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The Importance of Memories

An integral part of Chinaberry Summer is that Grandpa Stevenson spends time answering Sissie's many questions while teaching her how to treat others. He is also a storyteller who senses that perhaps Sissie will herself one day be a storyteller who will pass his stories down to the next generations.

On August 9, 1954, my maternal grandfather, Thomas Andrew Barnett, passed away at the age of 53. Even though I was only five years old at the time, I have many wonderful, clear memories of him because he spent time with me. I love his photos because he looks like someone who could've just stepped out of the pages of a Steinbeck novel.

Although Chinaberry Summer is a work of fiction, the book includes elements of historical fact. In my novel Uncle Toolie and Aunt Pearl live in a “valley house” which was part of their New Deal farm during the Roosevelt Era in the 1930s. That farm included land, a house, a barn, and a mule. In my own life, it was my maternal grandfather who was a New Deal farmer.

My grandfather, whom we called Papa, worked in a cotton mill in LaGrange, Georgia, but like so many people in his day, his life was severely affected by The Great Depression. He brought his family to live in Pine Mountain before finally settling on his farm in Pine Mountain Valley. Life in Pine Mountain had not been easy either, because much of the area was very rural. My mother had to repeat a grade in school because the school bus could not navigate the muddy, impassible road to reach her house much of the school year.

Papa and my grandmother, Edna Earl Williams Barnett, raised five children in their valley house in Pine Mountain Valley. Papa worked in another cotton mill closer to home and worked his farm. His sons helped him plow the fields. My mom was the oldest child, and she helped my grandmother care for the younger children and prepare meals until she graduated from high school in 1944 and married my father.

And Papa became a grandfather. My sister Marsha was born in 1945, and I followed in 1949. In the years that followed, there were thirteen more grandchildren and two step grandchildren. Only two of us were blessed to remember him.

He will be forever remembered by my sister and me for the many fun adventures that we shared on the farm. He hung rope and wood swings in the mimosa tree in the back yard. Once, a tree had to be cut in the front yard. Where some men would see an annoying stump of a tree trunk, Papa saw the makings of a whirling jenny for the grandkids.  He just bolted a long board on the stump, and we had instant fun. Papa taught me how to catch minnows using bread crumbs in a homemade wire basket that we put in the creek. I was perpetually barefooted, so he had a good laugh when I accidentally stepped on a fresh cow paddy in the pasture. (There’s nothing quite like the feeling of warm fresh cow manure between your toes. I wasn’t happy.) Sometimes he lifted me up and held on to me as he let me ride the mule back to the barn after he finished plowing. He loved flowers, and he taught us about native plants in Harris County. And no one could make homemade strawberry ice cream better than Papa’s secret recipe.

Toward the end of his all too brief life, Papa became very tired and ill. In May of 1954, after performing exploratory surgery, his surgeon informed us that Papa was terminally ill with pancreatic cancer. There wasn’t much that could be done for him in 1954. The surgeon gave him three months to live, and Papa lived three months. An unfortunate part of farming in those days was the heavy use of DDT, often bare-handed. We will never know for sure if that was the primary contributing factor to his illness.

Papa had already taught us how to live, and in those final three months of his life, he taught us how to die. I still vividly remember walking beside him, helping him as he slowly walked from his bedroom down the hall to the bathroom door. I wanted to do something, anything to help, and he obliged me that wish. He remained the kind, humble man that we all loved so much.

There are many more memories that I could share. These are memories that are not for sale. They are moments in time, freely given and freely received. I think that many grandparents cannot imagine the lasting impact of those simple yet brilliant, amazing moments that they spend with their grandchildren. Moments that cost absolutely nothing, but stand the test of time. After nearly sixty years, I still remember.