Our family received word several weeks ago that our great aunt’s health was failing rapidly. She is 92 years old, so we braced ourselves for the inevitable loss. My brother and I talked about our regrets. “Why haven’t I visited? I meant to write… why didn’t I write?” The reality is that we let life intervene, that the tyranny of the urgent reigned. When are work deadlines and immediate family needs not urgent? But it’s no excuse. The good news is Aunt Peggy has shown us, once again, that she’s full of surprises. Her health has suddenly turned for the better, like the proverbial Phoenix rising from the ashes. There’s no time like the present for telling Aunt Peggy how much she means to me.
Aunt Peggy was born in 1918, the year that World War I ended, one year before women won the right to vote. She experienced the Great Depression during her formative teenage years. She was part of a Southern family on the progressive, changing side of history during the Civil Rights Movement. Her brother, Judge James McMillan, was the Federal judge who wrote a busing order that “played a pivotal role in ending the segregation of Southern public schools.” She felt the backlash of his courage in writing that opinion and (reasonably) feared for his life and the lives of her other loved ones. Unbelievably, I have never asked Aunt Peggy about these things. I don’t know why. Maybe I was just too young at the time to realize their importance. Children are curious beings, but we’re also little narcissists, aren’t we?
Besides, as kids, we harbored few thoughts about history and politics. We just wanted to play and explore at our aunt and uncle’s home in North Carolina. Sometimes it takes years and distance before we realize that the things we see and do as children make us who we are.
Aunt Peggy married an incredibly generous, kind and funny man (Uncle Gene), and had two fabulous children (our cousins would expect us to say no less). During our childhoods, Aunt Peggy and Uncle Gene lived in a majestic white plantation house called “Lebanon” in Dunn, North Carolina. Yes, in the South, the coolest houses have names. Lebanon was used as a hospital for Confederate soldiers during the Civil War. As children, our cousin showed us an image of a ghost of a Confederate soldier, appearing in a photo of a broken window pane from one of the Lebanon buildings. If you squinted your eyes just right, you could see a ghostly figure, reminiscent of Munch’s Scream, which caused young
hearts to palpitate every time. I could swear that I even saw a blue-gray Confederate soldier’s hat in that frame, an image that returned to me late on sultry summer nights, as sleep escaped me.
On our visits to Lebanon, our family drove in an old brown Oldsmobile station wagon with a mattress thrown down in the back seat for my little brother and me. On the ride I remember best, our parents had heard enough renditions of “Mooooom, she’s on my side!” “Nu-uh, I was here first, his leg’s touching me, ewww!” on previous trips. Before turning the engine on, Dad clambered into the back seat, ripped off a large piece of masking tape with his teeth and put it down the length of the mattress, measured by our mechanical engineer father to be “exactly down the middle.” The masking tape border was as effective in reducing sibling tensions as the Gaza Strip is in creating peace in the Middle East.
After nine hours on the road, our plaintive, repeated mews of “Moooom, he’s still on my side! His finger’s on my side of the tape! Are we there yet? [5 minutes later]. How about now?” were finally rewarded by street signs for Dunn. As we drove out of Dunn city center, we passed mile after mile of corn and tobacco fields quilting the land in golden yellow and green. The scent of pine consumed us as we drove down a rough gravel road spotted with evergreens toward the majestic oak tree that stood proudly in front of the large plantation house. The oak tree rising out of the earth and looming above us added to Lebanon’s allure, as we imagined that this living being was once a young sapling during nights when the sky lit up with cannon fire and injured soldiers were hauled into the house.
Lebanon soon came fully into view, more breathing edifice than mere building, with its double-decker porches and Romanesque white columns climbing up the front. It was easy to envision men and women of Scarlett O’Hara’s day opening parasols against the sun, swishing their petticoats as they strolled about the grounds. Lebanon is a house with a soul, a soul breathed into the walls through the love of Aunt Peggy and Uncle Gene. By the time our eyes took everything in as we hurtled up the driveway, our favorite porch swing was moving to and fro on its own. Our uncle, its previous commander, ambled toward us with open arms and a carefree smile. We threw our little bodies out of the already-open car doors and into the magic of Lebanon.
These are some of the childhood images that emerge when I think of Aunt Peggy, Uncle Gene, and Lebanon: The red mahogany banister that connected the two floors, just wide enough for each of us to grip, straddle, and slide down repeatedly, screaming all the way. Then, run back up the stairs. Repeat. Aunt Peggy playing the grand piano in the parlor, encouraging us to play the few notes we did know (Chopsticks, anyone?), then she would play glorious Beethoven and Mozart tunes time and again. The music surrounded and cloaked the house, its beauty settling around us, coating our bodies like a fine mist.
A swarm of cousins on the porch, running helter-skelter around the yard. Uncle Gene pushing four or five of us at a time loaded onto the porch swing, arm around neck and elbow under chin, one gigantic giggling human pretzel soaring over our uncle’s head. He swung us as high as he could, then he’d run past the swing and our wildly flapping legs to the other side of the porch, laughing at our howls of delight.
Late summer evenings, circles of adult cousins in the living room lounging on the comfy couches by the fireplace. The smell of red wine and sounds of quiet talking and comfortable laughter. Uncle Gene lying on the floor, his head resting lightly on an old, squashed football. Afternoons with Uncle Gene and Aunt Peggy reading in their study, with Uncle Gene always in his favorite, well-worn chair, legs crossed underneath him, the very picture of a wise swami. When we had to say goodbye, a retreating image of both our Aunt and Uncle waving goodbye from the front yard, madly waving not just both hands but also one foot simultaneously. These are the childhood memories that have become a living part of me, brimming under the surface of my consciousness.
Later in life, Aunt Peggy shared a moment with me that resonated deeply. In my early twenties, I took a rather painful journey toward coming out. As the last of our grandparents’ generation, Aunt Peggy stood not only for herself, but also for the approval I had hoped for from my grandparents. They all passed away too soon. On a cold winter’s day in Pennsylvania, with snow and ice coating the ground, Aunt Peggy agreed to take a walk with me out into the chill. I will never forget walking along the road beside my aunt, tongue-tied and floundering, until I could finally say the words, “I’m gay.” Aunt Peggy stopped walking, turned, looked directly in my eyes and said, “Well, are you still Amy?” “Ummm… yes.” “Then I still love you.” We just kept walking, hand-in-hand, me with a smile that warmed from the inside out and a lighter step.
What makes a life well lived? The life of our Aunt Peggy is a radiant example. Love for family. A generous spirit. A sense of humor. Kindness emanating from every pore. A gentle demeanor combined with inner strength. And, of course, nimble fingers for incredible piano playing.
Families form people. Aunt Peggy and Uncle Gene’s Lebanon created memories that will always be a part of me, not only as a glorious plantation home, with all of its venerable history, but from what that place was with the two of them in it. In quiet moments, I can reach back, take those memories in my hands, pull them close and warm my heart with them.