Phyllis was my dad's only sibling. They were close growing up.
When your mom regularly dresses you up and poses you for pictures, I assume you form a special bond. There are a large number of pictures of my dad and Phyllis in various outfits, not always matching like the ones above, being posed both with and without their parents. Church, funeral, school events like prom, Easter, Christmas, birthdays, a new haircut. No event was too small for this exercise.
My dad moved to Texas in the late 60's and he and Phyllis never lived geographically close after that with Phyllis moving just over the line from their hometown of Atmore, Alabama to the Pensacola, FL area. Almost every summer, we loaded up the car and made the 12+ hour drive to spend time with my dad's family and in particular, Phyllis's family.
This was a common ritual. My parents LOVE the beach. I do not (nor did Phyllis). Possibly because I hate sand, maybe from being buried to my neck every summer. The only plus side to this is being protected from sunburn, something I can do after being exposed to very little sun.
Front to back: Me, my brother Donnie, my brother Aaron, my cousin David, my cousin Dawn (they are brother and sister).
I saw my mother's family constantly growing up. They lived nearby and we also had a boy and girl cousin on that side that were close in age to us. I enjoyed spending time with both families but there is something about spending time with Phyllis's family that was different. I peg it to staying in hotels and beach houses. Staying at your aunt's actual home (which happened with Phyllis but not that often), isn't as memorable.
I am sure our parents could say where this was taken but I cannot. I do remember the outfit I am wearing and that a person in a gas station asked if I was a boy or girl. Really? I am the little blonde girl. Do people really dress their sons in halter tops? That's Phyllis on the left, her husband (one of my 3 uncles named Jim) and then my mom on the right.
Jim & Phyllis with David & Dawn. This photo brings back so many memories. We stayed in that hotel a bunch of times, the Holiday Inn in Navarre, FL. I don't think it is there anymore, I believe one of the hurricanes damaged it beyond repair.
Back to not sure of the location exactly. My grandpa once took us swimming in a gravel pit so there is no telling. That's Phyllis with my brothers on her left and Dawn in the foreground. I don't know where I was but my guess somewhere in the shade.
I think Phyllis probably took this photo. I also think this is the one and only year that my parents flew us out to visit in advance of their coming. We stayed at Phyllis's house and at both of our (divorced) grandparent's houses. I cut a huge gash on my upper thigh after I accused Donnie of cheating at cards and went to leave in a huff. My grandpa's solution was to lay me on the floor and pour rubbing alcohol on it. Based on the size of the scar I don't think I would be wrong in saying I actually needed stitches. That's me in the middle in the white dress. The tall one.
Me and Phyllis laying on the beach. No doubt we both sunburned that day. It was always easy to see where I got my freckles from when I was around Phyllis. I think I am about 16 here. That's uncle Jim in the sunglasses behind us. I could have sworn I had a copy of this where Phyllis was looking at the camera but I couldn't find it anywhere which makes me really sad.
When I was 18, her son, my cousin David died. He was in a car accident the Wednesday before my wedding. His sister Dawn was supposed to be my Maid of Honor. Obviously, she wasn't as understandably none of that family came. I got married on Saturday and on Sunday my parent's called to ask my new husband David and I to postpone our honeymoon so they could go be with Phyllis when David died. We agreed. He died that Monday.
Me and Dawn at her wedding in 1992. I'm still the tall one.
This picture was taken just a couple of weeks before Dawn's wedding (the baby is my son Blake). We had traveled there when my grandpa died. Someone suggested that maybe the women in our family shouldn't get married because someone always died around that event. For Dawn it was grandpa. For me it was David. Phyllis's grandmother Dora died around the time of her wedding.
One thing about Phyllis that stands out to me, and really applies to that whole family, is that she always seemed happy. She was always smiling. Look at her in the picture above. I know she wasn't always happy, no one is ever always anything. But my impressions of her now and as long as I can remember, she was a positive person. My dad has that trait too. You never hear them complain or use words like "I wish". I never heard her be sad about David's passing. Whenever she talked about him she lit up, she smiled, she talked about happy times. I want to be like that.
