I turn fifty-five today. That is 55, or as it is sometimes known as double nickels. Now I try not to look and I certainly don’t act my age. Despite this I am now officially eligible for my AARP card and discounts, I’ll probably get carded when I try to use them.
Since I think I am now what they call “middle-aged” this means that I should live to be about 110. I actually think that would be cool because I would certainly be around for the Civil War Bicentennial, hopefully still leading Staff Rides at Gettysburg for officers not yet born.
It really is hard to believe how views on age and aging have changed over the years. When I was about seven years old my paternal grandmother, Verdie, who insisted on being called “Granny” informed me that she wasn’t going to be around much longer. At the time she was fifty-five. But back then people did act old, especially once they entered their forties. I remember one of my Algebra teachers from junior high school back in 1973-74. The man looked, dressed and acted like he was in his sixties. He wore a gray woolen suit, a white button down shirt, a nondescript thin black tie, black oxfords, and when he was outside, a gray fedora.
I thought he had he had passed away years ago and I was surprised as hell to see his obituary a year or two back. He was only about eighty, which would have meant that when he was my teacher he would have been in his early forties, and looking like he was sixty. But that wasn’t unusual back then, just watch some movies from the era and see what the 40-50 year olds looked and dressed like.
Well anyway, back to Granny. Granny was from Putnam County West Virginia and she left home at age eighteen because she did not like the repressive atmosphere and wanted to make a life for herself away from the farm. As the oldest daughter she was having to take responsibility for raising her younger siblings, and she could not abide such a life in the holler with no freedom or opportunity. Granny talked with an old Appalachian dialect that has almost died out. But she was very progressive for her day, raising two sons as a widowed single-mother. She worked until she was forced to retire and then volunteered at the local hospital gift shop for another decade or so. She could talk baseball, but sadly she was a Dodgers’ fan and lived and died with he team. She travelled the country bus Greyhound bus until she was in her early eighties. She was a fascinating person.
She was active in her church and into her eighties she would take meals to ome-bound church members who she called “those poor old people.” Of course most of them were younger than her. Now as far as cooking was concerned, her’s was infamous around the family and in the church, something that we all strove to avoid eating if possible. My wife Judy who probably spent the most time with her was subjected to her fare more than anyone. To this day she tells me, that me, my brother that the rest of my cousins and me owe her big for that, but I digress….
But the one thing about her was that no-matter when we would meet she would say that she “didn’t have long to live” or “wouldn’t be around much longer.” To make sure that we understood that she purchased a plot a a cemetery which had just opened during the early 1970s and even had her headstone planted there. Occasionally if we were in town it would be among the graves that she would have us visit. She had this morbid obsession with death. Maybe it is because she was twice widowed and grew up in difficult times, World War One, the Spanish Flu pandemic, the Great Depression, and the Second World War. But for whatever reason she talked like she was old and soon to die, even as she travelled the country on Greyhound.
Then in 1995 I took my first post seminary job as a contract emergency department chaplain in the city that she lived. It was fascinating to get to know her again as well as my maternal grandmother who was also still alive and living in the town. I worked nights and weekends so Judy got to know them better than anyone, she took them both shopping and to doctors appointments, all the while attempting to ensure that Granny did not feed her. Once I angered Granny when she told me that she wasn’t going to be around much longer and I asked if she was moving. She popped a cork and informed me that I knew what she was talking about. I replied, “Yes, I know you have been telling me this since I was a child and you are still alive.” She didn’t talk to me for a week, but got over it.
My maternal grandmother, Christine died unexpectedly when I was deployed for the Bosnia mission in 1996 and between that and another active reserve tour I missed seeing Granny a lot until we returned in October of 1998.
One day, it was in November or December of that year, I got a panicked call from Granny. Evidently a salesman from the cemetery had called her and asked if she wanted to pay the opening and closing fee on her plot in advance. Evidently this brought the matter of her mortality to the fore, in a much more tangible way than she had imagined. She told me that she had a nephew who had connections to cemetery where her parents and some siblings were buried and wanted me to move her tombstone to it.
I told her that we would probably have to go to the cemetery office because one could not simply appear at the cemetery and start digging up tombstones without permission. I imagined being like Gene Wilder in Young Frankenstein when he went to dig up the corpse in which to implant Abby’s brain. Abby who? Abby someone… Abby, Abby Normal, that’s who I think it was… again I digress…
So I set up an appointment for her and me to make the arrangements. The people were nice, we filled out the necessary forms and two workmen dug up the stone and placed in the truck of my 1984 Volvo 240 GL.
We had to wait a week until her nephew could make time to meet us at the family cemetery and for two weeks I had to drive around town with Granny’s tombstone in my trunk. I just knew that someone was going to rear-end the car, pop the trunk and that I would have to answer some questions rather pointed questions from the police. Questions that I might add, could prove distressing, as how many people drive around with tombstones in their trunk? I could hear the conversation:
Police officer: What is that?
Me: A tombstone officer.
Police officer: What kind of ghoul are you?
Me: How many kinds are there?
Thankfully however, no one hit me, I did not have to explain the tombstone in the trunk to the police and the next Saturday we drove up to her nephew’s house and then to the cemetery. Of course the weather was perfect for placing a tombstone, cold, cloudy, dreary and rainy; just like any horror movie. Not even birds were chirping. Her nephew and I emplaced the monument with great care. We ensured that it was in the correct plot and carefully measured and the appropriate distance to the neighboring graves of her parents, for even in death people need their space. As we worked, Granny supervised, much happier now that if she was going to die that she had a home so to speak. Once we had it set I grabbed a bottle of Windex, a rag and cleaned the mud off of the top of the monument. Granny was pleased, and I was glad to have the tombstone out of my trunk.
Two months later I transferred from the Army Reserve to the Navy and we moved away. Soon after the 9-11-2001 attacks we visited, Granny had reached the point that she was in a nursing home. I drove her around the town to places she used to visit and took her her for a hot dog at the local original Stewart’s Root Beer and hot dog stand. Since she couldn’t go to church she had Judy sing a couple of hymns for her before we went back to North Carolina. A couple of weeks later she passed away and we gathered for her funeral.
My dad and uncle were there as were many other relatives. The service was at the church where she had attended for decades and where I had been baptized as an infant. The cemetery was about thirty miles away a bit up I-64. Since there was a home football game for the local college, Marshall University, the funeral home employees ensured that we had the fasted motorcade I have ever been a part, we were chasing the hearse which was doing about eighty with the little purple funeral flags furiously flapping in the wind. After a quick graveside service it was done. I don’t think that anyone missed the opening kick off that day and I’m sure that Granny wouldn’t have minded. My dad and Judy both agreed in hindsight that old time sake and for safety reasons we should have hired a Greyhound bus for the funeral party with Granny’s coffin in the luggage compartment.
So anyway, from the time she was fifty-five until she was almost ninety, Granny never ceased to let me know that she didn’t have long to live. I hope as a minimum I live as long as she did and I do promise that you won’t be hearing me tell you that I haven’t long left, unless they are dragging me away to the funeral home as my fingers type out one last article.
Here’s to health and long life!