That Stillwell Girl

If I close my eyes, I can hear the creaking of old patio furniture rocking back and forth. Birds chirp and call with a freedom I don’t hear in the city.  There’s the sound of cars rounding the road at the top of the next hillside; the faint warning horn of a coal train rolls over from town. These hills hold her. They hold my heart.

“She was ugly as homemade sin!” she says, laughing. She repeats this, telling me that her brother, my great-uncle, used to say this all the time about a woman they knew.

I’m back in her kitchen, watching her from across the table. I don’t know what to say. My sister breaks the silence, lovingly chiding the woman that holds part of my history. Our history. She grins. She clenches her hand and softly pounds the tabletop. It’s a habit that I love about her. She’s thinking of a smart response to my sister and the pounding seems to help the words come.

“One of these days someone’s jus gon’ come ‘long and knock me in the head, and I’ll sleep. I’m gonna sleep a long time and never wake up.” Again, she’s chuckling as she talks. I hope I get that from her too…that way of saying something that’s nonsense, but hides a truth if you’re smart enough to hear it.

She’s tired. Over the last few years, she’s shared this with me. “I’m just tired.” The 96 years are catching up with her.

Born in a coal mining camp, married at 15 to a young coal miner, gave birth to sixteen kids (six of which died in infancy) and cleaned houses for the rich folks in town so she could have her own money. She even helped care for children that weren’t hers.

On occasion, she’ll look down and say “I never been anywhere. I have been in this town my whole life.” Then we remind her of her trip to Chicago to see Oprah some years ago; a gift from one of my cousins. We remind her of the times she’s been to DC and the trip she took to Florida.

With a sly grin and mischief in her eyes, she’ll reply, “Yeah, but I ain’t been nowhere SPECIAL!”

Typical Grandma. I roll my eyes, but we’re all laughing.

Grandma laughs at everything and everyone. She wants the best of everything.

But she also wants those that she loves to have the best of everything. I think that comes with the territory. I may get that from her too…all the while poking fun at life and those who live it. Then being shocked when we run into the one person who doesn’t get the joke: it won’t always be this way. This life is temporary no matter how long it lasts. Laugh…while you can.

Don’t be mistaken though…there are times when she gets angry. Angry at injustices, people who don’t appreciate a kindness, greedy people and basic, all-around assholes and jerks.

But then, she laughs about it. I’ve really never seen such passion in such a small frame. There were times I’ve spent in conversation with her that I thought I was talking to another 30-something. Her eyes will sparkle that beautiful grey/green and her skin seems to get brighter. I can almost imagine her silver hair taking on a red/brown hue and I wonder – is this the little red-headed Stillwell girl that ran up and down these same hills with her brothers and sisters?

(to be continued)


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