The greatest legacy one can pass on to one’s children and grandchildren is not money or other material things accumulated in one’s life, but rather a legacy of character and faith.
(early 19th century tombstone / Colonial Cemetery / Savannah, GA / Julie Cook / 2014)
Hushed voices whispered across the back porch under the sweltering blanket of an oppressive late August evening.
It was almost 10 PM and the thermometer was reading 86—a welcomed drop from the triple digits which had only added insult to injury in the tiny crowded church. Her thinning frail hand was now working harder than it should, waving the paper program back and forth as she hoped to stir up the stifling night air.
Familiar steps echoed cross the well-worn wooden planks as the screen door creaked to life.
“I thought I told you to oil that door last week”
Her words taking more effort than she had strength to offer.
“Has anyone seen Ellington?”
“Not since lunch” was the whispered response.
Ellington was for the legendary Duke Ellington.
He had always loved listening to the Big Band orchestras. This love began during that most surreal time, back in ’44, when he and the others waited on their orders to come in–orders for the offensive assault that would mark that fateful June day for all of eternity. The days leading up to the invasion were passed nervously while everyone just sat waiting and wondering. There were the endless games of cards, letters written and rewritten home and those same familiar bands playing over and over on the only record player aboard ship. If he ever made it back home, he promised himself, he’d get himself a dog and name it Ellington.
“I haven’t seen him since we got back from the Church.”
“You know how that dog loved your daddy.”
“How old is he now, 12?
“Yeah, I bet he’s sitting down by the gate still waiting on Daddy to come driving up the road in that stupid old pick up.
“It isn’t a stupid pick-up” she shot over her shoulder at her brother sounding angrier then she had intended.
“Mama, can I get you some more tea?” She asks as she stands and stretches muscles now stiff from sitting in the old man’s rocking chair.
“It’s not as comfortable as your Daddy would have made you think, is it?”
“No mam, it’s not. How in the world did Daddy sit out here every night reading that paper of his? I’d rather sit on a fence post. . .” Catherine makes this statement as she gently rubs a weary behind.
“Your daddy had a bit more padding back there then you do sweetie.” At 92 she was a woman still full of warmth and grace. They had been married almost 70 years. He had actually asked her to marry him in a letter, written from France, once he knew he had survived the worst part of the war. It took the letter 6 weeks to make it home. Six weeks of her not knowing if he was dead or alive. When her father brought the mail in the house that evening, he silently slipped the letter across the dinning room table once they had sat down to supper. She looked nervously at both her mother and father, and then slowly opened the thin airmail post, trembling over what it might say.
Suddenly, sending her chair crashing on the floor behind her, she jumped to her feet shouting, apparently to no one present in the room, “Yes, Yes Yes. . .”
That was August 1944.
It would be two more years before they would marry, once the war was finally over and he made his way home with several citations, a silver star and an honorable discharge.
It had not always been an easy life, but it had been a good life. They had raised 4 decent and caring children on that small farm, managing to always pay the bills while keeping everyone feed, especially the three boys. They even made certain that the kids would have the option of going to college if they so chose. And choose they did.
As Catherine made her way inside to the familiar kitchen, pulling open the faded door to the old Frigidaire, relishing the blast of fresh cool air, she hunted the pitcher of tea. “I thought we were all going in together to buy them a new one of these last Christmas.” Catherine mumbles while lingering in the coolness of the refrigerator’s contents. She knew her younger brother had followed her inside.
Gathering the courage to speak his mind, with her back now sufficiently turned in his direction, her younger brother boldly begins to blurt out his quasi-rehearsed speech.
“I think you ought to take mom back with you and I’ll take Ellington back with me. It’s not like she. . .”
He doesn’t even have time to finish his first thought before Catherine slams the door to the refrigerator and whips around so fast that it catches James off guard.
“ WHAT?!” she hisses through clenched teeth as she fights back the angry stinging tears.
