A massive magnolia tree shelters my childhood memories. Its dense canopy captured my dreams as I played in the dusty side yard of my great-grandparents’ home place in north Alabama.
The leafy sentinel shaded a tiny cinder-block building used for canning vegetables and washing grimy overalls. A battered wringer washer and a vintage electric stove filled the space lit by a lone hanging bulb.
The stovetop – charred black from putting up countless quarts of beans, tomatoes and corn – created enough heat to drive me outside as my great-grandmother, great-aunts and grandmother sweated over the summer bounty.
The tree is gone now and so are three of the females who dominated my childhood. It was the steel embedded in this female bloodline that propelled my drive.
Only one of these women remains on this side of eternity.
My great-aunt Opal is 96.
She’s still a force, living on her own in Huntsville.
Her memories – like her tongue – remain sharp.
She’s outlived her parents, three siblings, her only child and six husbands.
When asked to confirm the number of husbands, Opal said she didn’t remember the exact count, but it could be five or six.
“I’ll do some homework and get back to you,” she said.
I recalled one handsome and charming man from memories of family gatherings in the late 1960s.
“They were all that, honey,” Opal said with a saucy grin.
She offered a warm welcome to me and my three young adult offspring on the Saturday before Christmas of 2019.
We’ve not been faithful about visiting over the years. I don’t have an excuse for that, but something prompted me to reach out. The guilt disappeared when I heard the delight in the familiar voice on the other end of the telephone call.
The pilgrimage took us close to five hours on a rainy Saturday to arrive at her modest doorstep. Greeting us all with expansive hugs, we were amazed at her bright eyes and sure stance. She does keep walkers and canes at the ready but more for stability than actual need.
“I have one hip that’s 25 years old and one that’s 20,” she said, referring to past hip replacement surgeries.
This is a woman who bought a pair of leather pants with her first Social Security check.
She chased down a man who mugged her a decade ago in the local Kroger parking lot.
Holding on to the fleeing car with one arm, she scraped the wrist on her other arm before releasing her grip.
After the wounds healed, her ever-present bravado erupted. She was happy that the new skin looked much younger than it did before.
She’s of a generation mostly gone but entirely worth honoring.
Born in 1923 into a poor farming family, she roared into life with gusto.
A live-in-the-moment kind of gal, she married an Army man named Dex, whose assignments took them to Japan and Italy, quite a switch from a childhood spent working the powdery dirt on a farm in Cullman County, Alabama, 50 miles from Birmingham.
Her only child – Dianne – arrived in 1947 to expand the heart-purpose of this young wife and mother.The first marriage ended, but the experience didn’t sour her on love. She subsequently loved at least five other men enough to marry them.
She remarried her first husband, Dex, the great love of her life.
Later, she poured copious energy into the world of business – purchasing and running two beauty shops in Birmingham in the 1960s – before investing in real estate while running another beauty shop in Huntsville.
She helped my grandmother Mildred to reestablish her life after hitting several roadblocks in the late 1950s and early 1960s. My great-grandfather, Howard Butler, told Opal to take care of her older sister. She helped Millie enroll in cosmetology school and brought her into the business.
That didn’t last long.
“That heifer ordered all kinds of crap we didn’t need,” Opal said, initially dismissive of my grandmother’s business acumen.
Ultimately, she bought her sister out and opened a second shop in Eastlake Mall, serving an affluent clientele, including author Fanny Flagg.
Snatches of memories flood back to me – visits to the beauty shops, trips to the river and snapping beans at my great-grandparents’ homeplace in Cullman, Alabama – shaded by that magnolia tree.
And always listening to Opal and my grandmother bicker back and forth while coloring each other’s jet black hair.
The sisters married alcoholic veterans whose trips to Redstone Arsenal weighed down their trunks with cases of cheap commissary scotch. They shared the sour mash-up of that life before much was known about PTSD in the aftermath of service to one’s country.
Opal is matter-of-fact about it now. And she likely was then.
She never forgot her rural roots. She could cook up a mess of bass in an iron skillet with a side of potatoes and onions.
She was always laughing, and I can’t remember her not working.
She retired three times, she told me, during our visit sitting in her living room crammed with family photos, antiques and artifacts from her life.
She loves mirrors, dishes, colorful art and all things shiny.
Self-conscious now about her thinning silver hair, she tops it off with a collection of sequin-covered caps in colors to match every outfit.
A painting of a woman clasping a glass of wine, one nipple peeking over a dip in the bodice of a ruby-red dress, prompted a pause during a search for snapshots of long-gone family members.
“What’s the story of the painting?” I asked.
“I just liked it,” Opal said with a sassy grin. “You can have it when I’m gone.”
My sons, 25 and 23, remember their great-great-aunt from a family wedding when they were much younger.
My daughter, 20, another strong female in sync with family traditions, had never met the woman whose legendary life-force colored family lore.
Opal is the final link to my grandmother’s generation.
When my children asked her the secret to her success, she had a simple response.
“Work your ass off,” she said.
It’s as simple as that, I guess, as I consider the future of my trio of soon-to-be-launched adults.
Opal’s felt the unimaginable pain at the loss of her 42-year-old daughter in a car accident. And, she’s weathered the suffering of other tragedies – death, disease, divorce – all things that life hurls at us.
But she’s robust and resilient – somehow navigating all of it with grace and a steely resolve.
Born into a family of hard-working people, unafraid to love hard and fight for what matters, she’s still offering advice and affection to those of us who remain.
My daughter called me in early February from her college in Tennessee.
“What’s Aunt Opal’s number?
Perry wanted to drive to Huntsville to take her great-great-aunt out for a manicure for a Galentine’s Day treat.
And that is proof enough that we are okay. Despite some raw chapters in our family history, it’s clear that our family legacy is one of resilience and strength. And that’s enough for me.
E. Lane Gresham is a Northeast Georgia writer and photographer currently exploring a creative life beyond the empty nest.