I went to a great funeral yesterday. I’m sure there are those of you who think the word “great” and “funeral” should never appear in the same sentence, much less next to each other. But this really was a great funeral. Inez Brown, the 93 year-old mother of my friend JoRheta, passed away after a long illness and was buried in the Tucumcari cemetery yesterday morning after a graveside service.
Although we’re in the midst of the coldest winter on record in 25 years, the weather wasn’t miserable. The wind let up for about an hour, there was a capella singing by my neighbor Darlene Smith and her sister (“The Old Rugged Cross” – I wish they had let us sing along), a nice message delivered by Inez’s Assembly of God preacher in Portales, and lots of visiting before and after. My parents were there, thankfully, so that they could point out people I no longer recognized – Inez was born in 1917 in Porter, New Mexico, and the remaining rural Quay County old timers came out of the woodwork in force. Or their kids came in their stead.
My cousin Phyllis came from Portales. Mr. Masters, who taught science at San Jon for 100 years (at least it seemed like that long) was there with his wife, who was on a walker. Zula Barnett, the last sibling of Inez Brown, was there,and NOT on a walker, looking amazing (last time I saw her she couldn’t get around on her own steam and needed help). I had to ask my Dad one more time how we’re kin to Zula.
Her husband, Fred Barnett, was the son of my Grandpa Terry’s cousin, who we always called Aunt Eddy. Aunt Eddy evidently kept me all the time when I was a baby – my first memory is sitting on the kitchen table while Aunt Eddy fed me chocolate cake and coffee liberally laced with fresh milk and lots of sugar. My mom says I had to have been two. I just remember that she was this old, sweet, gentle lady that I was always happy to see. And she was Zula’s mother-in-law. So one way we were connected to Inez Brown was that my daddy’s cousin Fred Barnett was married to her sister. And my mom’s sister Doris was married to Alvin Gowdy, Inez’s brother. When you bring a stranger into the midst of this community and try to explain all these family connections, they always shake their head and say “Does your family tree actually fork?” I guess the correct answer is “Yeah, kinda sorta. . .”
The weather held, the hugging and greetings ended (“You’re Kenneth and Betty’s baby!? Heavens, you look just like your mama!”), and I went in search of my grandparents’ graves. I have vague recollections of where they were, but the funerals of both my grandmothers (over 25 years ago) were so distressing to me, I didn’t think I could locate them on my own (although they both qualified as “great funerals”). I went to the cemetery office where four or five laborers were waiting for the Brown family to leave so that they could fill the grave, and where two guys from Glaze Monument were searching for three different graves on which to set stones, and I put B.F. and Myrtle Mae Ayres, and Thomas Etheridge and Lenora Estelle Terry on a list. A laborer pulled them up on a computer, and then took me out on the grounds to find my grandparents.
Besides all the funerals of my grandparents, my clearest memories of the Tucumcari Cemetery are the Saturday morning visits when my cousin Susie and I went with my Grandma Ayres to visit Grandpa Ayres’ grave. My grandparents married in 1912, and their love story is a blog post (or two or three) in and of itself, but my Grandma Ayres never let a day, if not an hour, go by without talking about how much she missed her husband, Frank, after he died. He was born Benjamin Franklin Ayres, and he is buried next to his brother, Thomas Jefferson Ayres.
Susie and I, the babies of all the Ayres grandchildren, spent countless weekends with Grandma, and at least once monthly, we carried plastic flowers, or roses from Grandma’s rose bushes, out to the cemetery to put on Grandpa’s grave. She’d pluck errant grass from around the stone (which already had her name on it – Susie and I thought that was incredibly creepy) and we’d arrange the flowers to suit her, and then she’d tell us something about our uncle Edward, my mother’s oldest brother, who was buried on her side of the headstone. Edward was the oldest brother, and in my mind’s eye (he died before I was born), from all the stories I’ve heard, he was a handsome, dashing womanizer who never married, who came home from World War II with a trunk full of presents (including a black and yellow satin fringed pillow with “Hawaii” sewn across the front for Grandma – oh how I coveted that pillow. I thought it was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen). But when Grandma Ayres would talk about Edward, she would eventually end up with tears in her eyes and Susie and I would try to distract her by asking questions about Uncle Tom, and all of them bringing the babies (Edward and Mary Belle) to New Mexico from Texas in a wagon.
There is only so much you can write in one post. I have a lifetime of stories about my respective families to tell, and getting to go to Inez Brown’s funeral yesterday reminded me of people I hadn’t thought about in months.
My mother loaned me her Quay County History book recently, and I thought it would be fun to give you a taste of the entry Inez Brown wrote about her immediate family. It’s a testament to how my part of the country was settled – mostly by sweat and hard work and nearly abject poverty, but incredible resiliance and satisfaction at the end of the day.
Here’s what Inez wrote in 1985:
“I am a native of the Porter Community, the daughter of R.E. and Beaulah Gowdy. My folks homesteaded here in 1913. My brothers are Alvin, Leonard, Wink and Calvin; my sisters are Naomi, Cleo and Zulu. We had good times and bad times, as most large families do. We all went to school at Porter and I was salutatorian of my class. Clifton and I were married May 25, 1935. This was during the depression days and we really had to work hard just to make a living. We farmed and ranched at Porter for 44 years.
Sometimes we farmed as much as 1,000 acres of broomcorn, milo and wheat. While Clifton was in the field on the tractor from daylight to way after dark, I milked several cows, turned the cream separator, and raised a bunch of pigs from babies, on bottles, to 200 pounds, enough to pay for carpet for our farm home. We raised chickens from babies to hens, sometimes having as many as 300 to 400 at a time in order to sell eggs. We started baby calves on bottles, feeing 10 to 20 at a time. We did everything we could to make a living. It was hard work, but looking back, I enjoyed helping and after our girls got big enough, they took over the housework and cooking.”
This is the same story, just a different version, of my parents’ and grandparents’ lives. And it’s another example of how our connections to people from home give us added strength. Shared histories equal shared burdens and shared triumphs. For me, at least, being connected to these people is essential. It makes me who I am.