I spent my 24th birthday, January 16, 2013, at my grandfather’s house for his wake. I last saw him while visiting home—Lillington, NC—over Christmas. He arrived twenty minutes late to say goodbye before I left to catch a flight back to Iowa City, IA. I remember saying to my mother, Rebecca Davidson, “I can’t wait much longer, Mom.” What, might you ask was the reason for his delay? My 92-year-old grandfather, Bill Johnson, was on a date with his girlfriend that ran late. He always kept things interesting.
It was a week later when I got the call from my mother that he was at Rex Hospital in Raleigh, dying of an aneurism. She explained that he lost consciousness that morning, while they—both attorneys—were meeting with a group of beneficiaries under a will. One
of the attendees called an ambulance that quickly transported him to a hospital, giving him enough time to regain consciousness and decline any risky medical attempts at saving his life. My mother explained, “Your sister and cousins are on their way, honey. Would you like to talk to him?” “Of course,” I replied. On the other end of the phone, 900 miles away, my grandfather whispered to me, “I love you, honey. I’ve lived a happy, happy life, and I wish the same for you.” The distance between me and my southern home never felt greater.
So on my 24th birthday, feeling more adult than ever before, I found myself at his house holding down the fort during the hours before the wake. I had spent every afterschool afternoon of my early childhood exploring this house and capitalizing on luxuries only my grandparents had permission to provide: unlimited marshmallows, Oreo cookies, ice cream sandwiches and cable television. It was a surreal day.
The wake was quite an affair. My family’s world has revolved around our farm and the nearby county seat of Lillington—a small town situated along the sandy banks of the Cape Fear River in eastern North Carolina—for five generations. My grandfather grew up in a white clapboard house on a farm across the river and four miles east of Lillington. He, his parents, and grandparents toiled the same southern soil as tobacco and cotton farmers. My grandmother, Mildred Johnson, grew up in Buies Creek, a small town one mile east of the farm. Her family tended a small farm with dairy cows and chickens. After attending law school, my grandfather married my grandmother and moved to Lillington in the 1940s to open a practice in town that all three of his children, including my mother, later joined.
After moving into town, my grandfather and his parents maintained the farmland and kept cows and horses. My uncle primed tobacco for years as a teenager, and even my mother tied tobacco one summer. In 1995, my parents built a house across the road from the farm. I grew up seeing my grandfather’s childhood home, dubbed “The Farm House,” out of the front window of my home everyday.
That day I greeted hundreds of fellow mourners all connected to my grandfather by blood, marriage, his farm, his law practice, or the town. Out of the dozens of people I met that day, two visitors stand out: Novie Milton and Anne Payne. I first noticed Novie early in the day through the front window of the house as she struggled to remove something heavy from the front seat of her red sedan. I rushed out the front door and down the brick walk to assist. Novie, an inconceivably frail old woman with an impeccable eastern North Carolina drawl, introduced herself: “You know me! I’m Lee Milton’s wife. I live just down the street.” The unwieldy item she was struggling to lift from the car was a steaming cheesy broccoli casserole—inadequately sealed with aluminum foil—which she had unknowingly stored upside down in an insulated bag. I offered to carry the heavy dish inside, and despite the morbid circumstances could not help but giggle at the ridiculous scene.
The other person I remember is Anne Payne, who visited later in the day. While taking a break from the visitation line with my mother to snack on the abundance of casseroles—including what we could salvage of Novie’s—Anne approached me and introduced herself saying, “I remember you when you were this tall. I used to cut your and your grandmama’s hair.” My mother added, “She did your grandmother’s hair for her funeral.”
I was touched. My grandmother died as a result of a traumatic car accident when I was six years old. I have very little memory of my grandmother, though her presence in my grandfather’s house was always noticeable. I mostly knew her through family stories and through her objects that my grandfather never removed from the house. I used to retrieve a dusty box of gaudy jewelry from her dresser in my grandfather’s room to play dress up. Other objects like her button collection, sewing machine, and recipe box each echoed the rhythm of her daily life. When I was nine, I discovered a vintage upright hairdryer lodged in the back right corner of my mother and aunt’s bedroom on the second floor of my grandparents’ house, and had since known hair was important to my grandmother. The hairdryer had a black and white speckled dome that balanced upon a curved aluminum post that stretched down to the floor and rested atop four legs with wheels. I had never seen anything like it. This upright hairdryer purchased by my grandmother is one of the stranger objects my grandfather refused to move. I thanked Anne Payne for reintroducing herself and sharing that memory.
Months later after reflecting on the day, I asked my aunt, Sandra Johnson, and mother about the hairdryer. They both laughed. My aunt said, “It was a big deal when she brought it home.” My mother, who was eight-years-old when the hairdryer arrived explained, “I remember clearly that we pulled up in my mom’s Ford Station wagon. I think that was around 1960 something.” Walking towards the basement door, she saw the dim outline of the hair dryer’s hood through a window. “I thought it was an alien and screamed.”
Mildred Johnson, my grandmother had her hair done every Thursday at 8:30 a.m. at local salons in Lillington her entire adult life. My mother explained, “Every week she would have it rolled, dried, and then teased. Her hair was always off her face, but there would be soft curls behind her ears and around the back of her head.” While the hairdressers and salons changed over the five decades of weekly hair appointments, the ritual of the appointment did not. At some point my grandmother purchased the upright hairdryer for personal use from one of her stylists, who was replacing old models with new. My grandmother never dropped her standing salon appointment, but she, my aunt and mother used the hairdryer frequently. Every few days they would crouch beneath the hood to sit and wait for the roaring hot breeze to transform their hair, tightly wound on wiry pink curlers, from wet to dry.
The possession of a clunky, impractical upright hairdryer allowed my grandmother the opportunity of personal pampering. Sitting beneath the cacophonous appliance, my grandmother could glance out the western window of her house and glimpse the lush flower garden she and my grandfather carefully planned and maintained each year. If she looked out the eastern window, she could see East Front Street, partitioned by a line of Bradford Pear trees and daffodil beds she planted. Her domain was the house, but keeping up appearances was important to her beyond the realm of the domestic. Her weekly hair appointment at Mary Lee’s beauty shop, four blocks down from her house, brought her into the public sphere where she could laugh, gossip and connect with other women in the community. She may not have known whom my grandfather would bring to the house from one day to the next, but she did know that every Thursday her stylist would wash, roll and comb her hair.
Her hair was often a talking point. My mother explained, “She started going gray pretty early. Women would literally stop her in stores and ask her where she had her hair frosted because it was really beautiful. It looked great, and it was natural.” My aunt remembers, “She did not allow herself many ‘treats’ that were just for relaxation. She loved having someone else brush her hair, rub her head.” When hospitalized after the accident that later took her life, “She would allow the nurses to wash her hair every few days and brush it whenever they offered. It [also] was one of the few things she would let me do for her.”
Returning to the hairdryer, my mother exclaimed, “That thing weighed a ton!” My aunt explained, “It was quickly outdated and replaced by portable models.” Yet it stuck around for decades. My grandmother eventually used it to hang-dry clothes by draping them over the dome. Later it was pushed as far back into the corner of the upstairs bedroom as possible—yet never stored in the attic. In years following her death, my grandfather would say, “We better hang onto that. It will be worth good money someday.”
The hairdryer, a family artifact rife with history, recently departed my family. Eleven months after my grandfather’s death, my family finished ciphering through decades of accumulated belongings, keeping some and donating most. The hairdryer was donated to Habitat for Humanity and quickly purchased by a customer. To this day it remains one of many objects from my grandparents’ house that connects me to an imagined time and an imagined life.