After her husband Jim died, things started to change. After a few years, Dawn was forced to seek care for her mother. Alzheimer's, early onset I would say since she was only in her mid-60's when she passed away. Like her mother, I never heard Dawn complain. She took care of it with a grace I hope to have half of if I am one day called to make the difficult decisions she was forced to make.
When Phyllis passed away, my dad called me. I asked if he planned to go to Florida and he said he would let me know. He and my mother had been there only a few weeks before and he had said he wouldn't go back when the time came. Knowing my dad I thought he might have changed his mind. When he decided yes they would go, I knew my course of action.
I would fly to Texas (from Montana) and then help him make the long drive to Pensacola. Dad drives a truck for a living and let's face it, he isn't getting any younger (that was for you dad), so I didn't like the idea of him making that long drive by himself. It isn't that he can't, that didn't matter. I didn't want him to. There are few people in the world that bring out my protective side but he is one of them. Once, when he was playing softball, a man on the other team was heckling him while he pitched and it took a lot of self-control for me to not go punch that man in the face. My plan is to get the keys as soon as I can and to do as much driving as possible.
I flew to Texas and we made plans to start the drive the next morning. When my brother asked what time we were leaving I told him that mom was setting her alarm for 6 am so my guess would be 9. I was close...we got in the car at 8:30. That's when things started to fall apart. My mom calls her mom while we are still on the street my parents live on. Her mom is unwell and at 90 years old, that is a big deal. There is conversation about missing medication. She speaks to one of my aunts who is at my grandmother's home and there is talk of going to a hospital.
Getting to Dawn quickly wasn't about Phyllis. It was about Dawn. When the discussion began about what needed to happen my dad said it perfectly to my mother, "Phyllis is gone, I can't do anything for her now. Your mother is still here. We have to take care of the living." So dad drove me to DFW airport, I rented a car and drove on alone. I know it was hard for my dad but I also know he would never tell you he was sorry for that decision or that it was wrong. That's not the way he thinks. Again, I want to be like that.
So I drove and I thought. And thought. And thought. And wrote some of this post in my head along the way. Probably some really good stuff I didn't write here. Driving to Florida to say goodbye to Phyllis and to do whatever it was that Dawn needed me to do gave me lots of time to think about them, about family, about my childhood.
I remember that trip when we flew to Florida without mom and dad clearly. Maybe because mom and dad weren't there. Maybe because a lot happened and we had that factor of staying in homes we weren't familiar with and with people we barely ever saw. What stands out the most is that when we arrived at the airport in Mobile, Phyllis and Jim were there to get us and I was sick. We drove to their house with Phyllis sitting in the back of the van with me, holding my head in her lap, while I fought the urge to vomit. I can't be sure that I didn't. I just remember her caring and kindness and her promise I would be fine. Those are important things when you are young and away from home and with what almost amounted to strangers.
Phyllis and I saw each other once, maybe twice on average, per year over the whole of my life. Less after I was an adult. But there are parts of my life that only she and her family bore witness to. The time I was sick after the plane ride, when I cut my leg on the table, when I threw up large amounts of watermelon in my grandma's back yard. Now I think, maybe those things never happened. There is almost no one left to tell me otherwise.
My family on that side is dwindling. My dad, my brother, me and Dawn. Our families of course. But as it always is as generations begin to pass on, sometimes those below have a hard time keeping in touch, finding time to be together. We have that whole geographic distance problem: Dad and Aaron in Texas, me in Montana, Dawn in Florida. Both Dawn and I have been married more than 20 years and our husbands might have met once or twice. Recently, Dawn and I have made an effort to find a way to see each other at least once a year. Just like when we were kids.
Dawn and I in Nashville this past April. I'm the one on the left. Always the tall one.
Memory works in strange ways. Phyllis lost hers. I feel like some of mine are less real now that she is gone. As Dawn and I go on and make new memories, maybe together, by seeing each other and talking about the old times, the fun times, hopefully those memories I feel are fading by the loss of their witnesses, can stay real. At least for a little while longer.