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Thursday, July 27, 2017

Birthday: "The doors between the old man today and the child are still open, wide open. I can stroll through my grandmother's house and know exactly where the pictures are, the furniture was, how it looked, the voice, the smells. I can move from my bed at night today to my childhood in less than a second."- Ingmar Bergman

"Memento mori," Fate reminded me yesterday, with a passing tap on the shoulder. "You, too, will die."

My mother died, at 86, in February. Her mother, Margaret Virginia McFadyen Comer, was born 125 years ago yesterday in Montgomery County, North Carolina. She spent her adult life on a farm in Richmond County, near Ellerbe, and there she raised seven boys and a girl in a house my grandfather built from trees he felled and milled.



That it is 125 years since the birth of a near relative- someone I knew- gave me pause, if not the bragging rights of two grandsons of John Tyler, the tenth president of the United States.

Born in 1790, he fathered fifteen children by two wives; the last of his kids lived until 1948.

Two of Tyler's grandsons are alive today, 227 years after his birth, and 155 after his death in 1862.

I was unlucky with grandparents. My parents were both at the end of big families. By the time I was born in 1955, my father's father was dead eight years; his wife died when I was three. I once had a photo album of childhood photos with her; a cloth alphabet book she sewed, wrote, and illustrated (Lin's Book, she titled it); and a favorite novel of hers an aunt gave me in 1969. A few years ago, my family threw those keepsakes away. I am told she was an accomplished poet. My father kept a cache of her work my siblings now possess, that I never was shown.

I was named after my maternal grandfather, Lindsay Wister Comer: the only male cousin to be so christened (my middle name, Taylor, is from my paternal grandfather, Cicero Taylor Thompson). I have no photos of him.

Papa Comer died when I was six, and the movielike memories I had of him as a child have faded and crumbled to dust.  I have a photo of my grandparents on their fortieth anniversary, courtesy of a cousin, and my grandfather's razor, a salvage from a disposal of his things when I was at the farm for a visit.

I inherited his dazzling gold pocket watch, a Hamilton from his World War I service on the Seaboard Airline Railway. I intended leaving it to my nephew, three of who grandparents lived well into his twenties, and who all adored him.

When my grandmother moved off the farm in her last years, I got a thermometer my grandfather always consulted on the back porch. It was from a feed company over in Star he did business with.

My family disposed of those items a few years ago.

My Granny Comer was a tiny woman of immense presence. She was laconic, and used her words sparingly and effectively. She dipped snuff and we always had to be careful around furniture: she had styrofoam spit cups under everything.

She had a weakness for chocolates, which family indulged with big Whitman samplers for holidays and birthdays. After she died, old boxes were found stashed everywhere. She tried to hide them from herself.

She had a soft spot for small children; she never tired of telling me the Bre'r Rabbit stories of her late 19C childhood, and indulged my passion for her mashed potatoes, which I considered perfection.

I did not know her well- really, only from 1960 to 1970 or so. When I was ten, in 1965, my family moved 165 miles to western North Carolina. She came to see us once I can recall; we made the long trip less often. I had one letter from her- a note for a birthday. The album it was in has been thrown away by others.

She gave me silver dollars for a number of birthdays; my mother confiscated those, and when the Hunt Brothers tried to corner the silver market in late 1979, she sold them.

As a young teen, I spent extended periods with my grandmother and extended family during long illnesses suffered by both my parents. I don't remember much of those- I read a lot, and was pretty much left to my own devices otherwise- except that there was nothing feeling as warm as being a Comer, even though I and my siblings are the only ones without that surname.

My grandmother didn't do serious conversations with kids, and I'd long since learned that any teenage angsty talk would get back to my parents, who'd be waiting with a bill of attainder when I got home.

My grandmother spent her last 18 months under siege by liver cancer, and visits were limited to adults. Information was power, and my mother doled it out sparingly. When my grandmother died in November 1972, I had a feeling it would be one of the last great gatherings of the clan.

I inherited some money from her, about which I did not learn until was in my late thirties. My mother helped my kit out my home with custom-ordered furniture designed to last. It gave me much pleasure. It, too, disappeared a few years ago.

Oddly, I have an incomplete set of her Stetson china. It is incomplete, I was told, because a more senior relative had the same pattern, and filled the gaps in her set after my grandmother died.

The china was returned to me a few years ago, along with the damaged and least valuable pieces of my art collection. I don't use it any more. It just makes me unhappy.

For a long time, I indulged the thought that had she lived longer, my grandmother might have softened the wrath of my parents when I came out. From a place at the blazing hearth of a large family, I found myself a planetoid, cast into a distant and eccentric and very cold, solitary orbit.

In February, seeing the family again after twenty years' exile, I realized how irrelevant I have become. I was a dead actor brought back for a cameo as a hologram in a period piece. I shelved that old fantasy. It went sour.

I expect my grandmother would have just gone silent, as most of her children did. In chance meetings, she would have been dully polite and relieved when I left.

I thought, when I started writing, I'd do one of my memory dumps: all the old stories, assembled in one place, nostalgia buffed to a shine. At 61, I see it's all pretty much irrelevant. No one cares of those sorts of memories except cousins I stopped hearing from in 1996.

My grandmother and I never knew each other except in socially-prescribed roles. I revere her memory. There's just not much reason to dust it off anymore. Alone we arrive, and alone we leave. It is time, I guess, to start paring down some more.

There'll be that much less to be thrown away later.





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