Who lives, who dies, who tells your story

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(My grandmother holding the first quilt I made for her, Christmas 2008.)

My grandmother, Hester Ferguson Preston, passed away on October 27th. Her funeral was yesterday, and I was asked to write and deliver her eulogy, so I thought I would share it here as well.

Eulogy for Hester Preston

31 October 2016

When my grandmother celebrated her 90th birthday a few years ago, my mother and my aunt asked everyone who attended her party to write something for her to put in a keepsake book. I write for a living, so I thought, “This will be a piece of cake!” I wanted my contribution to be perfect—I was going to impress Granny with my writing skills and tell her all kinds of things about me and about the example she’d set for me as I was growing up. I was raised in North Carolina, so I mostly saw Granny at Christmas, and we were usually too busy to sit down and have long conversations. Most of the stories I heard about her from when she was younger were told to me by other people. She didn’t really talk about herself to me all that much. So I wanted to make sure she knew that those stories had had an impact on me, and I was going to use that birthday letter to tell her, because I wasn’t sure if she knew or not.

Unfortunately, I tripped over my own good intentions—I tried so hard to come up with the perfect letter that I gave myself a classic case of writer’s block. By the time her birthday party came around, I didn’t have anything to show for myself. But just a few months ago, I had a moment where I realized that there was a chance I wouldn’t get to see Granny again before she died. So I made myself sit down then and there and write her a short letter. It didn’t live up to my ambitions for the birthday letter, but it covered all the important stuff, and I sent it off feeling like I’d told her everything I really needed her to know. Obviously, I was really grateful that I’d done that when I got the news on Thursday that she’d passed away.

My grandmother’s death was about as easy as I could wish for anybody that I love, so I don’t have many regrets. But I do still kind of wish that I’d found a way to tell her that I was just as interested in who she was when she was young as I was in who she was now. The stories that people told me about her past made me feel like I knew her as a woman, and not just as my grandmother. All those stories play out in my head like a movie, until I can just picture her the way she appeared in old photographs, zipping around in those cute little suits with the giant shoulder pads from the 1940’s.

There are so many stories I could tell you about my grandmother. Like the fact that she was the only person I’d ever met outside a Bugs Bunny cartoon that could away with saying words like, “Dagnabbit!” But one of my most important stories about her is about how I became a quilter. As you probably all know, my grandmother was a very skilled quilter. I started making quilts myself about 10 years ago, and as soon as Granny found out, she bought me my first quilting hoop. I thought I’d already figured out everything I needed to know about making quilts, but she was the person who taught me how to make a loop stitch to fix the binding on, and it was from her I learned that my stitches would always be crooked unless I bunched them up on the needle the right way.

A big part of the reason I started making quilts was because, one day, Granny caught me working on something, and she said, “You know what, there’s a little of your Ma Ferguson in you.” She’d always made a point of mentioning to me what a fantastic needlewoman my great-grandmother was, how she could take a piece of fabric and cut out her own patterns. The fact that she thought it was important enough to share those stories with me told me something about how she felt about being a quilter. It also told me that she was proud of the fact that all three of us, me and her and Ma Ferguson, had this in common.

I have some other stories about Granny to share with you, and these stories come from the three people who probably knew her best—my mother, Kriste, known to some of you as Georgia Lee, and my Aunt Euelene and Aunt Irene. Between the three of them, my mother and my aunts were with Granny pretty much all her life. For the last three years, Granny lived with my mother and father in Berea. For 12 years prior to that, Granny lived with my Aunt Irene in their house in Lexington. And for a couple of decades before that, when my mother lived in North Carolina and Irene lived in Florida, Granny and my Aunt Euelene were living just a few minutes from each other in Lexington, and they saw each other nearly every day.

So these first couple of stories are from my mother, Kriste. She wrote this down for me, so I’m going to read it in her own words:

“On a snowy February morning in 1958 in Floyd County, a school bus carrying 48 schoolchildren plunged over an embankment into the Big Sandy River, where it was swept downstream and submerged. Twenty-two children escaped, but 26 other children and the bus driver were drowned.

“Mom dropped everything. Nothing was more important to her than helping out. She and her friends kept the rescue workers supplied with hot coffee and an endless supply of sandwiches and cookies made fresh daily. She took extra care to make sure that the chicken salad was the best she’d ever made. As I watched her in the kitchen, I would say, ‘Mom, why are you spending so much time just making the sandwiches?’ She replied, ‘Because we’re serving people who need us.’

