I am in Hendersonville, NC, at Kanuga Conference Center, to celebrate the 90th birthday of Ann “MaTante” Elliot, who is Jess’s grandmother. I call her my adopted grandmother—I hope she’s OK with that.
Yesterday, after I arrived and had lunch with Jess’s family, she and I took a walk down the road to Camp Kanuga, where I spent about a month every summer between ages 10 and 15. Some of my very best memories of my young life were made at that place. Shockingly, it looks largely the same as it did nearly twenty years ago during the last summer I spent there in 1991. We wandered around, in and out of buildings, and found my signature on the session boards hanging in the dining hall. I also spent a week every December and June between 1991 and 1994 here at the conference center, where Episcopal youth from all over the Southeast gathered to explore concepts like faith, justice, service, identity, purpose, and choice, all in the safe and comfortable environment of a tightly knit community full of good friends, music, and the beautiful setting of these North Carolina mountains. I have been simply awash in memory.
It is strange to be back here for the first time in more than 15 years. Even though I no longer consider myself Episcopalian or Christian, I can still almost physically feel the sense of community that drew me to the church in the first place when I was younger. It’s even stranger to be here to celebrate an entirely different part of my world—although we learned much later that I had crossed paths with Jessica’s family in the Episcopal world long before I met Jessica, in my mind, Jess and her family are in a different sphere of my life than the sphere that once included Kanuga.
MaTante is a force of nature. Four children, eleven grandchildren, and seventeen great-grandchildren (so far), and a personality almost bigger than all of those people combined. And almost all of those people are here this weekend.
Time spent with the Elliot clan is always fun, always a little chaotic, and always inspirational. I didn’t know how I would feel being here this weekend. The last time I was with Jessica’s family was a little over a year ago, when Ed, Hudson, and I spent a week at Topsail Island with them and then went to Jessica’s cousin Caroline’s wedding (Caroline had become a good friend of ours separately in law school—the Elliots’ tentacles are far-reaching). Hudson’s absence is conspicuous, at least to me. My arms feel so empty without her among all these parents and their children. She would have had such a good time with so many playmates, with MaTante’s great-grands ranging in age from 12 down to 5 months old. I can see her now, watching the older kids carefully, trying to figure out what they were doing, smiling and laughing at them, following them around, and mimicking them when she could. And while I hope she would have been over it by now, I might have had to be watchful to keep her from biting anyone.
And while it has been sad, I’ve also felt very keenly the sense of life’s forward motion. Last night, after dinner, a female bluegrass trio put on a concert for the conference center guests. Near the end, they played a song called “My Baby’s Gone” (I didn’t realize until I went to look it up later that it has been recorded by many artists from Willie Nelson to Elvis Costello). It took me a while before I tuned in to the lyrics. The chorus goes:
Hold back the rushing minutes
Let the wind lie still
Don’t let the moonlight shine
Across the lonely hill
Dry all the raindrops
Hold back the sun
My world has ended
My baby’s gone
And the rest of the song is a variation on the same theme—that the world should not keep spinning around when the singer’s love is gone. I, of course, immediately thought of my own baby, and how very much I felt that my world had ended after she died. As I listened to the song, I waited for the tears to come. But they didn’t. And as I sat there, I thought about how my world did not really end when Hudson died. A giant hole was torn in it, certainly, a hole that will never fully be mended, but as much as I felt so at the time, my world did not end.
Life moves forward. Here I am, in the place of some of my oldest and best memories, celebrating a woman who had some of her oldest and best memories here, too, many years before I was ever even born.
Life moves forward. MaTante’s youngest great-grands are a set of twins who are 5 months and three days old today. They were born on the day Hudson died. And here they are, grinning and drooling and capturing everyone’s hearts.
Life moves forward. Jess’s mom, Caroline, is also conspicuously absent from today’s celebration, having died three years ago from a sudden and terrible infectious disease just like Hudson. But Jessica has stepped into her shoes and filled them so well, writing a fifteen-verse song all about MaTante, to the tune of “She’ll Be Coming ‘Round the Mountain,” that the family will sing to MaTante at the birthday party later today.
Life moves forward. Last night, after the family rehearsed MaTante’s birthday song, they also practiced singing “Hark the Sound,” (MaTante is a die-hard Tar Heel also). I sang with them, thinking of my sweet girl, and her giggle at the end when she heard “Don’t go to Dook!” Jess handed out One Good Thing bracelets to everyone in the family (they had been special-ordered for the birthday celebration). She told everyone that the bracelets were in memory of Hudson, who heard “Hark the Sound” every night before she went to bed, and that they were also to help us remember all the good things that MaTante had brought to all of our lives.
Life moves forward. Today, the day we celebrate MaTante’s 90th birthday, my mom would have celebrated her 65th birthday. Who knows why some of us live to 90, some of us to 57, some of us to only 17 months? All we can do is cherish each and every day we have with our loved ones, never knowing how many days we will ultimately get.
Life moves forward. I am growing a new baby, Hudson’s little brother or sister, and as I spend time with all of these little ones here, cuddling the ones who will be cuddled, chasing the ones who loved to be chased, chatting with the ones who pretend to be too big for either, I look forward to the days when I get to do all of those things with my own children, who will carry a little bit of Hudson in them, too. I hope one day, my children and grandchildren (and if I’m really lucky, my great-grandchildren) will be celebrating my 90th birthday, and that our Hudson will still be with us all.
Life moves forward. I hope that somewhere, my mom, Jess’s mom, and sweet Hudson are together, watching over us, smiling at us, loving us, looking forward with us. I hope.