Wednesday, April 4, 2012

To My Gam

Will the Circle, be unbroken?
By and by Lord, by and by.
There's a better, home awaiting,
In the sky Lord in the sky!
Valrie Chambliss Spence was my maternal grandmother. She was "Gam" to me. While she wanted to be "Gram," my developing tongue's inability to produce "r's" shortened the nickname. She called her husband by his last name, which is the same as my first. That was confusing, so she would more commonly call me "Bruise" (short for "Bruiser," which is what my infant pediatrician called me) or "Sugar." The latter term, when drawled by a native Sumter Countian, sounds like "shugah." That pronunciation always amused me, so that's what I took to calling her as an adult. "Shugah." That's the last thing I ever said to her. "Bye, Shugah."

Gam was a guiding force in my and my sisters' lives. She relentlessly encouraged us to read, write, listen, and learn. Never content for us to merely do something (write a cursive uppercase "R," for example), she wanted us to do it well. It was a by-product of her eternal pride in us.When I wasn't trying hard enough, she'd say "Bruise!" with a graciously disapproving stare. She taught us to do right; to be gracious, courteous, and honest. Like every mortal, she was imperfect. But when you've done as much as she did for as many people as she did for, your blemishes are less relevant. I could go on for pages about how much I loved her and how much she and the other "Spence" did for me, but there was something about her that is more germane here. She loved music.

She was born on April 9, 1922 and grew up on Bond Street in Plains, Georgia. Then, and now, Plains is a small town in a great wide open space. Honesty and integrity took root when the place was settled and grew like kudzu on a blazing summer day. Plains is a genuine place. Neighbors love each other. The fact that our 39th President grew up in such a place seems impossible, until you visit. Gam grew up surrounded by decent and honest people who did right. What they lacked in sophistication they made up for in perspiration. There were a limited number of ways that people living in Plains in the 1930's could entertain themselves. Nearly all of them involved music. It's no wonder that Gam loved it as much as she did.

She lived through a depression, world war, and the advent of the automobile, radio broadcasting, electric sound amplification, telephones, televisions, computers, and virtually every other major invention of the 20th century. In her nostalgic moments, she told me of going to the old Windsor Hotel in Americus during the war and swing dancing with the British pilots who were at Souther Field for training. (What an image! I can just see her whirling away on the heart-pine floors and grinning ear to ear as a rendition of Glenn Miller's "In the Mood" blared). Thank goodness she didn't fall for any of the Johnnies; instead, she married the other Spence (Lewis Lafayette, or "Pop" to me) on July 15, 1944. Pop was in the war at the time, so she had to ride a train with her mother to Abilene, Texas to marry him. (It must have been a bit strange having her mother along for the honeymoon, but like I said, Plains is a small town.) They would be together for 67 years and loved each other for every day of every one of them.

Gam educated herself well, eventually earning a masters degree in education. She taught lower and middle grades in the Sumter and Terrell County school systems for 28 years. I can only imagine that there are hundreds and hundreds of souls walking this earth who she pressed relentlessly to learn, and who still appreciate it to this day. Among her students was a future First Lady of the United States, then Rosalynn Smith. We hardly ever went to a lunch at the old Town & Tourist restaurant in Dawson when one of her former students didn't walk up exclaiming, "Miss Spence!"

Her mother taught her to play piano as a child. She never forgot, and continued to play into her 80's. Though her father had what she described as a lovely tenor voice, she didn't get much of it from him. Her mother gave up on voice lessons for her pretty quickly. Gam was by no means a great singer or pianist, but she tried hard, and what came out of her musically was earnest and driven by feeling.

Having grown up a devout Baptist in a place of deep Faith, most of the music that she learned and loved was old-time gospel. It was at her core. She had an old upright Steinway piano in her living room on Lee Street in Dawson. There was always a dusty brown Methodist hymnal on top of a bunch of Rogers & Hammerstein sheet music inside the little wooden piano bench. The inside of the bench had a deep smell of musty oak. When she lifted the heavy lid, she'd always say: "Be careful, Bruise, don't get your finguh" when she let it back down. Most often, she was going for the hymnal. Any time she could coax a family member near the piano she'd get it out and start reeling off hymns in her left-hand chord heavy style. My family had some wonderful times (not necessarily me; youthful protest) around that piano singing Christmas carols and the like. A song was rarely finished; she was too excited to have her family singing in her living room to be patient.

She kept my sister Beth and me as children when my parents were out of town. She'd make us get dressed in our finest (white and black saddle oxfords, pastel knit tie with short-sleeved dress shirt in kids M) and go to the First Methodist church in Perry, Georgia. Every single time a hymn went up, she would do her best to get me to sing.
"Oh for a thousand tongues to sing, my Great Redeemer's praise ..." 
I can just see her looking down at me with an amused smile scrunching her eyebrows together and mouthing "Bruise! Sing!" I'd try. Sometimes. When I did, she would look back up with a smile on her face. When I didn't, she'd just roll her eyes. I do not sing particularly well and never have. But she loved me so much, and she'd convinced herself that her Bruise could sing. It was an article of faith in her, and it inspired me to at least try.

As time went on, I slowly realized that Gam had been right all along, and that music was one of those human endeavors in which it is better to try hard, and fail, than not to try at all. I bought myself an acoustic guitar as a young adult and taught myself to play it. I would take it to Dawson with me on some of my final visits to her house before she moved to the nursing home. Almost three decades after she'd paid me as a child to do my "woka woka" routine to Jim Croce's "Bad Leroy Brown" (see Moment Zero), I stood there next to the little Steinway in the living room with her trying to master the song's 7th chord swing. The years had stripped away most of her ability to play, but I could feel her joy. It was written in her smile and the nod of her head. There was nothing she'd have rather been doing. Her Bruise was finally trying right there next to her.

When I woke up last Wednesday, March 28, 2012, I picked up my phone to see what email I'd received overnight. Gam had been very ill and was in the hospital. The first message I saw was one from my mother with only the date as its subject. Her message was simple; grief would allow her nothing more. Before the sun rose, Gam moved on to the Sweet By-and-By. Choking back the tears, all I could think to do was to lie there and sing a couple of lines for her:
I'll fly away oh Glory!
I'll fly away!
When I die, hallelujah by and by,
I'll fly away. 
I'll miss you Shugah. But I'll sing from now on, because that what's you taught me. I promise.

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