Memories of My Grandparents

All of my grandparents have passed, and I don't know if I've ever recorded memories of them in writing. I was reminded to finish this piece by my aunt's Mother's Day post.

My paternal grandfather was Searcy Bradfield Slack, Jr. I called him "Pop" and only knew him as a young child; he died when I was 11 or 12. My grandfather was a small business owner; Southern Neon Displays was incorporated in 1942 and made some of the big neon signs for Coca Cola in downtown Atlanta. Every Christmas, as part of that company's legacy, we put out a big neon Christmas tree that lit our neighborhood street with green. I don't remember much of my grandfather; "Pop" had a gruff voice and he was the less active caretaker when we visited on Monday nights for dinner and usually, a Braves game on TV. I do know that he was hugely interested in nature; he was a longtime Scoutmaster in Decatur and owned land in Sautee, GA, where the Scout Troop would go camping (land I had the privilege of visiting). My grandparents' house was on a neighborhood street reaching into Fernbank Woods and we could venture off to trails from their backyard. I remember the steep driveway and the large, rotating clothes hanger outside for air drying the laundry.

He was a founding elder of North Decatur Presbyterian Church (where the scout troop was headquartered), and the basement apartment of their home hosted several of my cousins in their early adulthood, later filling up with an assortment of Stuff that took a while to sort through when the house was sold. I loved the laundry chute connecting an upstairs closet down to a basement bedroom near the clothes washer, and remember the house and hallways as gargantuan because I knew them at such a lower height. At Christmas time, my family would run Christmas pageants with me and all the cousins at their house, using the archway between the vestibule and living room as a proscenium arch as re donned cloaks and pretended to be angels and shepherds.

I remember him coming with my dad to pick me up from summer camp, and I remember his big chair in the den of their house in the woods. I wish I had had more real conversations with him.

My maternal grandmother was Majorie Lundy Cliburn. Her story is told, in depth, by my other grandfather in his autobiography, but the short version is that she was born in Columbus, Georgia and worked briefly as a cashier before marriage. Her father was a carpenter who served in World War I and then rose up to become a leader in the immense construction at Fort Benning during World War II. Her mother grew up in a South Alabama farm community, which she rarely returned to. She had the difficult role of being a minister's wife in small-town Georgia, helping to anchor that community.

My grandmother had a stroke in 1977, when she was 49, that rendered her hemiplegic with very little function on one side of her body. I remember their house in Thomaston with various polls and furniture that supported a life with a disability, which only got more difficult as time went on. She had a fancy chair that could recline and hoist itself up so that she could stand up easily, which we played with as children. She had little weights on the table for exercising her good arm.

I remember her driving me when she lived in Tucker, and I remember the grip of her good arm in its hugs. Her life was challenging, but she persevered and could always move around the house, albeit slowly. I remember her yelling "Ed!" to get my grandfather and occasional undeserved, self-deprecating statements, especially in moments of praise for her like a dinner at the fancy Sundial restaurant in Atlanta. I remember helping "Grandma" to get into various houses for Christmas and Thanksgiving dinner, including a scary moment for me when a big bump in the sidewalk caused her to slide off the wheelchair I was pushing (she was fine). This might sound obvious, but my chief memory of my grandmother was and is a feeling of absolute, unconditional love from her. As much as life frustrated her (especially after her second stroke), she never once took anything out on me for it. My last memory of her was a loving goodbye after Thanksgiving in Thomaston, shortly before the 3rd stroke that quickly led to the end of her life.

My paternal grandmother was Arlene Taylor Slack. She also helped to found North Decatur Pres (along with other groups mentioned in the linked obituary), and was the most active grandparent of my childhood. Her homes always had a formal, spotless living room, and a den in the back of the house where the real activities of life took place. She made dinner for my brother and me on Monday nights; we'd watch the NBC Nightly News on a little kitchen TV that had separate tuners for VHF and UHF. Their house also had a cordless phone that I found fascinating, located in the wood paneled hallway. Compared to my other grandmother, "Grammy" was spritely, climbing up and down the basement steps easily of the house in the woods.

After my grandfather passed, she moved to a home where everything was on a single floor north of Decatur. There was a little greenhouse off the back porch and a courtyard that I remember being too small for any meaningful activities. I remember going over there to clean the gutters and for Christmas dinner with my cousins on her side of the family, one of whom overlapped with me at Decatur High School. She was active and completely independent until a medical issue caused by travel (we think) confined her to a wheelchair and required a move to assisted living. I remember going to Sunrise of Decatur many days after high school (a 10 minute walk from my house) and keeping her company as she grieved her new limitations. Over time, she mentally slipped away and I could see differences every time I returned home from college.

We had a little portable ramp at the house that was built for my other grandmother, but we ended up using it far more often to get Grammy inside, maneuvering her over the stoop for a meal she ate less and less of as time went on. I remember the envy other residents of Sunrise indicated when they saw how many visits we gave her, and the pain of being unable to give her physical independence. She taught me compassion as I practiced it with her.

My material grandfather was Edwin Langdon Cliburn. He is a continuing influence in my life, thanks partly to the depth of writing he left to us (including a three volume autobiography), as well as his continued faculties into my adulthood (he was eight years younger than my other surviving grandmother). After being a minister in Thomaston for 24 years, he was a denominational executive for Georgia Baptists during my childhood, meaning my earliest memories of him are playing "hall ball" in the Tucker house.

My "Papa" was abandoned by his own father as a small child and so was raised by his extended family in Columbus, Georgia. Growing up without much spare money, and without a father, was deeply meaningful in his life, and he took from that experience an amazing work ethic that allowed him to pastor a church and simultaneously author its detailed history. By the time I really knew him, he and my grandmother had retired back to Thomaston, where he continued to serve interim pastorates deep into old age. If my grandmother had not had the stroke, I think it likely he would have been recruited into positions that required more travel than my grandmother's situation allowed.

I remember the phone conversation I had with him as a young child beginning to understand my spirituality, and the consistent refrain of Neville Chamberlain's mistakes that led to World War 2. He was a history buff and a self-taught technologist with a timed camera way before anyone else had one. He also got high-speed internet before we did at home. I remember the bookshelves of sermons in his study and the giant binder he had out with clear instructions and references for us to use after he passed (he was a very organized planner). I remember his constant patience caring for my grandmother and the reliability that the whole town saw in him. I remember the first Christmas Eve after my grandmother passed, which he spent with us at our house. I hope that I can improve people's lives as he did, even if my work is more on the secular side. He also had a 5+ year "golden years marriage" to a wonderful woman named Dot who is still with us; I care for her deeply. I remember meals in Barnesville with them and long discussions in their back room.

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