This Gray Spirit



I walk out the door of my parents’ house in Bremen, Georgia, where they lived together for over 40 years until last summer, when my father went into the nursing home. On their anniversary last year, after they’d been out to Sweet Tomatoes to celebrate, Daddy fell and broke his hip just inside the same door that I just stepped out of. I land on the dark gray concrete carport stoop, looking for Mama. There’s a rail now at the steps, and a ramp, along with adjustments inside the house, but they weren’t enough to keep Daddy home, so now Mama and Daddy are separated by about 20 miles.

It is almost 9 p.m. and dark to my eyes when I first come out the door. Surely she’s not still in the garden, I tell myself. I walk through the carport, and my eyes begin to adjust. I see fireflies, lightning bugs—hundreds it seems, flying in the dusk, some of them low and others soaring, like dancing stars over the garden. Finally I am able to see my mama in the distance, so tiny now, much shorter and lighter than when she was in her prime, working the freshly plowed red soil, between the blueberry bushes and the strawberry patch, her figure melding with the landscape. What a scene Mama has drawn me to, rich in sense and memory—the sight of fireflies and the memories of catching them, the scent of freshly plowed Georgia clay, the sound of crickets and bullfrogs, the feel of a summer breeze at dusk, the memory of picking strawberries. I stop to take in the sight, and though I’ve found her and though it is indeed getting dark, I do not bother her. I stand and watch until Mama finally sees me, waves and nods as if to say, “Okay, okay, I know you’re worried, so I’ll come in.”—even though I realize that if I weren’t here, she would stay out much longer, as long as she wanted, long enough to get the job done.

She starts her labored walk to the house, a staff in hand—really a limb, one sturdy enough and straight enough—partly for balance, partly to punch holes in the rows if she needs to, and partly to kill a snake or hit some critter if she comes upon it. A few years back, she fell in the garden and dislocated her shoulder, and ever since has been more cautious, making sure she has something to help her avoid falls or help her get up if she does fall. At the time, I was away at a workshop, and my older sister, Barbara, called to tell me the news. Patsy, my younger sister, who still lives and works fairly close to Mama, was able to help as soon as she knew. I wrote in my journal:

The first day I was in Lowell, I got a call from Barb telling me that Mama had fallen and dislocated her shoulder. She didn’t immediately go to the doctor either. She fell in the garden picking blueberries. She said that she started to stumble and then tried to catch any limb she could, but I think a limb broke off and then she fell. She couldn’t get up for about an hour—lay on the ground in the garden trying to maneuver and telling herself, “You got to get up, girl.” Finally she made it to the house. Daddy was there but didn’t know anything was going on because Mama was always out in the garden at that time of day. She had told him she’d be back inside in time to shower and take him to a doctor appointment. So Mama was lying in the garden, rolling I suspect, and trying to get up. She said later that she’d used her leg muscles so much that day that they were all sore. More pain from them than from the shoulder. So she finally got up and made it to the house but didn’t think it was anything too bad. She got ready and went with daddy to his doctor appointment. That night, however, she couldn’t sleep. Finally, after a day or two, Daddy phoned Patsy and whispered (so Mama couldn’t hear) that she needed to come see about her mama. And so Patsy detoured from driving to work, came by, saw Mama’s shoulder and everything else. Patsy said that Mama was black and blue pretty much all over. They went to the doctor, and he popped the shoulder back in place and was amazed that Mama had dealt with it so long because it’s supposed to be pretty painful. The doctor said that he’s seen men crying in pain from a dislocated shoulder. Anyway, the doctor thought nothing was broken and just put her arm in a sling/harness (she calls it a swing) and gave her some pain medicine, which helps her sleep.

After that day in the garden, we all feared that Mama might fall again and be out there for hours without anybody knowing. There was a long and painful process of physical therapy, and her shoulder has never been the same, but her main concern was not about her pain, just regret that she hadn’t been able to tend her garden the rest of that year:

Mama worries because there’s so much to do in the garden. Daddy is doing some work, but not up to Mama’s standards, plus she has to tell him when the beans are ready to be picked, etc. She says, ‘He doesn’t pick them when they’re young and tender; he just picks them when he gets ready.’ Mama also keeps going back to her fall and saying how useless it is, trying to relive it and sort of go back and try to almost change the fact that it happened. Basically, the whole scenario is just a big waste of time to her. She hadn’t calculated this into her summer. She talked yesterday about the garden and hesitated once. I thought she was going to say how it was too hot to be in the garden anyway—which it is—but she said again how much there is to do. Patsy offered to pick blueberries or beans, but she only lets Daddy, doesn’t want to burden anyone else.

