A trip to S.C. yields its prototypical mixed blessing. For those of you who don’t know much about me, I’m from Rock Hill, south of Charlotte and the N.C./S.C. border. Two deaths from opposite ends of the generational spectrum left me quite at a loss for cheer or grief or much of any feeling this holiday season. Rather numbness, that most modern of feelings, might be the watchword.
Both wonderfully hearty individuals, my grandmother Geneva Goode Dills and my and my great brother’s childhood friend Tello Vasquez passed away, the former in her sleep Thanksgiving morning and the latter following morning in the crossfire of a hunting trip gone wrong. My thoughts go out to the families and friends of both, in one case, of course, my own.
A couple stories:
I find it harder and harder to remember much specific about my increasingly distant past (that before I moved to Chicago in 1998), so am often forced to reinvent details in the manner of a fiction writer, which is of course not at all outside my regular mode but subsequently leads to the creation of new memories colored by their ever-varying retellings. Why I typically shy away from autobiography — if cast as nonfiction, inevitably I can little bear the moral responsibility that comes along with it: essentially, I feel too readily like a liar.
But it’s a common factor of all of our lives and all histories, this reimagination of the past. History writ large would be nonexistent without it. My father’s manner of embellishment, or rather simplification — the very art of story — might be the apotheosis of the phenomenon, and surely not helpful in pinning down the complicated reality of the past. But no matter…. I know ways to accommodate my own inept memory. There’s a reason This American Life and other broadcast shows (and written itineraries, documentations, documentaries, etc) of its type, exploring the minutiae of everyday existences, are so well-liked, after all. Well-recalled specifics paint the picture of people best.
Of Mister Tello Enrique Vasquez, son of Pam and Wells White of Rock Hill, S.C., my essential memory is paradoxically of the accident that brought him to my and my brother’s attention. The truth is, we’d already taken note of the kid who so loved his blue mini-BMX bike, dayglo blue tires and all, that he seemed to pedal it damn near constantly up and down the sidewalk of the street on which we lived, lined with modest homes just off the campus of the local university in the center of our town. I don’t recall what we were doing that fine day. Maybe we were running on our way into the woods across the street or throwing a baseball back and forth on the front lawn, but we looked up from whatever it happened to be just in time to catch the sight of the boy and his blue bike in an over-ambitious bunny-hop onto a curb or over a crack in said sidewalk. But it matters not the move, just the execution: Tello went careening headfirst over the handlebars, scraped up but OK, in the end. My brother and I ran to our own superfluous attempts at aid. He didn’t need our help, in truth, but it turned out over the years a genuine plus, as the lot of us gained friends for life.
Memory of my grandmother is peppered with a myriad images and stories — a quick hug on a graduation day or two, a long talk about persistence and dreams and work over Cokes at her trailer with my then-girlfriend, now-wife Susannah Felts — but none ring so forceful as the grand pageant of her funeral, essentially my last conversation with her. Non-essentially, or in reality, during my last conversation with her I was on a cell phone lying in the grass of a Birmingham city park, wasting time. She was in the hospital, and the time was nigh up on over that we gave her the news. We were expecting, I told her, she’d be a great-grandmother for the third time, this May, we were happy, we were looking forward to seeing her again in a few weeks.
It took her another telling of it before it sunk in, I suppose, as she didn’t get the message, so as I retold the whole thing, this time speaking more slowly, deliberately, she uttered something between a chuckle and a yelp, she was happy, if admittedly sick, tired, and ready to leave this world, as she also made abundantly clear to us in that conversation. If she didn’t see us at Thanksgiving, she’d see us in heaven soon enough, she said.
The funeral was majestic evangelical to the core, crafted to funnel the collective imagination into the workings of the world and their direct connection to the mystery of the great beyond — quite appropriate for my grandmother, raised Baptist in the North Carolina hills. The rain beat in great sheets on the roof of the church sanctuary, where two preachers delivered stylistically divergent, but on-message eulogies, invoking the rain that gives life and the time that takes it, and one day, I thought, I’d write the whole scene the right way, complete with echoes of the greatest funeral in all of the literature of the South.
That day won’t be soon. A week on, I find the numbness abating, thankfully, and I am if not filled with joy, at the least happy to be able to memorialize small portions of the lives of two great humans at peace with their worlds.