I hate guessing games. So in the summer of 2017 when my friend decided to forgo her usual guessing ritual and immediately announced her change in residence, I was relieved then pleasantly surprised. “We moved to Athens, Georgia,” she said. “But then I’m sure you’ve never heard of Athens,” was her follow-up.
A smile creased my lips as I explained to my friend that I knew all about Athens. That my mom was born there, and all her family lived on its west side. In addition, the first few years of my life were spent between Athens and Atlanta, including every summer until I was well into my teens.
Fast forward three years to 2020. Most of the country is in lockdown due to the spread of coronavirus; tens of thousands are infected and scores have lost family members. Like so many, my heart broke as I learned of friends and colleagues who had succumbed to Covid, not knowing that my family would soon be affected.
It was on a Friday evening when I answered a call from a nurse at the care facility where my grandmother resided. Tootsie, that’s what we called her, had been under my charge since 2013 when we moved her from Athens to the Washington D.C. metropolitan area. I cared for her in my home until her needs required more specialized attention. Now in the fourth month of the facility’s lockdown, my heart ached at receiving the news that my 106-year-old grandmother had passed away due to Covid.
My mom, who had passed away only 16 days prior, had consistently reminded us that Tootsie wanted to be buried next to my grandfather in East Lawn Memorial Cemetery in Winterville. Armed with this information, I set out to make it happened. Unfortunately, nearly a year would pass before I could travel to Athens with my grandmother’s ashes. Unexpectantly, my father who had so ably held my hand during the passing of my mom and Tootsie, took his last breath a mere 14 weeks later.
Grief held me in its vice-like grip for a long while. Losing three key family members in four months fractured my heart. But the following year when the clouds lifted a bit, I knew burying Tootsie’s remains would be my number one priority.
My husband and I arrived in Athens on a Monday afternoon in September. With the sun being still high in the sky, I acted as tour guide to all the places that I traversed as a child. Of course, the first stop was the house my grandparents owned: a two-bedroom, one-bath bungalow they built from the ground up. In 1960, we were the first people on the block to own a window air conditioner. To my childish mind, I thought my grandparents were rich. I would come to understand that they were only two generations from slavery and had merely learned the value of hard work and wise spending.
Next, I drove our car down narrow streets. mimicking the route we’d walk from their house to downtown Athens on Clayton Street. My grandparents did not own a car, so walking was our mode of transportation. Greeting folks along the way was an expectation. And when they returned our greetings, this always engendered a robust conversation about family, friends, food, and local politics.
The downtown stores were a big draw. There were the department stores –
J.C. Penney and Belk, and Woolworth’s five-and-dime store. We frequented all three, sometimes browsing; other times actually buying something.
But my most memorable time spent with my grandparents were the trips to the peach orchards. My job was to pick peaches from low hanging branches or to select the “good” peaches that had fallen to the ground. My skills at peach picking proved proficient as I often filled my basket first. However, picking peaches came with a price: a coating of itchy peach fuzz all over my skin. Upon returning home, Tootsie would hose my arms and legs down before my evening bath in hopes or relieving the itch.
While my higher education did not take place in Athens, I do attribute notable life lessons to this special locale. I never felt hurried in Athens, yet we always managed to get things done. Lesson #1: There is much to be said about taking your time and not burning out in the process. Secondly, while the summers were physically hot, the overall climate of hospitality among folk you did not know or just recently met was always temperate. Lesson #2: a smile and a friendly hello goes a long way. And, finally some of the best barbecue I ever ate came from the backyards of family and friends in Athens. Lesson #3: In a child’s eyes, a gathering of family and great food is always a winning combination. I am so proud to be a daughter of Athens, Georgia; and that this fine city is part of my generational heritage.
Yvonne Curry Smallwood, a Georgian by birth, resides in Upper Marlboro, Md., a suburb of Washington, D.C. Her stories have appeared in several publications, including the Cup of Comfort series and two Chicken Soup for the Soul books.