I became an experienced traveler as a young boy. On any given Friday during my prekindergarten years my Gran, Pauline Morris, would stop by our home and tell me to get in the car.
“We’re taking a trip,” she would say.
The trip was always to the same place. We traveled from Chicago to Southern Illinois. We went to Carterville and Zeigler. We ventured to Royalton and Marion. They weren’t exactly the most populous places. But they were special.
We called it “Down-home.” “Hey let’s go Down-home this weekend.” Gran was born and raised “Down-home.” So for her, it was just home.
We would visit my Maama — her mother, my great-grandmother. We’d see Aunt Maxine, her sister, and my twin cousins, Danny and Donny. A trip was never complete until we stopped to see cantankerous old Uncle Shot.
We went to family reunions. We never missed a wedding. We witnessed births and christenings. We sadly laid loved ones to rest.
We would fish and swim at Crab Orchard Lake. We would go to the Pentecostal Church, the same church my mother got married in, on Sundays.
We ate and we ate and we ate. My Gran loved to eat. Chicken and dumplings, fried chicken, green beans cooked all day with a piece of ham and let’s not forget the dessert. Apple pies, red velvet cake and homemade ice cream. I can still taste my Maama’s cooking.
Back then, Southern Illinois seemed like another country even though it was only 320 miles away and in the same state.
It was a place I longed for. It was a time I cherished.
Last weekend, Gran and I once again made the trip to Southern Illinois. It’s the first time I had been there in 15 years. It would be Gran’s last trip.
We buried Gran next to my grandfather in the Hundley Family plot at the Hillcrest Cemetery in Carterville. She was 93.
If you recall, I recently wrote about my Gran and her struggles with Alzheimer’s. Actually, they were my struggles. I couldn’t handle the fact she couldn’t remember me. I couldn’t bear to think she didn’t recognize me. And because of my struggles, I hadn’t visited her in more than two years.
Thanks to the readers and your overwhelming support and encouragement through e-mails, I hugged my Gran one last time on Mother’s Day. I am forever grateful to have looked into the blue eyes of the woman who always made me feel safe and special one last time.
Gran passed away peacefully in her sleep on July 6. And by being able to tell her I love her one last time, I had peace of mind.
While Gran couldn’t remember anything for the past 10 years, she wasn’t forgotten. As a former nurse, a mother of eight, a grandmother to 14 and a great-grandmother 19 times over, Gran spent her life caring for people. With 50 family members and friends making the trip from all ends of the country to attend a simple graveside service, it showed many cared for her, too.
At the service, my sisters sang her favorite song, “Whispering Hope” and made everyone cry. Family members were asked to say a few words.
Aunt Wanda May spoke about how Gran accepted the challenge of becoming a mother at 18 of a ready-made family with four children. Uncle Jay talked about how she treated all of the children as if they were her own. My mother talked about how proud she would be that so many people had gotten together. My Uncle Jim spoke about how he named his only son, Paul, after her.
When it was my turn to talk, I talked about the great memories she provided. I recalled our trips.
I said, “Gran has returned to a place she loved so much. She returned to a place where everyone loved her. She has truly come home.”
After the service we had a family reunion picnic at Uncle Jay’s home on Lake of Egypt. It was a perfect day with temperatures only in the 80s and northern breeze. Someone said even God cared about Gran.
At the picnic, there were no tears. Instead, we ate and we ate and we ate. Chicken and dumplings, fried chicken, and yes, cake.
My Gran use to say, “I’ll have my dessert first.” And that’s what was written on the cake. So while everyone else filled their plates with chicken and all of the fixins, I was the first to take a knife to the white frosting.
Some of the family members looked curiously at the treat on my plate. But I knew Gran understood. I knew she had a smile on her face.
It turned out to be a day — and a trip — that Gran truly would have enjoyed.
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E-mail Tom Hanson at firstname.lastname@example.org