“Mom was a servant of the highest order, never forgetting anyone, always giving, always finding things to do for others. Even in her later years, when she was slowing down and losing her vision, she would sit in her chair and crocket blankets for nursing homes, making quilts and afghans for friends and family. She was working to finish an afghan for someone the evening before she passed away.”

My mother told me that one day, shortly after Granny moved in with her, Granny caught her by the hands and told her she never thought she’d have the chance to spend her days doing nothing but what she loved best—making beautiful, comfortable things to share with other people. But that’s exactly what she spent the last three years of her life doing.

My Aunt Euelene wants to share with you some stories from the years when my cousins Matthew and Allison were growing up. As Aunt Euelene says, Granny was there every day, “to be a helper when I needed her and a babysitter at a moment’s notice.”

“She never missed a ballgame or a special event in Matt and Allison’s lives. She sewed and crocheted special gifts for their teachers. She went on vacation with us every year. She cooked lunch for us every Sunday and always made special dishes for each of us.

“Mom loved holidays and decorated her house and yard to the hilt. Her neighbors knew her well, as she was always baking something for them or helping them when they were in need. One of her neighbors was housebound and Mom would make extra for dinner to take to her and would drive her to doctor’s visits.

“One of her favorite pastimes was gardening, and her beautiful flowers were a testament to that. She was always quick to show you a new bloom that had emerged since the last time you visited. She also grew a small garden in her expansive back yard and continued to can the vegetables until the last few years of her life.

“Mom loved to bowl. She was secretary of her league for many years and especially enjoyed the tournaments. She was honored this year at the state tournament and it meant a great deal to her. Even though her balance had not been steady for a number of years she continued bowling until the fall of 2016.

“She came to stay with me just last week and we were discussing the latest afghan she was making. She said, ‘I think I’ll make Gary an afghan like this one—but do you think I’ve given him too many handmade things?’ I told her she could never make too many quilts and afghans.”

This last set of stories comes from my Aunt Irene, who lived with Granny for more than a decade.

“I moved to Florida in 1984 and I lived there for 20 years, coming back to Kentucky twice a year to see Mom. Pretty often, Mom would call me up and say, ‘Me and Mary Richmond are coming up to Florida, and we thought we’d stay with you.’ I’d say, ‘Great, Mom, how long are you staying?’ And she would say, ‘Well, we thought we’d stay three weeks or so, is that okay?’ I told her one time that I was having a yard sale, and I was whining to Mom about it, she said, ‘I’ll come and help you if you need help’—and she did.”

While my Papa Ferguson was alive, Granny made it her business to look after him, because she was completely selfless that way. But as Irene and I were discussing last night, Granny made the most of her time after she’d said goodbye to him. Considering the fact that my grandmother worked her fingers to the bone caring for people her whole life, first as a mother, then as a career nurse at the VA, no one could have blamed her if she’d spent the next three decades of her life with her feet propped up on a cushion. But Granny loved to get out and do things—bowling, gardening, traveling. She and Irene spent a lot of time visiting Red River Gorge, always staying in a cabin with a fireplace at Natural Bridge State Park. And I didn’t know this, but apparently, when people started asking her what she wanted to do for her 94th birthday, she told them she wanted to go zip-lining.

Irene recounts that, “Mom could be ready to walk out the door in ten minutes and be styling, with or without bling, depending on the venue. Mom and I shared the green thumb gene, and my sisters, knowing this about us, kept me hopping to find the time to plant bulbs in the ground. Mom and I laughed a lot together, and we only had one ongoing conflict when we were living together, and that was over music. We finally resolved it when we were driving back from Memphis one day. She agreed to take out her hearing aids, and then I could listen to my music as loud as I wanted!”

The last story Irene wanted to share was from the day Granny died. In Granny’s room, next to her bed, there was a note lying on the table. The pen was lying on top of it, like maybe she’d just finished writing it before she went to bed that night. The note says:

“I am not going to offer you any wisdom about life. You’re doing just fine and I won’t remind you to be happy because you already have a gift for that. All I want to give you is a few simple words to carry in your heart: I love you and believe in you and I just can’t imagine anyone having a daughter more wonderful than you.”

This letter wasn’t addressed to anyone, and Irene joked that she and my mother and Aunt Euelene all felt sure that it must have been written for them. But honestly, I don’t think there’s any way to tell who it was written to, because it’s the kind of thing she would have said to any of her children.

Being a writer, I spend a lot of time thinking about the fact that our stories outlive us—and that we don’t have any control over who tells our story when we die. But the last story I’ll remember about my grandmother is the one where she spent what might have been her last few moments of waking life composing a message of love and encouragement for her children’s benefit. I think that tells us everything we need to know about her.

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