Church where her family were among the first worshippers in 1776.

It was the last great gathering of the family I attended. My life's course took me further off: to England, then the West Coast, where I intended staying three years that turned into thirty. 

Still, I felt that unbreakable bond, that Comerness, that I grew up with, even though I and my two sisters are the only cousins without that surname. It was the feeling Robert Frost expressed in the lines, "Home is where, when you have to go there/They have to let you in."

Of course, it wasn't. The last reunion I attended was in 1994, a much smaller affair than those of my childhood. My generation had scattered. 

I wanted to test the waters for something I needed to say. When I finally came out, at the end of 1995, my parents were so upset I put off telling anyone else in the family. I even sent the extended family a different Christmas letter than the world got that year. 

Two of my uncles and an aunt inadvertently forced the issue, writing me they were coming to Seattle for a World War II ship reunion. 

They wanted to have dinner at my house- see how I lived in Seattle, and stock up on impressions for the next reunion to report how the oddball nephew lived way the hell across the country.

The night before they were to come to dinner, I took them to dinner at The Space Needle. It's where you take out of town visitors, and over dinner I explained things. I didn't want them to show up and feel blindsided.

They decided they'd be happy to meet John, and dinner the next night went famously. We took them over to peer into the windows of the new house we were closing on, and they wished us well. I was walking on air.

The rest of the family never came around. 

What would Granny have done? I have no idea. I don't suppose it matters any more. When I was young, my memories of my grandparents were like home movies in my mind, with color and sound. Over time, the colors faded. The sound grew murky, and went silent. Then pictures went still. 

Now they are like the one above, of my grandparents on their fortieth anniversary- a picture of a picture. Some memories of my time with my grandmother are like memories that I once had a memory, now lost in the filing, but I know I used to know where it was.

I know my grandmother once told me stories of her parents, but I can't remember much of what she said. Perhaps that is in the nature of things: my great-grandfather was born almost 175 years ago. Granny would be 123 years old now. Trying to guess her thoughts about a gay grandson would be as productive as being a South Carolina legislator last year, divining what his Confederate vet forebears would think of taking down from the Capitol a rebel flag not hoisted there until 1961.

Memory erodes, and perhaps it's a good thing. If we carried it all, crystal clear, forever, life would probably be unbearable. So we discard some things, and lose others, and in my mind's eye it is always a fine late summer Sunday on the farm outside Ellerbe, with people coming and going all afternoon, laughing and joking and working through a bushel of snap beans, and everyone gets along. All are welcome.

In his 1993 novel, The Weekend, Peter Cameron summed it all up best:

There are things you lose you do not get back. You cannot have them, ever again, except in the smudging carbon copy of memory. There are things that seem irreconcilable that you must find a way to reconcile with. The simple passage of days dulls the sharpness of pain, but it never wears it out: what gets washed away in time gets washed away, and then you are left with a hard cold nub of something, an unlosable souvenir. A little china dachshund from the White Mountains. A shadow puppet from Bali. Look--an ivory shoehorn from a four-star hotel in Zurich. And here, like a stone I carry everywhere, is a bit of someone's heart I have saved from a journey I once made.

Somehow I ended up with part of Granny's best china, some glassware, and a handful of knives and forks I used to eat with her half a century ago.

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