Saturday, August 6, 2011

For my "Jilly"...

This will not be a post full of laughs and attempts at satire that I usually engage in. It will not be free from mentions of my book. It will be from the heart. Wrote straight from there with no rewrites or edits. It will be real. So, if you read my stuff for the chuckles, this may disappoint you. For that, I apologize. I also apologize for mentions of the book here as I promised I wouldn't do that on the main page. I am not mentioning it for sales boost or exposure. It is necessary for this post to make any sense at all. Sense that, only I, will benefit from, as it is, I suppose, therapeutic or perhaps my way to just get it out. For that I also apologize for- but also thank you, for allowing me to do it.
So, what is this all about?
Well, when I was little I met this woman. A crazy, silly, fantastically odd, wonderful woman from Alabama. She was my father's aunt. And she was like no adult I had ever met. She would come to town and in her wild choice of dress, usually something in large floral print with an outrageously funny hat, and with her thick southern accent, make her presence known in our small family. She was a bright shining light in my otherwise dull Iowa life.  
She would be so excited to see me. She would talk to me about her brother, who she called "Bubba"- my grandfather- who I had never met. She could tell a story and make you feel like you knew every person she talked about. Stories complete with  names and places, silly in origin, that to anyone else, would seem completely fictional, yet I knew every word, every place, and every character were real. And they were all my family. Extended family that I had never met, yet I felt like I knew each and every one of them.
Each time she would visit, the stories would be told. She would talk of family with great love. She loved our family history and researched it with passion. She would share her findings with excitement and pride.
As I grew older, my relationship with her grew as well. We would write to each other often and she would share details of her life-from the flowers blooming in her yard, to what she had for breakfast, or who came for a visit. Trips to town she took on her bicycle and talks with friends she met along the way were included in vivid detail. Secrets, advice, thoughts, poetry, and life changes were shared by each of us.
We shared in the births of my children and her enjoyment that our family legacy would continue. She would refer to my children by their full given names, just as she would refer to me with my own. The only one to call me Kimberly without the hair on the back of my neck standing straight up. I always thought this funny as everyone else she had ever known, including herself, had a nickname.
We continued to write and occasionally spoke on the phone. As she aged, her travels ceased and her life became less mobile, but still entertaining to her.  I cherished her letters, written eloquently and with detail as vibrant as she was in person.
We shared over 25 years of correspondence before she shared with me that her sight was going and her Parkinson's disease was taking control of her life. While her passion remained and her mind sharp as ever, her physical being suffered.
A caregiver started writing the words she told her to write. She asked me to come care for her.
Although my life over the years was great, it had been as wild and crazy as one could imagine and stability was never used to describe it. With children still at home, I was not in a position to move and be with her. As much as I wanted to help her and be with her, I could not. While I was sure she was in good hands, I wanted to be there and she knew that. I continued to write but I received less and less correspondence back as time went on. I sent her pictures of my family and continued to keep her posted on life in Iowa.

A letter came in early fall 2009 that I won't share details here, but it was a plea of sorts. To carry on her legacy. To not let things end. That letter filled me with bittersweet memories of her and of our unique long distant friendship. Also, building inside me was a strong desire to visit the place she so vividly painted. The place in all the stories. To see the walls that held the love she spoke of. To see her again. To watch her tell the stories. To see her face light up, her eyes twinkle and to be swallowed in that smile and surrounded by that laugh when she humored herself.

Despite desire, I had responsibility at home. I had my children and my work. I talked with my son many times about taking the trip south to that tiny Alabama town that would put us in the middle of our heritage. Near the heritage that she had instilled, first, in me, and then in my son, who, years earlier, had stumbled upon her letters and started his own family research. To the tiny southern town that housed our family home. The one she was born in, that my grandfather grew up in and where my own father played as a child. The place in the stories that I had heard since I was a young girl and where I longed to be.
To be with her. Holding her hand as she told me more stories. As she told me of my grandfather. Of my great-grandmother and of herself. Stories of her as a teen making a beauty mark on her face with charcoal and of my grandfather curling her hair with the iron heated in the oil lamp. Stories that I had heard over and over but never tired of hearing.

In winter of 2010, I began writing the story that would become my first novel.  All I knew at the time was it involved a little girl and she had a story to tell. I did not know then what that story was.
Then, in what I call a twist of fate, I had the ability to go to Alabama.
Feeling an urgency to visit her, my son and I left on the 13 hour journey to Alabama. We spent a week with  my lifetime friend. Recovering from an illness in a nursing rehab facility, her physical being was weak but her mind was still sharp, remembering dates, times, places and the people in her life who had meant the world to her- many who had passed from this life before her. My son and I stayed in her home. The family home. A painting in my mind, came to life as I walked into the house. The beauty of the memories she shared were there; I could touch them and smell them. I felt at home.

She and my son spoke of generations of the past and he promised to continue her research as she admitted her eyes were not well enough to proceed. Though she spoke of going home from the nursing facility she was in, she knew in her heart, that was only a wish. And I knew, that place would be her new home. It saddened me when I listened to the quiet of the house that it would pass from our family into the legacy of another. But, the memories and the love would stay with me. Those I would keep.

She told me of the journals that she wrote in everyday and told me to take them home with me. "They contain the words of our family, Kimberly. Take them home and read them to your children." she said. Although, she gave them to me, I could not bring myself to do as she asked. I told her I would get them when I came again in the summer.

The morning before we left Alabama to return home, we visited her again. And again, she told me, "this is not the end." She told me not to say goodbye. "See ya later," she said. "Say see ya later." And then she told me to write everyday. To write it all down and tell a good story.

That request I honored. I went home and I wrote. The little girl in my book did have a story to tell. For 8 months I wrote. In the end, I called it Just Sippy. A story about eleven-year-old, Sippy, and her beautiful, quirky, hippie cousin from Alabama named Jilly. While the storyline is fictional, and the character of Jilly is somewhat exaggerated, there is a 30 year bond there that is real; the love; the faith and the friendship is all very real. And Jilly's quirky, silly, happy, love for family and life is very real.
The love of her life; her family, is what kept "Jilly" going. It is what gave her the twinkle in her eye, the bounce in her voice and the joy in her heart. That is very real. And that part of "Jilly" is very real to the little girl in 11-year-old Iowa girl with a silly Great Aunt from Alabama.
My "Jilly". My Great Aunt and my friend of 30 years. That was real.

I received word from family this week that my "Jilly" was very ill and no longer responding.
On Wednesday, I called and asked the nurse to put the phone to her ear. I told her I did what she said and that I wrote it all down. I told her I loved her. I ended with "see ya later."

She quietly passed early yesterday morning. It's hard not to be sad!
See ya later, my "Jilly." Say hi to "Bubba"!

Until next time,
P.S. To my dearest, lifelong friend- I'm sorry I never came back for the journals. I will always love you!