She was an old fashion “Amazing Grace Woman,” one of those quiet “Mercy Me Women” who would stand out in any century. A beatitude in an old print dress with a bonnet to match, both washed until the colors had faded into nothing. He was gaunt and quiet, rather solemn with the inner peace of a Buddhist monk, though the comparison would have offended his Baptist soul.
He died first, in his nineties; he was tired, ready to free himself of this mortal burden. She wept softly and mourned privately, all alone, for she was an intensely private woman. She washed and carefully folded his clothes, breathing in the last remnant of his existence, hugging them to her for a final goodbye. She continued, more slowly now; fretting with the things she had done for years. She packed a few worn-out farm tools in boxes and gave everything away. She kept very little of her husband, her soul-mate, only a few faded photographs and over 70 years of memories.
When she died well over a decade later, well into old age, her passing was as calm and un-traumatic as his had been. Neither had ever feared death, because neither had ever feared life.
After her funeral the family gathered and someone remarked that an era had ended with the passing of the old man and woman. Not really, of course. Eras don’t end with deaths of individuals but are dissolved by time until the images are too dim to register in the human spirit. Then the past becomes a test-book, footnote or maybe a museum display.
But too soon, the era of this man and woman will die and its passing will be another footstone in history. For their generation was of the last to have been born in and nourished by rural America. And with their passing, some of the old ways have disappeared, and their gentle influence will live only in the children, or grandchildren they have left behind.
The old couple was born into a society little changed in four or five centuries. It was a simple, though often harsh life. It was a time when Southern America’s philosophy was a neat circle of God, family, land and work. Each of them came into this life in a rough, chinked-log farmhouse, hardly different from those first built by their ancestors, centuries earlier.
Their food came from the land. Transportation was wagon, buggy or horse. Their religion was taken in large doses, in the community-built church built from hand-sawed-planks; homely, square boxes, heated by wood stoves and friendly faces ghostly in lamp light; offering only crude benches and a poorly-made pulpit for the part-time preacher who took his pay, many times in chickens and roasting ears. But, it was their church, and like their neighbors they took great pride in it.
They met and married in the early twentieth century, bought a mule and began farming. They began a family almost immediately. Their second child, a handsome baby girl: with daffodil hair, died from pneumonia.
In the year Lindberg flew the Atlantic the cotton crop was excellent and they celebrated by ordering a suit for him, a church-going dress for her, and new shoes for the children. All from Sears Roebuck’s catalog-he fretted somewhat over the extravagance.
The farm was a calm place with an orchard, cows for milk and butter; chickens and eggs. He rose before dawn each day, stoked the fire, read his Bible by lamplight and said a short prayer before going to the fields. She cooked and canned and planted flowers around the porch, milked and churned and washed multitudes of clothes in a smoky black pot under the Chinaberry tree.
Finally in the early 50’s the farming was handed over mostly to their sons, and they moved to town, into a large frame house, which seemed to suit them very well. He brought with him a truck loaded with his farm tools; and kept them oiled and polished should they ever decide to return. His heart was still on the farm and leaving was almost impossible to bear. Time passed.
Except that they now lived in town, their lives changed very little. They still arose before dawn, read the Bible and offered help to their neighbors. She still made biscuits from scratch, and the children and grandchildren came over often to check under the white tablecloth for her leftovers.
There was a garden out back for the vegetables she still canned. He bought a new radio, the children bought them a television. “I Love Lucy” made him laugh, though he hardly admitted it.
They remained untouched and undisturbed mostly, even with the busy world exploding around them. He still admitted proudly that once he had walked 10 miles to repay a $50 dollar loan, and that in all his life he had never broken his word knowingly to anyone, and never talked ill of any man. She still continued to sit silently by his side, cook his meals and nurse him through his sicknesses.
And so they died, he first, she later, and they were buried in plots they had selected many years earlier in the family cemetery. “Beloved Husband,” “Beloved Wife.” They were gone and there was precious little left to pass on, except wonderful memories and ancient photos. What they owned in early goods, they had long ago given to their children. They needed so little.
And so, though the era had not ended with them, little of it remained. And there is less of it today, and soon it will be gone like the Amazing Grace couple and their dreams of tomorrow.
Perhaps you remember them…..They might be part of your own history….
Micki Cottle was a long-time columnist for The Sampson Independent who occassionally regales readers with her wit and charm. She is also a member of the Sampson County Historical Society.