She was the last survivor of my grandparents’ children, the next-to-youngest of 12.
Two of the three boys died in early childhood. The oldest boy and his nine sisters lived fairly long and rather colorful lives, remaining close, more or less, for as long as they could.
I remember Aunt Polly well, as I do all my mother’s sisters, mostly because of Sunday dinners at my grandparents’ table. We gathered, not every Sunday, but often, those who could make it, driving in from near or far, here or there.
Aunt Polly and her husband and their two boys drove from Charlotte, almost two hours to my grandparents’ home in Columbus, N.C. Sometimes they’d stay over. Other times they’d go back the same day. I liked it better when they stayed.
I lived with my mother and stepfather and brothers and sister in Landrum, S.C., just across the state line from Columbus. We’d drive up after church to sit around with my grandparents, talking about the weather, stirring beans on the stove, waiting for my aunts and uncles and cousins to arrive.
Sometimes it took forever, but it was worth it. To me, every car that pulled in that driveway was like Santa’s sleigh at Christmas filled with a gift that was a lot more fun than toys: My big, crazy, one-of-a-kind family.
The women would huddle in the kitchen whispering and laughing, cooking up a mess. The children ran in wild, sweaty circles around the house. And the men sat in the yard on rusty metal chairs, smoking Camels, talking baseball, solving the problems of the world.
A good time was had by all. But on the whole, I think the women got more done.
Come evening, after the scraps were scraped and the dishes were washed and the fights were mostly settled, we’d all crowd onto the porch or the steps or the yard, any place we’d fit.
My uncles would swap stories and tell jokes. My cousins and I would chase lightning bugs and squish snails between our toes.
But my favorite memory from those evenings is this: As the night came up and the evening cooled down and the stars began to fall from the sky, my mother and her sisters would sing.
They sang hymns for my grandfather, country for my grandmother and sister songs (Andrews and McGuire and Lennon) for themselves.
I wish you could’ve heard them.
I remember Aunt Polly’s alto, harmonizing with her sisters. I remember her laugh as she threw open her arms to hug me. Best of all, I remember her great tenderness and unwavering love for her husband and their boys.
The last time I saw her was at my mother’s funeral. The last time I heard her voice was years ago, when I called long distance and she seemed confused, unsure of who I was.
Her passing surely marks the end of a generation. But it does not and cannot and will not mean the end of our family.
Families are living things — not faces in a scrapbook or names on a gravestone. We live and breathe and change.
We are not the same as we once were. But who’s to say what we’ll become?
My cousins and I and our children and grandchildren are scattered about the country. Some of us have never met. Chances are we never will — at least, not in this life.
But we carry within us — in our memories, in our cells, in our hearts and in our souls — the lifeblood of our family: Our parents and grandparents and great-grandparents, our aunts and uncles and distant cousins, people who lived and loved and laughed and cried and walked their own paths in the world.
They are gone, yes, but they are still our family. We carry them with us wherever we go.
And I suspect that somehow, somewhere, Aunt Polly and my mother and all their sisters are singing a song about that.