Just a week ago our little family was in Alabama for the memorial service for my father-in-law.
My husband Beau’s dad — Papa to our kids — passed away in October following a short battle with pancreatic cancer.
Beau and his dad (pictured below, together at our wedding in 2003) were pretty good friends. I think Beau’s dad can be credited with teaching Beau much of what he knows about cows, roping, water-skiing, gentlemanly behavior and self-control.
He was only 66, which seems far too young an age.
Beau and I are so thankful our family got to spend time with Papa this past summer during our Fourth of July vacation at Lake Martin. The picture below, of 4-year-old Marsielle with Papa (taken by Beau’s sister Mary Laurel), is definitely a framer. At the time Papa had only recently learned of his diagnosis and had not yet started chemo.
Surreally, four short months after that dreamy summertime stay at the lake, our little Montana family was back on a South-bound plane… this time headed for Papa’s memorial service.
Our kids are such adventurous little troopers. They fly really well (as opposed to driving, which 1-year-old Muggins makes miserable for all of us), and on the way down to Alabama this time around we packed very carefully so we didn’t have to check any bags, which meant the kids had to carry all their stuff through the Denver airport! They did great.
A side story: Muggins refused to nap on the 2-1/2-hour flight from Denver to Birmingham. I don’t know if he’d gotten into some caffeine or what, but if I hadn’t been holding him down he surely would’ve been leaping Tarzan-style over the seats. I was so thankful when we descended to the Birmingham airport. We were just about to touch ground when suddenly the plane accelerated and nosed upward. The pilot came over the air and reported that there was a family of coyotees (yes, with a long E sound on the end) on the landing strip and that a crew was on the ground working to solve the problem and that meantime we would just circle over Birmingham. A FAMILY OF COYOTEES! We Blakes got a few good laughs out of that.
Needless to say we finally landed. Our family spent that first night at a hotel close to the airport, and next morning we headed to Beau’s folks’ house, which is between Montgomery and Selma on the Alabama River.
First we had to escape Birmingham:
The girls napped while we did it:
We stopped for lunch at Beau’s favorite fast-food restaurant, Krystal, which sadly has no locations outside the Southeast. Beau can eat like seven (!) of their tiny hamburgers in one sitting.
Still on the way to Beau’s folks’ house, we made a quick stop at the Target where I worked when Beau and I spent about six months living in Alabama before we had kids:
And finally we made it to the house. All the sights and sounds and smells of the trip were so thoroughly Southern for me, from the sticky sulfurous paper mill odor drifting from across the river to the ever-present heeler puppy waddling through my mother-in-law’s home to the oh-so-photogenic pastime you might call front porch sittin’.
Oh, and this: ice-cold sweet tea with bowls of crawfish étouffée for the last meal of that first day.
Muggins entertained (shirtless) in front of a crowd of family and friends not seen often enough.
Oh, and this: no true Southern lady’s living room would be complete without a few copies of “Garden & Gun” tucked away here and there for rainy day reading. As time allows, I am fascinated by the genre of Southern writing. I think it has shaped a certain percentage of me.
Saturday the 23rd was the day of the actual memorial service. Beau’s grandmother and aunts had shopped for the perfect little outfits for our girls to wear to the graveside:
When we pulled the rental car off the highway and turned toward the church, I was stunned by the lane and the trees in full autumn color and the picture-perfect white country church in the center of the scene:
The cemetery is quiet and beautiful. A perfect resting place for a Southern gentleman.
(In case you were wondering, they’re still waving the Confederate flag down there!)
We all agreed this Auburn-inspired floral arrangement was just right for Papa, who was a BIG fan of his alma mater, not to mention the founding president of the Auburn rodeo team:
After the graveside service, friends and family (it was a great turnout) headed back to the house for a celebration of life. Our kids got to spend time there with so many special people who usually love them only from afar. Here, Beau’s cousin Hadleigh (who was the flower girl in our wedding!) reads to Muggins and Marsi.
And at the end of the big day, Beau’s mom (Mim to the kids) sat down for a picture with her grandchildren.
The next day was the Sunday before Thanksgiving, and Beau’s grandmother invited everyone to her house for an early Thanksgiving dinner. Before we left Beau’s parents’ home at Grey Rocks, the immediate family spent time spreading Papa’s ashes in some of the places he liked best:
I love this picture Mary Laurel took of Beau, myself, and the kids with my mother-in-law Mrs. Lynn:
On the way to Ma’s house for dinner we passed the cotton gin and I made Beau stop so I could take a picture. Throughout the rest of the hour-long drive I wished to stop to take photos about 50 more times… but I reminded myself that one will never capture all the photo opportunities that exist, so one need not even try! I’m sure my husband was appreciative.
At Ma’s (Beau’s maternal grandmother’s), Muggins got some cuddles from his great-grandfather…
… and our girls got to hang out with some of their favorite guys, big cousins Hardy and Sawyer.
After dinner, Great Aunts Jen and Leigh took the girls to the local drugstore to visit with Santa…
… and drink coke from glass bottles…
… and indulge in face painting.
Maybe it’s just because I’m their mama, but I think our little girls are exquisite. I’m amazed every day that they belong to me. I’d say the Alabama/Montana cross is a good one.
It was such a great trip down there. Beau and I were amazed by all the people who reached out to him and to his family and even to me and the kids, and we were so grateful for the countless kindnesses and for the thoughtfulness shown during such a sad time. We certainly saw, in the three short days we stayed this time, the very best the South has to offer. (And we were reminded that Beau’s knack for never turning down a new friendship is a trait he carries on for his dad!)
It was — I’ll say it again for lack of better words — almost surreal to leave that weekend of mourning and celebration in Alabama behind to return to our second life of reality here in Montana.
Yet a plane had to be met, and so at 4:10 a.m. on Monday we found ourselves back at the Birmingham airport. This time we had to check two bags, each stuffed full of Southern treasures for our kids.
Still, despite the plunder we gained, I think Beau felt lighter than he had for many preceding weeks. A lovely celebration of life had been accomplished and many worries were laid to rest in the process. We brought some of Papa’s ashes home with us and now are learning to live in a new chapter of life: the first chapter in which we are without Papa.
© Tami Blake