Willie Kay Road
by Valerie Surrett
For years, I’ve claimed to hate driving. I thought I believed this—had somehow forgotten that mountain girl, filled with the angst of youth, who sought out winding roads at midnight, windows down and radio up, taking curves as fast as my little stick shift would allow. Last Saturday, on my way to Greenwood, South Carolina for my great aunt Doris’s funeral, I remembered: I love driving; I just need the right roads.
My daughter Norah was with me, seven years old and feeling all grown up in a new dress and fancy shoes I’d bought her the night before. After an hour on I-85 North, singing as loud as we could to all her favorite songs, she’d drifted off to sleep, warmed by the mid-morning sun. The weather was stunning—one of those clear, bright, deep south mornings that tricks you into thinking it’s mid-April rather than February.
A pleasant, disembodied voice traveled through my car’s speakers and directed me off the interstate somewhere near Anderson and, for the next hour and a half, guided me through a series of rural roads, roads with names like “Willie Kay.” Upstate South Carolina has a distinct atmosphere, a taste in the air, and as I drove along, passing rolling red dirt farms, shuttered and dilapidated corner stores, and crossroads anchored by Baptist churches and old cemeteries, childhood memories flooded forth, unbidden. Just like that, I was a skinny, bespectacled, shy child, riding down the mountain with my parents to visit my Grammie’s family in Pickens. Though we could be there in an hour, as a kid, Pickens felt like a world away, a long and perilous journey down Caesar’s Head with switchbacks you meet yourself in.
Driving by mile after mile of small farms and pasture lands, my mind drifted to summer visits to my great aunt Helen’s farm—the ping-ping-ping of soft rain falling on her tin roof, the sweet burst of juice from sun-warmed grapes picked off the vine, Aunt Helen’s voice asking if I want a dip of cream in the evening, relentless heat, red clay on my white, off-brand Keds.
My Grammie was a South Carolina girl, transplanted up 276 to the mountains of Transylvania County, North Carolina, at 15 after lying about her age to marry my grandfather. She had four siblings, three sisters—Sarah, Doris, and Helen—and a brother, Buddy. I have no memories of great aunt Sarah, a few of funny and spirited Doris, and many of sweet Helen.
Aunt Doris outlasted them all, living 90 years. She buried her parents, her husband, two of her children, and all of her siblings. She stayed sharp and independent, living on her own until she died, not succumbing to the Alzheimer’s and dementia that would claim her three sisters. I didn’t know aunt Doris well (pronounced Dar-is in the upstate drawl), but I do have fond memories of her from family reunions, weddings, and in more recent years, funerals. She was funny, a little salty, and quick to smile.
For the past decade or so, she and my dad, her nephew, maintained a running joke. When she would see my dad at funerals and reunions, she’d insist that he do her funeral when she died. He’d reply that he would if he could think of anything nice to say about her. I can hear her voice, “Alan, you thought of anything nice to say at my funeral yet?” Daddy would grin, “No, but I’m still thinkin.”
Her funeral wasn’t sad in the way funerals can be. She lived a full life, attested by her four living children and a host of grandkids and great-grandkids. Death came to her suddenly; she was cleaning her own house and telling folks she’d see them at church just days before she passed.
With my car pointed towards the town where Doris spent her life, taking me to the small church where she last sang and prayed, I thought about how much I don’t know about Doris and her sisters. A quiet panic bubbled just beneath the surface of my country-road calm, a dread that so many of these women’s stories went untold during their lives and might be forever lost now that Doris is gone.
A line from a poem by Muriel Rukeyser came to mind, a supposition: “What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open.” If one woman’s spoken truth could rupture the earth, imagine the power of the laid-bare lives of four southern sisters raised to defer, deflect, and submit.
There’s so much I don’t know about my Grammie. When I was young and her mind was clear, I was too self-centered to ask real questions about her life. By the time I began wanting to know who she was before she was “Grammie,” her mind had drifted away from us, stuck in loops and fragments of memories we couldn’t decipher. Some of those loops sounded like hauntings. She died two years ago. Since then, I’ve thought about going to visit Doris to collect stories of their childhoods with hopes of patching together an image of who the sisters were when they were young, before their roles as mothers, wives, grandmothers, and aunts obscured their individuality. The tyrannies of the present got the best of me; I never made that trip.
Before heading to the funeral, I read aunt Doris’s obituary. I’d been told, but had somehow forgotten, that she’d buried two children. As a young child, her daughter, Elaine, stood too close to a fire and her dress caught flame. My dad, who was four or five at the time, remembers the horror and grief of her death vividly. Doris would go on to have five other children, burying an adult son later in life.
As I drove along, thinking about Doris, glancing at my own daughter in the rearview, I couldn’t reconcile my memories of the always-smiling Doris with these losses. After witnessing your child burn, how do you ever smile again?
My childhood images of the sisters—Doris, Helen, my grandmother Lois—are tableaus of southern, church-going, hymn-singing, self-deprecating women, full of sweetness and grace, quick to laugh and always trying to feed you something. I didn’t see the quiet strength, or downright stubbornness, anchoring their gentleness until I grew up and moved away. The sisters endured—the daughters of a peddler and sharecropper, they grew up poor, loved hard men, and survived the deaths of parents, husbands, siblings, children and grandchildren. They worked hard with backs stooped, picking cotton as children, laboring on farms and in factories as adults, and standing over hot stoves in stifling kitchens to feed everyone who depended on them.
I hope I’ve inherited a shred of their strength; I dread the inevitability of having my own grit tested if I, too, am granted a long life.
I wish I had asked them more questions about their lives. I wish I could safeguard more of their stories. I bet the ground their truths would break would be fertile, yielding a new kind of crop. Here’s a story I remember.
Several years ago, my uncle died. Doris, Lois, and Helen were all still living. Lois and Helen’s minds were slipping, but they still recognized each other at this point.
My uncle’s funeral was held at a small country church. It was late September, but it must have been a hundred degrees in the sanctuary. It was my birthday, and I was very pregnant with Norah, but I was too blame hot to ponder the profundity of the great circle of life in that moment.
The service hadn’t started. The three sisters were sitting together in the pew behind me. We’d all been sitting there a while, fanning ourselves with hymnals and funeral programs. Sweat was rolling down my back, absorbed by a scarf and sweater I was wearing to hide my tattoos from Grammie’s eyes. My son Liam, not yet two years old, was squirmy. I could sense a meltdown on the horizon. I was miserable.
The sisters had been sitting silently for some time. I’m not sure which of the three said it, but one of them broke their shared reverie with: “I’ve been settin here so long I done forgot whose funeral this is. Who died?”
Neither sister could answer.
A minute later, one of three: “well, at least we know it’s not one of us!”
And then, three southern old ladies, and one pregnant young one, laughed at a funeral.
Rest easy, Aunt Doris. Daddy thought of several nice things to say about you at your funeral. Give Grammie a hug for me. Please tell her I’m sorry for all the stories she never told me before I thought to ask.
Valerie Surrett was born and raised in the mountains of Transylvania County, North Carolina. She is descended from a long line of bootleggers who’ve lived and died in those mountains since at least 1861. She currently lives in Flowery Branch, Georgia, and is an assistant professor of English at the University of North Georgia.