She always did have Daddy’s quick temper.
“Are you crazy!?
She proceeds to unleash the full fury of the pain and frustration built over the past few days upon an unsuspecting and well meaning, if not clueless, younger brother.
“I’m not taking her anywhere and you’re certainly not taking that dog back to Boston.
You want to just kill both of them right now?
Taking them from here, especially now, would certainly do it.”
James, now a bit frightened, doesn’t recognize the ranting woman standing across from him.
“Oh I get it. . . Robert knew you were coming in here didn’t he?
I bet you both have been planning all of this when Daddy first got sick.
He’s out there right now ready to tell Mama ya’ll’s plan isn’t he?
What about Paul?
He’s not even here for Christ’s sake.
He can’t even get a plane out of Venezuela for the funeral and you two have already moved her and that dog!
How dare you James!”
And just as quickly as the furious storm is unleashed upon a hapless younger sibling, the rage thankfully subsides.
Catherine suddenly feels as if all the energy, all the anger, mingled with the terrible heaviness of the immense sorrow, has now simply evaporated from her very tired body—as if a tempest wind had suddenly vanished taking all of the energy from the raging storm with it.
Her brother, her younger brother, is no longer looking at her but rather standing with both hands stretched out on the counter, his arms are painfully straining to hold up his now very weary lanky frame–with his head cast downward, he mumbles “ I just thought the boys would like having the dog.”
Catherine, reading the pain in his words, reaches her hand to cover her brother’s. She’s amazed how much James looks like a much younger version of the man she lost only yesterday.
She begins slowly. . .“It’s not like Daddy owed any money on this place. He paid it off 10 years back when he sold off the cows. Mr. Johnson has been paying them for the hay— and Randal and Wilton pay Daddy for renting the fields, plus they’re giving them a percentage of the corn. They can now simply pay Mama.”
“I know you think Richard and I never can agree on much but the one thing we do agree on is Mama and Daddy. I know how much Richard loved Daddy, he’s only wanted the best for both of them.
We’ve talked about it.
I’ve got enough years in at work.
I sent in my letter of resignation last month.
I’m going to stay with Mama for as long as she needs me or wants me.
With the girls now gone, the house is really more than Richard and I need.
We’ve talked about letting Robert list it and we’ll just come back here to the farm until we find something smaller.
Richard can commute to the college.
I can stay a month, six months, a year. . .
You can go back to Alice and the boys, buy the boys a dog, but Ellington has got to stay here with Mama.
Robert is less than two hours a way in Des Moines, he can be here when and if I need him.”
By now a wealth of tears has finally come to both weary faces. Whoever would have thought this pair of once rough and tough siblings would be standing at the counter of the kitchen, the same kitchen that had once witnessed a myriad of mud covered frogs in the brand new porcelain sink, a lethargic lizard placed in the freezer for safe keeping, one too many missing cherry pies from a lone windowsill, as well as the late night secret ins and outs of restless teens, who were now sadly finding themselves, all these many years later, deciding the fate of an aging mother and dog.
“Look at it this way” Catherine interjects attempting to put a much needed smile back on her brother’s face, “this will finally give Mama the chance to teach me how to make that famous gooseberry jam of hers. You know how much she always resented Daddy for turning her only daughter into a 4th farm hand, dashing all her hopes of a little feminism on this male dominated farm.”
James lifts his tear-streaked face to meet his sister’s glance.
“You know how I hated that crap” he sheepishly replies.
“Yeah, I know, just as much as Daddy did.”
James now wide eyed stares in disbelief at his sister.
“Yep, he hated it, said it reminded him of eyeballs covered in sugar, but he’d eat it any way cause he knew how hard she had worked on it”
By now the distinctive boyish grin was slowly returning.
“I suppose that’s what happens when you love someone for 70 years” sighs a very tired Catherine who is now smiling back at her equally tired kid brother. “You’d eat anything they cooked and in turn love an old hound dog named Ellington.