This Thanksgiving, I’ll be sitting at the grownup table. Since last Thanksgiving, the last two well-loved old men in the Jowers extended family—my uncle Guy and Brenda’s daddy Grady—grabbed on to the low-swinging chariot and rode it on up to heaven. They had their wives up there waiting for them and were ready and willing to go join them. I’m sure they’re enjoying their reunions.
This year, down here on the ground at the Kearse-and-Jowers Thanksgiving gathering, there will be no more old women cooking, no more old men carving up turkeys. We middle-aged folk are up to bat now, cooking Thanksgiving dinner just like our great-great-great grandmas did a hundred years ago, except that we’ll be using electricity and microwaves instead of wood and coal. For the first time, we will rule the grownup table.
But before I start thinking about any turkey-carving, I’ve just got to say a little something about those two well-loved old men. Guy and Grady both lived to their mid-80s and were pretty healthy right up to the end. Both were good, reliable men.
Guy spent most of his life as the boss man at a kaolin mine. When he retired, he started building fancy birdhouses and cooking up a powerful eggnog brew at Christmastime.
Grady was a pilot. He flew the Navy’s planes and helicopters for about 20 years. After he retired from the Navy, he went home to South Carolina, where he tinkered with cars and tractors, exercised in Wal-Mart and grew pine trees.
But mostly, Guy and Grady put their energy and effort into simply being good to their wives, children and grandchildren. They were old-school family men that right-minded modern husbands and fathers ought to envy.
Uncle Guy loved my Aunt Coot for more than 50 years. In all that time, they spent just one night apart, when Guy had to go to Des Moines on kaolin-mine business. When Aunt Coot went to the hospital to die, Guy slept on a hard sofa right beside her bed. Once a day, he’d go home to shower, then come right back to that sofa. About three years after Aunt Coot died, Guy said to my cousin Sheila, “I just want to go.” Soon after that, he died in his sleep.
Grady loved his wife Lula for more than 50 years. He fed, medicated and bathed her every day during the last six years of her life, during which she was crippled by Alzheimer’s disease. After Lula was blind and totally forgetful, Grady drove her in circles around the farmhouse and described the beautiful weather, the budding flowers and the grand old houses. Of course, there was nothing there but the farmhouse, the barn and the pecan trees. Still, Lula enjoyed her rides.
About three years after Lula died, Grady got up one morning, fixed himself a bowl of oatmeal and poured a glass of orange juice. Then, best any of us can guess, Grady started feeling a little funny, so he put his breakfast in the refrigerator and headed for his bedroom, intending to lie down. Well, he took his last earthly step at the edge of the bed that he’d shared with Lula. As Grady’s preacher said, a good Baptist can’t do much better than fall asleep in his own bedroom, in his own pajamas, sure of where he’s going.
Now Guy’s resting in a little red-clay hill in Sunset Memorial Gardens, next to Aunt Coot. One plot over is my daddy Jabo, who’s wearing my dark blue tie because he didn’t own a decent tie when he died. Next to him is my mother Susie, who’s wearing a pale blue dress. When my Aunt Coot saw my mother lying in her casket back in 1966, she turned to me and said, “She’s so pretty. She looks like she’s dressed up to go to the A&P.”
Jabo and Susie don’t have flowers on their graves. They have a whirligig. I put it there because Jabo loved toys and whimsy, and Susie never much cared for grave flowers or funereal things.
Grady’s parked next to Lula, in the sandy South Carolina countryside, under the live oaks of the Great Salkehatchie Cemetery. They’ve got matching caskets. At the head of Lula and Grady’s plot are two concrete angels, courtesy of my sister Ann and her husband Vann, who sell concrete ornaments at the side of Highway 25.
Just like the Thanksgiving turkey-cooking, the death, burial and grave-decorating rituals in the South Carolina midlands haven’t changed much in a hundred years.
I’m sure that while I’m in South Carolina, my mind will wander and blend together the images of the live oaks, the Spanish moss, the sand-bed roads and the ageless pine forest that runs along the beach on Hunting Island. For just a little while, I’ll believe that I can see across 200 years, from 1850 to 2050.
That reverie will evaporate, though, when I rub shoulders and lock eyes with a few present-day South Carolina menfolk and instantly realize that they just don’t match up to men like Guy and Grady.
Compared to those two well-loved old men, I’m just not worthy of carving the turkey on Thursday. I think I’ll just ease down the hall when carving time comes, then stroll back to the table after the bird is all sliced up.
Then I’ll lift a glass to the good men who are gone.