I’m home this week in Pawleys Island, South Carolina. I love being near the ocean again. After a long stint in Southern California, my grown-up home is currently Chattanooga, Tennessee, a place with no ocean, but lots of charm, friendly people and a river that does the job for now. Chattanooga is home, but my childhood home will always be the beaches of South Carolina.
I love being home not just for the beach, but to hang out with my family; cooking for my mom, taking my niece surfing, and getting cuddles from Benny Boy, the family corgi. It’s part of the reason we left California, to not be quite so far away from family. The older I get the more I realize how much time I want to spend with family. In high school I was pretty much ready to get as far away as possible, and I did for a while, but over the last year I’ve been inching my way back closer to the east coast, at least in driving distance to my parents.
Chattanooga is close enough to Pawleys to drive down on the weekend, and far away enough that we still need a heads up if any family is planning on coming over. At this age, it’s the perfect distance. Who knows, as I get older it may feel too far, just as California started to feel once I hit mid-thirties, but for now, Chattanooga works.
I’ve loved getting to hang out with my mom. Her humor is sharper than ever and I can see more and more where I get my sense of humor from. It’s funny how her wit has been in front of me my whole life and it wasn’t until I started doing comedy later in life that I realized just how clever and comedic my mother was.
We’ve spent the days at the beach and the evenings watching Little House on The Prairie. Mom has quite the crush on Pa Ingalls. In last night’s episode, someone was sneaking around in the middle of the night outside of the Ingalls house. Pa ran out in a long nightgown holding a rifle. “There he is, Mom,” I said, “in his nightgown, ooooo!” Mom smiled, “yeaaaa, I wanna get me a nightgown… one with a Pa Ingalls in it!”
I literally laughed out loud… I do a lot with my mom.
For as much as I love coming home, it’s also bittersweet. When my parents divorced nearly 10 years ago they sold the family home and moved into separate condos. The four of us kids divide our time trying to figure out what night to eat dinner where… it’s not the end of the world, it’s a new normal we are fully adjusted to. But sometimes when I’m not trying so hard to be a grown up, it’s still a little hard.
Every time I come back to Pawleys Island, I drive by our old home, the house I grew up in and came home from college to. The house where I celebrated every birthday and Christmas as a kid, had sleepovers in middle school, and brought the boys I loved to meet my parents, as well as dumped the one I didn’t.
I loved that house, I had an entirely purple room… purple walls and purple carpet. I eventually covered the walls with so many Hanson posters, you couldn’t see a spec of purple. Some might have called it a shrine. I called it glorious.
The house pretty much sits empty now. It serves as a second home to some folks up north who only come down on occasion in the summer. They ripped the shutters off and painted the once beige colored house a dark navy blue. It looks different and yet the same.
I sat in the car and stared at the porch, a place I sat often, whether listening to music, praying to God, or hoping a cute boy would ride by on his bike. It’s weird how life seemed to take so long as a kid, thinking adulthood and relationships and everything I thought I wanted was so far away. At thirty-eight, as I looked at the porch that used to be mine, I realized it all went by in a blip.
No one told me I’d grow up one day. I mean, they did, but they didn’t. It’s an assumed part of life, we all know we’re going to grow up. But I don’t think we really know what that means or what it will look like. We don’t realize that not only will we get older, but we will look old, and we won’t be the cool ones anymore, let alone the young ones. No one told me there would always be people younger than me, reminding me how old I’m getting, calling me ma’am when I check out at the grocery store.
No one told me, I suppose, because they were busy going through it themselves, realizing how fast time goes and how short life is. Each generation adjusting as they go along, entering each new decade they reach for the first time.
As an enneagram 4, I’m prone to dwelling in the land of nostalgia, wishing for things to be the way they were, even if I don’t recall them as being that great… the mere fact that something is a memory often makes it great for me. Perhaps that’s why I drive by the old house, an attempt to remember and relive our family all hanging out together.
And with that, I drove to the beach and jumped in the ocean to wash it all off. The ocean reminds me that everything really is okay. And it is, I’m truly, truly grateful for the beautiful life I have. I’m even grateful for the the memories I get to relive even if just for a moment when I drive by my old house.
I’ll head back to my own home in Tennessee soon, a home I’ve been enjoying creating new memories in with my husband, Josh. But for now, the ocean is calling…. my home away from home, my happy place, with or without the big family house.
Aunt Jackie did a double take in the middle of her generic hello when she clearly realized it was my mom, “WELL HEY! Oh my goodness, it’s so good to see you!” My mom pointed to herself, “it’s Lydia,” she said. “I know it’s you,” Aunt Jackie quipped like how dare you think I don’t know.