On this day, Mama wears pants, an old tee shirt, and a homemade denim apron with extra large pockets so that she can carry her phone, scissors, and other tools she might need. She carries a white plastic bucket holding the sweet potato slips she’s planting. She loves her some sweet potatoes and wants to have a stand big stand this year. This crop has been in the making for some time, starting with potatoes from last year that were saved to be “slipped off” for the next year’s planting. She’s told me that you can’t do this with regular potatoes, or as she calls them, “Irish potatoes.” And in fact, we’ve found that sweet potatoes are actually not potatoes at all but a tropical root plant. A year or two back, Mama tried to buy some potato slips like she used to but was told that it’s now illegal to sell them because of some government regulations. So as usual, she figured out her own solution and slipped her own. Now the potato slips are ready, and while the ground is still soft from the plowing, she punches a small hole, and then carefully puts a slip in it. She’ll do this again and again until she runs out of slips. The process is like having seed corn. You have to make sure to save enough to start the garden next time. If you eat it all, it would be like killing the goose that laid the golden egg. In the past, a farmer would have been thought of as no good if he didn’t keep some seed corn for the next year.

Earlier on this day, we had supper, bounty from the freezer, from earlier gardens—peas and fried okra—with slaw and cornbread. Later in the week, Mama and I will do the major job of defrosting and cleaning out that freezer. It’s a huge white Sears Kenmore console that has lived in the basement of my mama’s house for over 40 years—and I think they had it even before they moved to this house. Mama guards it like a hen over her chicks and hardly ever agrees to let someone else get things out or put things in. She’s afraid they can’t find what they’re looking for or that they won’t close the lid properly, and we all know what that would mean. She knows just where things are. If there’s ever a power failure, for instance during the rare time that it snows in Georgia, the freezer is her main concern. There are other ways to cook and keep warm, but the frozen food could all be ruined. It is precious to her because she has raised it with her own hands, put it up carefully. She knows how much work this food has taken and she rightfully cherishes it. And, as I find out, even though she thinks of the freezer as being empty, it still has lots of food in it—beans and okra, strawberries and blueberries, most everything from the garden with a few other items like meat, fish, ice cream, or gallon plastic milk jugs filled with water and frozen to be used making homemade ice cream. When the time comes for ice cream, no need to go to the store. Instead, we get out the frozen jugs and a hammer and start pounding away. So she’s recycled the jugs and saved money by not buying ice. My mama is known for frugality, but she is also the ultimate conservationist, environmentalist, repurposer. She hates to waste anything or spend money when she doesn’t have to and lives by the rule, “Use it up, wear it out, make do, or do without.”

The freezer causes us daughters some concern these days. Mama has to go up and down some steep steps to get to it, and we keep thinking that if she would just stay on the main level of her ranch house, the kind most older people prize, things would be much less worrisome. I’ve watched her go up and down those steps, and each one is a struggle. She holds tightly to the rail (thank goodness for the rail!) and moves down like a tortoise. Her pace slows even more if she has something to carry. Coming up is even worse, except that she can put her load on the step ahead of her and slowly but more safely make her way up. But she continues to go down, never complains about the steps, although she does complain that everything takes her more time, that she can’t get everything done the way she used to. Many times when I phone her, if she’s not in the garden, she’s in the basement sewing or working on her flowers. The other fear about the freezer is that Mama could actually fall in. In the past few years, she’s shrunk so much that she cannot reach down to the bottom of the freezer. Mama used to be about 5 foot tall, weigh a sturdy 170 or more, and be able to outwork almost anyone. She was a solid woman. But now she has to take up all her clothes—in length and in circumference—and can’t reach lots of things. Barbara, Patsy, and I have images of Mama’s legs sticking out of the freezer like the witch’s under Dorothy’s house in “The Wizard of Oz,” or worse, of her falling completely in the freezer and the lid slamming shut.

