I can imagine the scene there then, imagine family and friends going out to the back shed and removing the Rose Point Crystal (service for 12, complete with water pitcher and butter dish) from the custom-built pine coffin where she kept it. And I can imagine her being laid to rest in that coffin, according to her wishes.
We called ourselves “cousins,” Kathryn and I, though we were cousins only by marriage and even that was stretching it a bit.
Her Uncle Bertie was a hard-working, tight-fisted, no-nonsense man from Thomasville who came down to open a drugstore in Grove Hill, get rich and marry the prettiest girl in town. That was my Great-Aunt MeMe.
Now, you might think that we — Kathryn and I — would celebrate this union and revere his memory, but we knew that our common kin was a hard man to be around, so instead we bonded over the story she told of how, when he died, her mother insisted that she get to the funeral well ahead of the crowd.
“Why so early?” Kathryn asked.
“I want to get a front-row seat to hear if anyone will say anything good about Bertie Tucker.”
But we had more going for us than a reprehensible relative.
We had a general love of history and a specific love for a good story.
Although I had known her, or at least of her, most of my life, it was not until I returned to Alabama in 1990 that we really became friends. I was working on a book on Alabama rivers, and since she lived in one of the state’s true river towns and had written on the subject, it seemed only natural that I would go visit.
I arrived early. We talked a bit, snacked on graham crackers spread with pimento cheese, clarified family connections and decried the loss of so many Selma landmarks — especially the old Hotel Albert, the Venetian Palace of a building that once dominated downtown.
Then we loaded up and headed into the Black Belt. “Into the Black Belt” — like we were going into some strange, exotic land from which we might never return. But with Cousin Kathryn we were safe. She knew where to go and who would be there.
Along the way, she did what she did best — told stories that linked us to times past and resurrected people long gone from the earth. She also introduced me to the living, like William Harris, former river rat turned folk artist who ran a store at Possum Bend. He had promised to paint her a picture of a mule and buzzards and she wanted to remind him that she was still waiting for it.
When the day was done, we ate an early supper at Hancock’s Barbeque (her favorite).
Then I took her home.
When I left, she gave me a small porcelain room number she had rescued when they tore down the old hotel.
Other visits followed.
More than once I took a class down to see her. I let her set the agenda and it was always different. A trip to Old Cahaba, where we picnicked on the site of Alabama’s first capital. A walking tour of Selma’s Live Oak Cemetery, where she pointed out graves of little-known people we should know more about.
After she finished one of her stories, a student who was yet to balance skepticism with a sense of whimsy, asked her, “Did that really happen”?
“Well,” she said with a faint smile, “if it did not happen that way, it should have.”
Those were good times.
There were not enough of them.
Now there won’t be any more.
Despite frequent invitations, I never made it to her New Year’s Day black-eyed peas and cornbread lunch, when her doors were thrown open to anyone who wanted to make sure luck would follow for another year.
Nor did I do with her so many other things I should have done.
Like take my children by more often.
My son got to know her. My daughter, hardly at all.
Our last communication was the graduation gift she sent the boy. A money clip. The sort a young gentleman should carry, for we all know that pulling out a billfold for minor transactions is, well, tacky.
When it arrived, I recalled a bit of poetry she loved, a verse by Jan Struther. Cousin Kathryn said she wanted it on her tombstone.
“She was twice blessed:
“She was happy:
“She knew it.”
That was Cousin Kathryn.
She left out one thing.
We all were blessed by her being here.
I think I’ll have some graham crackers and pimento cheese.
Harvey H. (“Hardy”) Jackson is Eminent Scholar in History at Jacksonville State University and a columnist and editorial writer for The Star. E-mail: email@example.com.