“And this is JJ!” My mom pointed to me and I pulled my face mask down for her to see. “JJ!” She yelled, “JJ! WHOOO look at you, JJ! Great Scott!” I remember Aunt Jackie saying “Great Scott!” long before I ever heard Doc Brown say it on Back To The Future. She repeated back to us what we said to her, so we still weren’t entirely sure if she fully knew who she was talking to, after all, it had been three years since we’d last seen her, and things were getting more “fuzzy” back then.
The three of us sat silently for a moment all looking at each other, the Golden Girls still playing in the background. Aunt Jackie put her hand on my mom’s knee, “Pawleys Island,” she said with her slow Southern draw. My mom and I looked at each other as if to say she knows! We both got emotional. Our hometown of Pawleys Island was Aunt Jackie’s favorite place to visit. She loved the ocean and made annual trips with her own group of golden girls to soak up the sun and salt water. “That’s right,” Mom said, trying not to cry. “You lucky birds,” Aunt Jackie said.
I told her we had just come from Pawleys Island, “don’t say it too loud,” she said, “people might get jealous.” Already she was off to making us laugh. “Did you get in the water?” she asked. “Yes, JJ did, she went surfing,” Mom said. “She went to what?”
“Surfing, she went surfing,” Mom said, and I added, “in the ocean.” Aunt Jackie sat back in her wheelchair, raised her eyebrows as if she finally processed what we had just said, “that’s an ugggly thing for you to saaaay in front of me!” We both laughed and she asked if the water was cold, “it was freezing,” I said. “Oh!” Aunt Jackie took a sip of her coffee, “then I won’t feel so bad, ah ha haha!”
Aunt Jackie’s laugh is just as classic as her Southern accent, a much more sophisticated Phyllis Diller type laugh (and more enjoyable to listen to, in my biased opinion, but it has tones of the Diller cackle in it). As an old school Southern woman of devout faith, Aunt Jackie would die if she knew I compared anything about her to Phyllis Diller.
“So what have you been up to?” Mom asked. “What have I been up to?” Aunt Jackie repeated back as if it was obvious, “this!” she said, “this is what I’ve been up to… sometimes I move over there, or over there” and she pointed to different spots in the sitting area, “but mostly I just sit here and they roll me around wherever I need to go.” We laughed at her sense of humor about it, but also knew it must be hard to live confined within the walls of a place you can’t leave.
“It’s okay though,” she said, “most people just sit around here until the end, but not me, I’m busting out of here soon.” She nodded her head as if to say you know what I mean? and took a sip of her coffee. We laughed at the thought of Aunt Jackie busting out of assisted living. “Well if anyone can do it, you can,” I said.
“Yea,” she agreed as she nodded, “there’s a two-way highway right out front of this building. The only problem is, once I get there, I can’t figure out which way to go!” Mom and I were rolling in laughter. “Well tell me about the children,” Aunt Jackie said, “there’s one of the children right there,” and she pointed to me. Mom told her all about the kids being grown up, some married, some dating, one with a dog. The dog is what most excited Aunt Jackie, “Ohhhh, tell me about the dog! Now, what kind of poochy!?” We told her all about my brother’s corgi and she responded with “ooooh how cute” to each detail. She told us she had a dog but could’t remember her name. “Claudette,” mom said. “Who?” Aunt Jackie asked. “Claudette, that was the name of your dog.” It didn’t seem to ring a bell, Aunt Jackie shrugged, “well if you say so!”
I later found out the dog’s name was Tallulah, so both Mom and Aunt Jackie had a little memory slip there, but at least Aunt Jackie remembered what her dog’s name wasn’t. She told us about her horse, Solomon, who died 20 years ago but she seemed to think it just happened. “I think they did something to him,” she said, convinced that someone had prematurely put her horse down. This was where her memory was “fuzzy,” she clearly remembered things, but the order of events was disoriented. “I remember Solomon,” I said, “we used to ride him with you.” She looked surprised so I pulled up an old picture I had saved on my phone of my sister and I riding Solomon, Aunt Jackie standing beside us. Aunt Jackie gasped, “Oh! there he is,” and she began to mimic kissing the picture, “mwah mwah mwah, oh I love him so much.”
“I think they did something to him, you know?” and she sat silently for a moment as she thought about it. We weren’t sure who she meant by “they,” but it was clear that though the memory was fuzzy, it left an impression. After talking about Solomon for a while she asked about the children again. Mom went through and told her about each of us again, a little less detail than the time before, but included the part about the dog. “Ohhh, tell me about the poochy, what kind of dog!?”