The defrosting is a major job to me. It used to be one of those things that Daddy and Mama did together, just part of the routine, but it’s hard for her to do alone. Since she normally doesn’t want us to do any work for her, I am surprised when she asks, “Do you want to help me defrost the freezer?” I jump at the chance, and we get started early on Wednesday, one of the days she doesn’t travel to see my Dad. First we need to remove all the frozen food, and I am thinking that we need to put it in a cooler or something. But this food is really frozen – like a rock – and Mama says that as long as we don’t take too long with the cleaning, we can just pile it on the concrete next to the freezer, and it will be OK. We spread towels along a part of the floor, and after unplugging the freezer, we start removing the items. Despite wearing heavy work gloves, our hands freeze. This is a huge job, but Mama seems unfazed by it.

There is more food that Mama had thought, and she is elated when she discovers bags of strawberries hidden underneath some veggies. She’ll have enough to make some more strawberry jam. When all the food is removed and piled on the floor, we cover it with an old wool army blanket, one she’s had since Daddy’s WWII days, and hook up a hose to the freezer’s drain pipe. Then we get buckets of water to melt the frost that has accumulated. At first, we settle for some cold water from the spigot outside, but eventually we climb the stairs to the kitchen for some hot water in order to expedite the process. After several buckets of water, I’m pretty elated when I’m able to pry away some slabs of frost, ice. Then I have the brilliant idea to remove the slabs from the bottom of the freezer, instead of trying to melt and drain them out.

Remarkably, my mama has let me do all this, mainly because she can’t reach the bottom of the freezer but also because she’s not around, but going slowly up and down the stairs, getting water or doing other things related to our freezer project. The freezer drain is not working well, just a trickle. So finally I scoop out most of the water with a plastic cup and then dry the inside of the freezer with towels. It’s rewarding to see the sparkling white cavern, but our gloating can go on just for a minute because we need to start the process of returning the food to the freezer. We undo the hose and replace the freezer stopper. Then we plug in the freezer and hear it chug as it starts up again. Mama wants to organize the food better now that everything’s out, so we have a system where she passes the food to me and tells me where it goes. Everything is still hard as iron, as Mama said it would be, but by the time we finish the reloading, the freezer is beginning to frost over again. We wipe off this new frost, look once more at the beauty of our work, and then close the lid tightly, taking pride in a job well done.

After supper on this day, Derrell and I are spent. The drive down from North Carolina, singing at Daddy’s nursing home, and doing errands, have drained our energy. But my 87-year-old Mama is still going. I thought about offering to help her clean up in the kitchen. In the past she usually wouldn’t let me. She’s always telling us to rest, that she’s fine. She believes she can do the work more efficiently, but I also think that she loves to be alone in her domain, usually the kitchen or garden. When she’s worried about something or has to make a decision (which she’s had to do often this year), she talks about needing to get out in the garden and how it helps her sort things out. Last year, when she was trying to make one of the important decisions about Daddy, she told Barbara that she thought she needed to just go outside and sleep in the garden until a solution came to her. It reminds me of “Death of a Salesman” when Willie Loman says he needs to put some things in the ground. In the play, Willie has worked hard as a salesman, trying to make money and make a name for himself, but in the end, his position doesn’t amount to much. He is no longer respected as a salesman, and finally he doesn’t even have a job. But his connection with the earth gives him satisfaction. I always thought this was a rather odd part of the play, one that seems out of place, but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve seen its importance. Last summer, when my Dad was in the hospital and confused, he said that he wished he could just go into the woods and cover himself up with leaves. Maybe we all have that need to connect to the earth.

We drive to Cedartown several times during the week and each time, my mama notices the gardens, fields along the way. One day, Mama notices one especially lush green corn field and is puzzled because hers is not that green. She looks out the window, crooks her mouth and squeezes her eyes as if she’s trying to remember something, and then comments that she’d thought they grew soybeans there in previous years. But the main thing that bothers her is that this field is greener than hers. She mentions that maybe they’ve fertilized it a lot or have gotten more rain and is envious since her garden is just now beginning to come in. Mama has always been competitive about her garden. When my grandpa, her father, was still alive, she competed with him and her brother, Buck, to see who could have the greenest garden, grow the highest corn or the reddist tomatoes. More recently, she competes with Barbara in Florida, who can grow exotic crops like bananas or grow things earlier and later in the season because of the climate. She also competes with Otis, Patsy’s husband, who kids her that he’s going to show her how to have a real garden.

