Twenty-one years have gone by since my mom died just before Christmas. But she continues to amaze me.
We all have favorite memories of the closest loved ones we’ve lost. The thing Grandpa did every single day of his life. The tiny pair of sewing scissors your favorite aunt always seemed to have handy, even when she was wearing her old flowery housedress with no pockets. Sometimes it’s a story. Something remarkable or funny everyone still talks about, starting with, “Remember the time…?”
Credit: Family photo
I thought I had heard it all, seen it all about my mother, who many people in her hometown of Warrenton, a couple of hours east of Atlanta, knew as Miss Fran. But two decades after her passing, I have come across the most Miss Fran thing of all.
I found it not long ago while going through of the effects of my late grandmother, Mimi. A character in her own right, Mimi passed on a while back at 92. One day at her home, I grabbed a stack of random papers she had squirreled away on a shelf in the kitchen. There were a zillion recipes. Some she’d copied on note cards, others she’d clipped from newspapers and magazines. Addresses of far-flung cousins (I think they were cousins; I never really knew how some of them were related to us) who had long since passed away. And several iterations of my own address as I moved from state to state over the years with new jobs.
There were lots of “helpful hints” and Bible verses cut out from various publications, both religious and secular. Many, many shopping lists and to-do lists. A national forest’s worth of 3-by-5 index cards and little worn spiral-bound notebooks filled with important phone numbers, where you could see Mimi’s once-flowing cursive shrivel over time into a scrawl as her Parkinson’s disease worsened.
I was about two-thirds of the way through the stack of notes when I noticed there was something that just didn’t seem to fit. It was a piece of thin brown cardboard a few inches across, cut in an octagonal shape. I wasn’t sure what to make of it. Then I turned it over. The script in thick black marker was unmistakable to me. This was not Mimi’s handwriting. This was her daughter’s handwriting. This was from Miss Fran.
“Use this pattern to cut two (2) pieces of 1 1/4[-inch] styrofoam for flower urn on grave,” it said.
It was a cardboard pattern made by Miss Fran so she and Mimi could cut the green floral foam to the right size and shape to fit the little vase made into the headstone on my grandfather’s grave. That’s not all.
When my mother died at Christmas 2000, six years after her own father died, she was laid to rest near him. Miss Fran was given the same model of headstone as the one on her father’s grave. With the same built-in flower vase.
Over the years since her death at age 53, I have heard many, many stories of Miss Fran from relatives, friends and her old classmates. How she insisted she and her freshman-year roommate at the Woman’s College of Georgia (now Georgia College and State University) have matching bedspreads. How, as a leader on the high school’s junior-senior prom planning committee, she went from class to class with a hammer stuffed in her bookbag to aid construction efforts.
Little Frances, as she was then known, once denounced as fake the Santa Claus whose lap she’d just at on, because the color of his eyes was different from the Santa she’d met earlier that day. She and her father somehow rigged a life-sized prop car that could be “driven” onto the stage of the high school auditorium for a scene in a student play. As a young woman, Fran, as she would become known, sewed her own wedding dress. At the center of all these stories is this smart, kind, funny, creative person everyone counted on to take every task completely to heart and to be entirely over-prepared.
Her health began declining when she was only 48. She withered for five years until her illnesses took her from us a week before Christmas.
Credit: Family Photo
I thought I had heard all the stories in the decades since her death. But this year, when I make that long drive out I-20 for my family’s Christmas gathering, and detour off the interstate to the little cemetery, I’ll know one new story. The one about how Miss Fran left us a pattern for the flower vase on her own grave.
And I imagine I’ll probably look down at her headstone and smile.
Credit: Family photo