Until My Forever Merges with Thine

Gertrue Vest Shank, Harriet Shank Allen (age 3), Addie Conner Vest, Agatha Shank, Effie Vest, Cleo Vest, [Effie's sister and her family]

Gertrue Vest Shank, Harriet Shank Allen (age almost 3), Addie Conner Vest, Agatha Shank, Effie Vest, Cleo Vest, [Effie’s sister and her family]

Today would have been my grandmother’s 100th birthday. I was 20 when she died, which means I’ve somehow lived longer without her than I did with her. Granny smelled like toast, instant coffee, red earth and lily of the valley cologne. She gave us teaberry gum and ear muffs. She was my maternal line and most of my connection to my maternal past. She taught me how to recite the names of my ancestors like the biblical begats, told me the names and virtues of different breeds of cattle, and told me stories of quilts, canning and cousins.

1975 or so. That's me with the bad bangs.

1975 or so. That’s me with the bad bangs.

early 80s, with my mom and aunts and uncles

early 80s, with my mom and aunts and uncles

When we were kids, we’d go to Virginia in the summer, making the all day drive in a Volkswagen bus from Michigan to the Blue Ridge Mountains. The drive was long and boring, and had a risk of car sickness but Granny and the farm would be at the end of it. Granny wasn’t always at the farm. When I was very young, she actually worked in Roanoke as a nurse. After my grandpa passed, she went back to school and became an LPN, so we would stay at her little apartment in Roanoke sometimes. It was exciting because we got to eat cereal from a box and there were striped snails on the porch rails.

Granny spent most of her life in Floyd County, with periods in West Virginia coal country and Roanoke where her father was a carpenter and bricklayer. Both her parents were from Floyd County. She graduated from a church-run high school and married a Floyd County man when she was about 21 (a marriage that was apparently scheduled around the theft of Grandpa’s truck, which some moonshiners ran off in). They started their family just before World War II and during the War my grandfather worked in the shipyards and Granny lived with one of her sisters-in-law. They went church in the same building where Granny graduated from high school and when their farmhouse burned down, they bought that church house and lived in it.

1982 or so. The kid with the bowl cut is my youngest sister.

1982 or so. The kid with the bowl cut is my youngest sister.

The farm was where Granny and Grandpa raised five children, numerous beagles, dairy cows, Black Angus cattle, a couple of fierce rabbits, pigs, chickens, strawberries, beans, corn, hay and a host of other things. When I was a small child, one of my uncles had an experimental farm where a bunch of hippies came to practice agriculture. Granny would take us for walks around the pastures and into the river bottom to the big white rock that my mom and aunts and uncles had grown up jumping off of into the river. She’d take us to look at the newts in the spring house, next to the old house site where the farmhouse my mother grew up in had burned down, a couple of years before I was born.

Easter 1944 or so.  Granny is in the middle holding the baby. My mom is the one with the pigtails

Easter 1944 or so. Granny is in the middle holding the baby. My mom is the kid with the bangs on the right

When I was a teenager and staying with Granny for a semester the farm was rented to a neighbor. The neighbor was feckless and Granny didn’t much approve of his methods. In the spring she said the corn was too short. Other things that Granny didn’t approve of included old people who drove too slowly on the two-lane highway to town, people who sang too loudly and tunelessly at church and her sister in law coming up to pick stray hairs off her coat after the service. Things that Granny did approve of and enjoy included transferware china in chocolate brown, soft boiled eggs, word play (like the mechanic’s shirt she found that said “ART” on the chest, so she embroidered other anatomical labels like “helbow” on it), and playing weird pranks like sticking plastic skeleton feet under various of the upstairs doors in the old church house.

Granny and Aunt Manila, 1919 or so.

Granny and Aunt Manila, 1919 or so.

Something Granny particularly enjoyed was genealogy. Talking to her was like sitting at the trunk of the family tree looking up and learning the names of each leaf and branch: Shanks, Vests, Connors, Wickhams, Livesays, Thurmans, Redmonds and Allens. I learned how to tell a first cousin once removed from a second cousin, and how it could be that my grand parents could share a cousin in common but not be related to one another. She taught me the 11 names of my Grandpa’s great grandmother (all of which I can still recite) and the names of her own father’s 11 brothers and sisters. I can only remember seven of them, but one of them was Aunt Gatha who helped raise Granny, then helped Granny raise her own children, before dying at the age of 102.

I was going through some papers once and found the funeral bulletins for my Grandpa and Aunt Gatha. I realized they died in the same month (about seven months before I was born) and thought, that must have felt like the end of the world for Gran. That’s what I often think of when I read a book of poems the family published when Granny died. She was always chipper and from all I could see she enjoyed the last 20 years of her life very much, but the poems she wrote are wistful. I put my copy in some place Very Safe and can’t find it, but it the last poem describes Little River, the broad stream that flowed through the farm. I can picture the river running over the rocks  pasture and the last line of the poem:

“until my forever merges with thine.”

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2 Responses to Until My Forever Merges with Thine

  1. nancy demory harrison says:

    Enjoy following….

  2. Andrew Whitenack says:

    Enjoyed your article and especially loved the top picture. I remember my Great Aunt Gertrue and Richard Shank, Agatha, and my great Aunt Effie Vest but Cleo died way before I was born. Great memories! Thanks

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