I read somewhere about a poor family after the Great Depression who had to farm so that they could eat. One of the children, a son, continued the tradition when he was an adult, even though it was no longer essential for him to raise food in order to eat. He even became an expert on seeds. His sister, however, always hated gardening because she associated it with poverty. Mama came from a very poor family who mainly share cropped. Although she never seemed to associate a garden with poverty, she made sure in other ways that her kids didn’t grow up as poor as she. Or maybe she did have that association, but just loved the garden so much that she had one anyway. In recent years, we’ve all urged her to make a smaller garden. When Daddy was at home, he would threaten to plow up the whole thing so that she wouldn’t work so hard. Yet each year, the garden keeps on going pretty much as it always has. When Mama gets started, it’s hard for her to find a stopping point. If she has 20 sweet potato slips, she wants to plant them all. People have also suggested that she have only a few raised beds for veggies closer to the house and even helped her arrange things in the front and back yard. But now she has her regular garden out in the field, plus rows in the back yard and islands of veggies in the front. She plants enough so that she’ll have a harvest even if the season is too dry. But when the season is good, there’s plenty of rain, and everything comes in, it’s hard to deal with it all. Still, she thinks it’s a sin to let anything go to waste. In the past, I’ve been critical of Mama when she seemed to neglect other family duties, for example, to pick the blueberries or when she didn’t want others to pick them because “they damage the bushes and don’t pick them clean.” She can seem obsessive at times, but I’m beginning to understand.

A garden is more than just food to my mama. It thrills her to plant something and see it grow. It soothes her to be outside. It rewards her with something to share with her friends and family. She takes things to people at church and gives us things when we visit—frozen blueberries or okra, fig preserves, kudzu jelly, canned tomatoes to make soup. And folks return the favor when they have extra. One Sunday while we’re there, Aunt Dorothy stops by on her way to church and leaves a sack of cucumbers and tomatoes on the porch. Mama’s fig preserves are famous, and every year, she makes a batch for me to give as gifts at Christmas. I provide the half-pint mason jars and sugar; she provides the figs and the labor. Mama hoards canning jars and asks everyone to return them to her. Almost every time we visit, I have a box of jars for her. I ask my friends to return jars, I save jars, and if I ever see them on sale, I buy them for her. There are two big fig bushes on their property, and when the season turns out just right, the figs are beyond plentiful. In the past, I’ve tried to help Mama find some uses for them, other than making fig preserves. Once I found a device for drying figs and sent it to her. When I see fig recipes in the newspaper or online, I always clip them out and send them to Mama. We have tried to figure out how to make homemade fig newtons or the figgy pudding mentioned in that Christmas carol. When my daughter lived in Chicago, she and her friends used Mama’s fig preserves with a nice cheese for an appetizer, and Mama thought that was great.

The garden also provides ample fodder for conversation. She tells me what she’s done that day or reminds me of when the blueberries are coming in. She talks about the joy of picking a blueberry right off the bush and eating it and wants others to share in that joy, especially the great grandkids who live in the city. She hates wasting anything from the garden, and if she can’t eat it fresh from the garden, she finds ways to freeze it, can it, jelly it, juice it, dry it, or give it to someone.

The rest of the time at Mama’s is spent going to visit Daddy in Cedartown and doing chores and errands. On Thursday, she gets up early and makes 52 biscuits so that we can take brown sugar biscuits to the nursing home for their coffee break that day. She has decided on that number based on meticulous calculations and her knowledge of the people at the nursing home. Earlier she had told the activities planner that she wanted to do something for the residents, many of whom are younger than she, and we figured her brown sugar biscuits would be different, and the time was right because I could help her load and transport—though of course, she would do all the baking.