The longer we stayed the more obvious her lack of memory became. She was sharp in that she could remember stories from her childhood, stories from our childhood, and pretty much anything we would remind her of, but where her memory failed was by the time we finished talking about a topic, she’d have forgotten we talked about it.
Aunt Jackie pretty much helped raise my dad, who’s own parents were always traveling as music evangelists with Billy Graham, America’s Preacher back in the day. Generations now don’t really know him, but any generation my mom’s age or older tend to have an idea of who he is. He prayed with every America president from Harry Truman to Barack Obama, my grandad always at his side.
Aunt Jackie started as my Granddad’s secretary, but quickly became a caregiver to the five children who grew up with a dad the whole world knew, who’s own children barely knew him. That’s another topic in and of itself, and there’s been peace and resolve made about that. I only bring it up to say, Aunt Jackie was just as a vital role to the family as a parent or grandparent to all of us. With all my grandparents now passed, she’s the closest thing I have left to a grandmother. She’d never accept the title grandmother though, “it sounds too old,” she’d say, so much like my dad called her when he was growing up, we’ve always called her Aunt Jackie (despite her being the same age as my grandmother).
I showed her all the pictures from when she worked with my granddad and Billy Graham, she remembered all of them and gasped with delight at each picture. I got to a picture of Billy Graham kissing me on the cheek, “this was at Nana’s funeral,” I said. “Who’s funeral?” she asked. “My Nana, Bille Barrows.” She sat back with a look of shock, clearly remembering who but not quite remembering that she passed. “Where was I?” she asked. “You were there,” mom said. “I was?” She asked with a sigh of relief, “okay good.”
It didn’t dawn on me that with the order of events being fuzzy, it might overwhelm her to know who of her friend group wasn’t around anymore. Aunt Jackie is one of the last ones left from the generation of friends who poured into our family over the years, having long outlived her husband, but she didn’t seem to notice. Probably a blessing and a curse, to not remember, there’s a sadness in the sweet memories not being there, yet a gratitude to not relive the pain all over again.
“Well what else can you tell me?” Aunt Jackie would ask, trying to think if there was any news she hadn’t heard yet. “Well what do you want to tell us?” Mom asked. “What do I want to tell you?” Aunt Jackie asked, “about what?” “About life,” Mom said, “if there’s something you’ve learned about life that you’d want us to know, what would it be?”
Aunt Jackie paused, “now I’m thinking, which is dangerous, but I gotta think.” She looked around the room and then looked at my mom and I, “don’t take life too seriously. Everything doesn’t have to be serious all the time. Just enjoy it,” she said. We agreed that life should be enjoyed more, which was humbling coming from a woman in a wheelchair at an assisted living facility.
“Do you want to tell her about your comedy?” Mom asked me. I proceeded to tell her I was a Stand Up Comedian, “Oh I love it!” She said. I explained to her that my sets included stories about her, “I always tell people about Aunt Jackie!” She laughed, “Ohh, don’t tell them everything!” I proceeded to show her my clip from Dry Bar Comedy where I tell everyone about my great Aunt Jackie. She needed me to repeat the punchline, “what’d she say?” when she heard the audience laugh. I retold her what she had said to me so long ago about how to be an artist when I grew up, “just get married and then you can doodle all day long!” She laughed hard at her own advice, “you can,” she said.
I recorded most of our time with her, and my mom recorded me showing her my Stand Up clip. It’s footage I’ll treasure for a long time.
Before we left she made one last declaration, “As for me and my house,” I was certain she was getting ready to quote scripture, “I’mma blow this pad first thing, you know!” We all laughed and she looked at my mom, “ain’t that right?”
I don’t have resolve for this post. We left on a happy, high note. I was so glad we had decided to make the trip. But it’s never as simple as leaving the facility and moving on with your life, well, it is and it isn’t. I still think about her being in there, alone in the sense of not with family or friends anymore. She had a whole life that looked so different than where she is now, all of it changed merely by the aging process.
I think about my own parents and what the aging process will look like for all of us one day. I even think about my own 98 year old self, wondering where I’ll be and if I’ll even make it that long. I hope to remember my husband, and yet I can’t imagine living without him should I surpass him. He knows, however, that if I die before him, he’s getting in the casket. “You coming with me,” I joke.
I over processed the whole visit on our drive home. I’ve thought about it for days after. Yesterday I re-watched the footage while laying on the couch and I heard Aunt Jackie say again, “don’t take life so seriously, just enjoy it.”
I sat my phone down, got up and put on my shoes to leave. “Where are you going?” My husband asked as I headed for the door. “I’ve been sitting around long enough, I’mma blow this pad!”
I went for a walk in the cold air, warmed by the sun, and I simply enjoyed it.