Sad to say…today few people realize the difference. But it is HUGE!
I wrote the other day about the Community in which I grew up…Drayton, South Carolina. It was so much more than just eggs, onions, and farts though.
Let me tell you about a couple more of those real-life Steel Magnolias.
Our next door neighbors were Mama and Papa Tattley. I am sure they had names but as a good Southern child everyone was Miss…Aunt…Mama…or some such nickname. They were both older than Nanny. Their late sixties or early seventies. And they had no children. No family at all really.
Papa Tattley worked evenings mostly…I think security but not sure. He also has a huge vegetable garden out back that he was always sharing with everyone. And he loved his wife with his whole heart and being.
Mama Tattley had ‘hardening of the arteries’ which was what they called Alzheimer’s or dementia back then. She also was a hoarder. They had a back room that was so full of old newspapers you could not walk in there. It had to be at least three or four feet thick. You could walk on it…I know because I did…when she sent me in there for something one night.
But I am getting ahead of myself.
I remember my sixth birthday party. Papa Tattley bought me a green and bright orange plastic boat for the tub. And he had a favor to ask my Nanny and me. A couple of days each week he was working and did not want to leave Mama Tattley alone by herself. At that point, she might leave a burner on and cause a fire…or fall and break a bone. He wanted to know if it would be possible for little Terri Lynn to stay with her for a couple of hours. To run for help if anything happened.
So for that summer I was a part time carer for an elderly woman with dementia. Mama Tattley caught me to crochet. And she gave me my first taste of real butter, not margarine. She was also the only person I had ever seen who drank tea hot…with milk.
I enjoyed my time with her. It was a nice difference to the evening routine of television, especially since they were all re-runs during the summer anyway. I felt valued…like I was doing something important and good. And Papa Tattley got to keep his job.
Oh, and I got paid too…twenty-five whole cents. But the money was not important. I honestly don’t remember what I did with it. I do remember feeling guilty for taking it though. But Nanny told me that Papa Tattley had his pride. If I did not take it, he would not feel right about it. So I took it.
Of course, dementia gets worse. So too did it with Mama Tattley. I remember the evening that Papa Tattley came over to tell us he would not need my help anymore. He was having to put Mama Tattley in a nursing home. He cried. We did too. After that we hardly ever saw him. If he was not at work or sleep, then he was at the nursing home with her. The garden kinda got overgrown then.
But about the same time I was NEEDED elsewhere…
Aunt Mildred and Uncle Frank lived around the corner from us. She had been my Sunday School teacher. Their daughter was my mother’s best friend in school and they had grown up together. They also had a son…whom I was named after…Terry.
Being a small Southern town there was not much to do in Spartanburg. Especially for young men in their late teens and early twenties. So one Friday night Terry and a few of his friends went out…probably drinking. There was a car accident. Terry died a couple of days later.
Growing up in a community with an ageing population, I was used to funerals. Receiving of friends. Casseroles taken to the house. My Aunt Tina even took a pen and paper around door to door collecting dimes, quarters, and the occasional dollar so that the whole neighborhood could send flowers. I would take over that job in a few years.
But THIS was different. Terry was only nineteen. He was not supposed to die. It was scary. Like the hand-me-down clothes and dolls I got from the distant cousin who died, it was a reminder of my own mortality. That not everyone got to be old one day.
Aunt Mildred had always been…delicate. Introvert. Quiet. Anxiety? Today some people might call her…weak. But back then…she had Uncle Frank. And he took care of her…while she did her part to take care of him, the house, and their family.
This broke Aunt Mildred. She rarely left the house after that. She even stopped going to church. Quit being a Sunday School teacher. She left everything in Terry’s bedroom just as he had when he went out that night. Right down to the three pennies on the night stand next to his bed. She would lift them, dust, and put them right back the way they were.
Grief. Depression. Agoraphobia.
Back then…well, Aunt Mildred was just having trouble getting over Terry’s death. But that was to be expected…right? No one blamed her. Labelled or medicalized her. No one put a time limit on her grief.
But Nanny, Momma, and Uncle Frank did decide that I might be old enough to walk by myself the short distance to their house. Nanny would call Aunt Mildred to tell her I was coming over. Then Aunt Mildred would call Nanny to let her know I got there safely. We would watch soap operas…or those horrid Watergate hearings. Aunt Mildred would sew while I played on the floor. She would even make me wonderful Barbie clothes from the scraps.
And she would even let me play with the Lincoln logs at the back of the closet in Terry’s room. But only me. Because she knew I would take care not to disturb anything in the shrine. That I too would put them back…right where them came from.
After all…having another Terri around sometimes…well, it gave her company…lightened her load a bit…cheered her up.
That was COMMUNITY…and even as young as six…I was a part of it. I had a role to play. I made a difference in people’s lives. And as a human being…I am better for that responsibility.
Tomorrow we will talk about how ‘society’…government…charities…and religions…handle challenges. Or more accurately…fail to.