Mama’s brown sugar biscuits are legendary in our family, even though they are nothing more than her soft homemade biscuits filled with a thick slab of butter and a packed spoonful of dark brown sugar. When my kids were growing up, they would visit my parents for a week or two each summer, and my daughter, Lee, grew to love these treats. Later she put together a family cookbook, dedicated it to my mama, and called it “Brown Sugar Biscuit.” Lee talks about how Mama would wrap two brown sugar biscuits in aluminum foil and keep them warm for her until she got up. On this day, Mama prepares the dough, forms the biscuits—each one carefully molded by hand, not with a biscuit cutter—a little smaller than usual so that the nursing home folks can handle them, and then bakes them. As a final touch, when the biscuits are almost done, she spreads melted butter on them and toasts the tops. I think that this is one of the many ways she makes things way too complicated and hard, but the results are proof of the pudding. While the biscuits are still hot, I slice through the middle of each one, add the butter and brown sugar, and close it back. We figure out the best way to pack the biscuits, put them in the car, and are ready to go. Mama takes the family cookbook along to show everyone, and as expected, the biscuits are a hit. I wind up serving coffee and biscuits to the nursing home residents, and I feel honored to do it.

It is sad to leave Bremen with Mama at home by herself and Daddy in the nursing home, even though we are homesick, tired, and anxious to sleep in our own bed. We take a few photos with Mama, gather our things, and head to the Marriott Marquis where we are staying for one night and going to a Braves game. We stop at the Varsity one last time for chili dogs, onion rings, fries, and PCs with ice. Though it seems a world away now, it was just last Saturday, on the way down to Bremen, that we met Lee and Carl here, were introduced to Miles, their bulldog, for the first time, and bought fried pies to take to Daddy.

When we get to the hotel, we learn that we have a special package deal, one that includes free valet parking, internet, breakfast, and champagne. Soon after we get to the room, the champagne arrives, on ice and with fresh chocolate-covered strawberries. The waiter says that we have the “Honeymoon Special,” and we don’t say a word, though we are definitely not on our honeymoon. We’ve been married almost 47 years. We take our first “selfie” holding champagne glasses and strawberries and send to my sisters. After having some food and drink, we save a few strawberries for later, and I take a long, hot bath. Then we both take a nap and are out for hours. We enjoy the hotel so much that we debate whether to leave it for the Braves game. We look for excuses like clouds and storms that might cause a delay or cancellation. After our nap, I need a caffeine jolt, so we go to Starbucks where we sit at a little table outside the store and watch people.

Soon something catches my eye—a little blond boy, maybe two or three years old, coming down the escalator. The odd thing is that no one is with him. I wonder if he’s lost and begin to worry, but soon I see at the foot of the escalator a young mom with an infant in a sling. She has her eyes glued on the toddler, and I realize that she is waiting for him to come down. At first, I think how terrible, why isn’t she with him. Surely she could have managed to hold the toddler’s hand even though she has a baby in a sling. But then, I begin to understand what is going on. When the boy gets to the end of the escalator, he leaps off and gives his mom a high five. I can see the joy in his body and his eyes. He is proud of his accomplishment and excited at what he can do. I am relieved to think that this experience is over, but then I see the little boy going toward the escalator again, this time on the up ramp, and again he is alone. The mom watches, never averting her eyes as the boy goes up, up, up, and then exits at the top. Then he walks to the down side escalator, and ALL BY HIMSELF, gets on. This goes on several times. He does it over and over, giddy with his new independence, until a Marriott employee comes over to the mom and says (I assume) that this has to stop. I’m sure there are rules, liabilities. At first, I had fear for that little boy, but later I have joy. I understand this mama who allows her son this thrill, his independence, despite her own fear.

Later when I think of the little boy, I think of my mama. Like the boy, she wants her independence, even though it’s scary at times, for her and for us. Although she is on the other end of life, she still enjoys her freedom and takes pride in doing things herself. She wants to hang on as long as possible. She is like Ulysses in Tennyson’s poem, a “gray spirit yearning in desire,” who says, “tho’ much is taken, much abides.” He reminds us that despite the ravages of old age, the person is still there. The speaker of “Ulysses” says he is “made weak by time and fate, but strong in will” and not ready to yield. Though Mama needs more help now, and may agree to it or even ask for it at times, like she did with cleaning the freezer, like anyone else, she takes pride and receives joy by doing things herself. She is not ready to yield, and I want to remember that.

Vickie Carden Posey grew up in Northwest Georgia, just east of the Alabama line, lived in Tennessee for a while, and wound up in Raleigh North Carolina with her husband and two children, where she taught English for over 23 years. Recently retired, she is working on poetry and essays, and plans to revisit a memoir that she drafted while teaching. Posey has a Bachelor of Fine Arts from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville and a Master of Arts from North Carolina State University. She is especially interested in family stories, loves music, and is learning to play the ukulele.

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