The power of a matriarch

It’s June 1st. Summer is here. Perhaps not the official summer solstice quite yet, but June means summer to me. It means porches and watermelon and lazy afternoons.

We made our way through old country towns for an inaugural summer road trip to see family this past weekend. “Main Street” towns — each with a post office, an antique store and a cafe named after the owner: “Welcome to Carol’s Place.”

We whirled by cows resting by over-filled ponds (it’s been a rainy season) and made pit stops in small-town grocery stores with talkative clerks who each had a story to tell.

Between towns, we admired the pastoral beauty of the afternoon sun swept against deep green countryside. And when the speed limit dropped to sleepy-town speed once again, we waved at old women with wrinkled lips sipping coffee outside of hair salons.

It was the back-road way to part of my back-story. A scenic view to visit the East Texas town that my mother grew up in — one that I’ve spent summers visiting for years now. The weekend was full of family and a high school graduation, dreams looking forward, stories looking back. The up-and-coming downtown is bringing new life to the rich history there, a sentiment that felt most palpable as I sat drinking a Caramel Macchiato on the patio of a hip coffee shop, just a few stores down from where my Grandfather owned a dry cleaners decades ago.

I love going back there. It is a rare place in the world where as much as things change, the best things always stay the same. And while walking around the old cemetery at dusk, I was reminded of this story I wrote of the woman who grew all the beautiful people who gather there together — my grandmother.

Written almost 4 years ago on her birthday, I wanted to share it again today:

I heard her scamper across the kitchen linoleum in her ever-so-worn, blue Isotoner house slippers.

They had holes in them — but she didn’t care, it wasn’t about style for Grandma. They matched her over-sized, over-stretched, decade-old nightshirt that fell like a window drape to the top of her wrinkled, skinny legs. She fried bacon, scrambled eggs, sipped black coffee and hummed to Willie Nelson on her kitchen radio. And I – just a kid – laid content in the guest bedroom, listening to the comforting morning soundtrack of Grandma’s house.

Her house sat atop a hill that sloped into a dusty pasture with a man-made “tank” that bred Water Moccasins and catfish. Piles of cow patties peppered the summer-scorched grass, while coarse-haired heifers slept under the shade of the East Texas oaks. In the back, a barn stood proud, filled with hay and rusty farm equipment. Its chipped, red siding served as a lighthouse to hungry, homesick family members arriving “home” from wherever they happened to be.

Growing up, I happened to be in a lot of places. As the daughter of an Air Force officer, I moved every few years, traveled across oceans — and lived on a few different continents. But in the midst of all the changes, there was one thing that stayed the same: the house on the hill in East Texas.

We visited every summer and many Christmases and Thanksgivings. Family gathered and caught up and exclaimed a big Texas, “Well I declare, you’re growin’ like a weed!” while Grandma smoked unfiltered Camels and scribbled crossword puzzles on her stained, cushioned lap desk.

It was a comfortable place where time seemed to stand still. It held the comforts of childhood memories and familiar faces. But most of all, it held the diminutive matriarch that wasn’t much into small talk, but who loved a mean game of Yahtzee.

And then one day: something did change in this place that always stayed the same.

The Camels took their toll on the invincible woman who smelled like White Rain hairspray. The lung cancer soon metastasized to take more organs — and soon after, her life.

Suddenly, the house that was so full of memories felt eerily empty. The weary travelers, who looked for their lighthouse in the distance, now saw only a dim flicker. And somehow, they would have to travel forward without it:

The first days, weeks, even years after a matriarch dies are the hardest. They are the times when we learn if the fabric of our family is strong enough to hold without the thread. But then, slowly, we form new threads. New tribe leaders emerge. New traditions begin. And though the memories of our loved ones are never lost — we find a new way to go on in the spirit of their legacy.

We still gather in her house every year for holidays and summers. We still fry bacon and scramble eggs and sip coffee. And we learn that the power of a Matriarch lives on long after she is gone through the women and men that she loved so well.

And so it will be for generations to come.

chicken

Artwork by Martha Anne Hearn

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