Friday morning, my cousin Max Newham called and invited me to go with him to put flowers in the cemeteries where our parents and our grandparents are buried. I hesitated only a minute before agreeing. I mentally cleared my calendar for part of the day and agreed to meet him in Hazlehurst.
Soon we had purchased and loaded several lush poinsettias into his car. Our first stop was the Hazlehurst City Cemetery. We climbed out of the vehicle, unloaded our flowers, and walked toward our parents’ graves to place our floral offerings.
“You know,” Max said, “your daddy always seemed more like an older brother to me than an uncle. He’d play with me when I was a young’un. When I knew he was going to get the best of me, I’d run to Grandpa so he could save me from Luther. You know I’m the patriarch of the family now that Luther’s gone.”
And he is. As the oldest living male, he’s acquired that position through longevity. He’ll be 85 in February. My grandmother so much wanted Mama and Daddy to have another child after Sarah Nell and I turned out to be girls. She wanted a boy to carry on the family name, but it was not to be. Max has Nichols blood and genes though, whether he has the Nichols name or not.
After our mission was accomplished, Max backed his car up and turned around to avoid driving through the mud. Familiar names on tombstones greeted my eyes as we eased along: Bramblett, Ussery, Hayes, and many more. My heart hurt a bit as I passed the plot where my friend Virginia McEachin and her mother, Mrs. J.J. Miley, sleep. I still miss them. What wonderful people they were.
We pulled out of the cemetery and soon were on 341 headed toward Baxley. I was a bit surprised when Max turned onto Altamaha Road and accelerated. I’d never before been that way to get to Midway Baptist Church in Appling County where our grandparents are buried. However, I assumed that Max knew where he was going.
We chatted about family as we rode. Max and his family lived with Grandpa and Grandma Nichols when he was a child. I, on the other hand, was born in 1948, and Grandpa died in ’47. I never knew him and have always felt a bit cheated.
“Grandpa knew more about British history than any other person I’ve ever known,” Max said. “When I did homework, I’d ask him a question about some king or another and he always had way more information than I needed. He’d give me birth and death dates, places, events, and relationships. He knew wives’ names, and all their children’s names. The man amazed me with his knowledge.”
My father wasn’t one to provide a lot of information on his family. He lived in the present and cared little for the past. When he was in his eighties, I was visiting him one Sunday night and complaining about my salary when he stopped me cold.
“Your grandpa taught school for $20 a month,” Daddy said. “You make a lot more than that, don’t you?”
“Yes, sir, I do” I replied. “Thank goodness, I do. You never told me Grandpa was a teacher.”
“Well, you never asked me,” he replied.
Friday, Max filled in another piece of the puzzle for me. As we neared Midway Cemetery, he said, “I used to like to sit and listen to Grandpa play the fiddle.”
“What? Grandpa was a fiddler?”
“Yes, that man really knew how to play,” he assured me, as he pulled in and parked near the graves. Again we unloaded flowers and he carefully placed them on the graves, these much older and weather worn than the ones in Hazlehurst. Grandpa’s slab even had his dates of birth and death hand-carved into it.
When Max delivered me back to my car and said goodbye, I was glad he’d invited me along and that I’d made the time to go with him. There’s always something else to learn from the family patriarch. Maybe we can make this an annual outing.