It was over Sunday dinner that my sister told me what I did not know. A childhood friend — the red-headed, freckle-faced girl with laughing eyes and the brightest sense of humor possible — was sitting vigil with her husband as death crept close.
“The doctors told them this morning that it will be 24-48 hours,” she said.
He was at a nearby hospital, so I turned to Tink.
“As soon as we finish eating, let’s run down there,” I said. “Our families have been through so much together that I want to see her now.”
I won’t go into all that death has stolen from us both or the tears we shed together or the many graves we jointly stood over watching grievously as red dirt clay covered another piece of our hearts.
For once, there were only happy times to share. It is the memory of those moments that undergird when sorrow threatens to smother us like the fabled heat of Southern summers.
Southerners are always buoyed by a sense of place and the stories that unfold there. For us — the pretty redheaded girl and me — it was summer Sunday afternoons. She was several years older, and while normally our ages would have provided a barrier to any joint memories, her brother was close to my age, so we were pulled into a common universe. It was the days of mini-dresses, the kind which my grandmother frowned on mightily, the ones that led her to wonder aloud, “What is this world comin’ to? I ain’t never seen such in all my borne days. Some are so low at the top and short at the bottom that they almost meet.”
The red-headed girl wore them well. She was tall enough, thin enough, curvy enough to wear them admirably. I looked up to her as younger girls sometimes do with those worldlier than themselves. She and her family lived up the road from my grandmother on a sprawling farm that called for hard work from sunup to long after sundown. Compared to my grandparents, who lived in tiny house with a tin roof and no bathroom, it seemed prosperous.
But kids really don’t pass much mind to such lack of prosperity — or abundance of it — when there are ghost stories to be told in the hayloft of the barn, playhouses to be laid off with river rocks or a deep, refreshing swimming hole beckoning in the heat of summer.
The swimming hole. Those are the best memories.
The river pooled into a place that was deep enough to jump from the bank, to splash, to dunk, to swim. Even now, I can feel the coolness of the clear water that started as a mere spring somewhere way up in the mountains. Under the road ran a 6-foot-high pipe that carried water from the river on the other side into our swimming hole. Carefully, we’d each grab an old inner tube and, barefooted, negotiate the ridges of the pipe to the river’s side. We sat down on the inner tube and let the flow carry us quickly under the road, then spill us out with a large splashing drop into the swimming hole. We did that for hours while our laughter pierced the thick, honeysuckle-scented summer air.
On that summer day that I made my way through the winding hospital corridors to find the room where death was circling like a ravenous buzzard, I traveled back in time to happier summer Sunday afternoons.
Her still-pretty red hair was disheveled, strands falling into eyes that were not laughing. I hugged her and she held my hand tightly as if trying to hold onto the happiness we had once known in such abundance.
“It’s a long way from those summer Sundays spent at the swimming hole,” I whispered quietly.
But really, it’s not, because it’s still a tie that binds ever so tightly.
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