Of sadness and happiness and being oh so very lucky…

Me and Sandy at a McDonald family gathering, early 90’s.

Sometimes you can get a text message that makes your whole day. Sometimes the message breaks your heart. Sometimes…all of the above.

I got the photo to the right during a class this morning, and as soon as I saw that it was from one of my favorite cousins, Margaret, I had an idea of what it was. I opened the message and my breath caught in my throat.

There is so much in this photo to unpack, and I’m only just scratching the surface, but here goes. On the surface, this is a picture of me and my cousin Sandy who left us last month due to a degenerative muscle disease that he has had for many years. Most of the time my husband knew him, Sandy used a wheelchair. I honestly can’t put a date on the last time he was independently mobile like he is in this photo. Sandy and I…I don’t know how to even begin to describe our relationship, and if I spend too much time trying this post will be over before it begins and I will have to walk away and compose myself. There we are, though, pouring over what I’m sure is either photos from an Amy Grant concert or Camp Glisson, just as we always did at the quarterly McDonald family gatherings that I attended every three months of every year of my life until I went to live in England. How many extended families see each other THAT much? My mother’s people are close, y’all. Close.

My father’s family, the Allens, usually saw each other at Christmas and very often my Aunt Inez (the one of his four sisters that was the closest to my father and was very much a second mother for me and Susan) would join us when we hosted the McDonalds – but the rest of my paternal extended family just wasn’t as close in the same way, I suppose?

The second thing I noticed in this photo happened as I was trying to identify when it was taken. When you have a get together EVERY three months there are a lot of possibilities. First thing I noticed is that it is not Christmas. How do I know that? Two things:

  • My dad, who is in the background holding a child, is not wearing anything red, green, or otherwise both in a plaid. The man is nothing if not consistent. Also, I am not wearing shoes. Leaving aside the jokes about being born and raised in the Southern United States, I would have had shoes on in December. It really does get cold in Georgia, I promise.
  • There are no presents or wrapping paper anywhere in the photo. One thing I remember clearly about the number of McDonald Family Christmases that my parents hosted was that there was always a mountain of wrapping paper for me and Susan to clean up when it was over. 

Next, I had to confirm that it was indeed at one of the 8 parsonages where I lived growing up. I’m guessing from the curtain and the photo behind Sandy’s head this was taken when Mom and Dad were in Commerce. The dish in my hand is one of a collection that had a rooster right in the middle of the plates and bowls that my parents had. I’m sure there is nothing but whipped cream in it, either.

Further, once I enhanced the photo a little I could see that the necklace I’m wearing is most likely my Sigma Beta Sigma necklace that I wore my freshman and sophomore years of college. I stopped wearing it when I got to Maryville in 1991 because MC did not have social greek organizations and I was 19 and all about BLENDING IN so the necklace stayed at home with my folks.

We are narrowed down now to somewhere between August of 1989 and June of 1991, and I’m leaning toward the spring gathering in 1991. My hair was short, but not yet the gorgeous Molly Ringwald inspired orange that I dyed it shortly before graduation in June of 1991. THAT IS MY NATURAL HAIR COLOR, PEOPLE. Also, please note the Artist-Wanna-Be pose that I’m striking in that chair. Back then I was in theatre and was going to be an actor, and since Sandy had been involved in theatre and performing, it was an easy match.

So, if this is around March of 1991, I was 19 and a half and Sandy was 28. We were the two edges of the gap in age for our McDonald cousins. Susan was the youngest (she is 4.5 years younger than I am) and Havelyn (not pictured) was the oldest. There were 7 of us and we ranged in age (at the time of this photo) from 14 to…I don’t know, Havelyn might have been in her 40s then? Susan tended to be more into playing with our second cousins who were all younger than she, and I desperately wanted to be cool like my older cousins. Sandy never treated me like anything less than an equal, even with the nine-year age gap. He came to visit me when I was at Young Harris and he wrote a song for me afterward. It is one of the great regrets of my life that I no longer have the cassette that he gave me that had that song on it.

So while this photo initially brought tears to my eyes because I miss him – I miss this kind of family, this kind of gathering where we are all happy and enjoying each other’s company and not worrying over ill health or missing the latest family member to leave us… I am happy in those memories in a way I haven’t been lately. I’ve put Amy Grant back in my Spotify for Sandy, to remember how he took me and Susan to see her in Atlanta at the Omni. I’m going to the Highland Games and repping Clan Donald, even though I’ve only gotten my own genealogy back to the ancestor that left Scotland for America.

I said to Susan today that we were so very lucky to grow up in this family, filled with love, always visiting and keeping in touch. In the world today where so many people have so little and families aren’t always able to see each other as often as they would prefer, I can say with pride that I did not have back then that I was raised part of the McDonald family (or clan, as my Uncle Lewis used to call us). Raised up in love.

Vacation, Day One: Young Harris Memories

Today started very early. I went to church with Mom and Dad and then took a trip back in time when we decided to eat lunch at Young Harris College‘s new “restaurant.” It’s where the cafeteria/dining hall used to be.

Liz and I talk often about how different our experiences were at YHC. She loved it and counts it as one of her more fond memories. I have blocked out so much of the 2 years I spent there that when Dad asked me what I thought of the new dining hall today I absolutely could NOT remember what the old one was like. I have no memory whatsoever of ever setting foot inside that building. Funny what the mind does.

My heart broke a little bit when we parked in the upper lot behind Appleby West, my first dorm at Young Harris, and I looked up the hill in front of me to see a parking lot where Mama and Papa Rich’s house used to stand. Robby, their son, is the person in my life that I have known the longest (that isn’t family) that I am still in touch with and count as a friend. I spent time in that house as a friend of the family, as a girlfriend, and finally as “family,” and to have it not there just seemed kinda wrong, even though the inhabitants are all long gone.

The swing that was given to the college by my sorority, Sigma Beta Sigma, was one of the few things I recognized out in front of the new dining hall. I remember vividly sitting on that swing with Amy one night and figuring out the secret to life, the universe, religion, and probably calculus…only to be interrupted by a yelling Robby thundering down the hill toward us and forgetting what we’d only moments before been sure would CHANGE THE WORLD.

I wasn’t sad to leave today, despite all the tiny smiles I afforded my heart as we walked around that tiny corner of my past. It made me who I am, unpleasant as it was, so I can’t wish I’d never been there. I can only wish that I’ll forget all the bad things, just like I have the dining hall. And then, after I’ve forgotten, I can don my old purple and yellow sorority jersey and take my children there. I can tell them how Amy was convinced she was developing pneumonia because I had to leave our dorm window open a crack so I could hear the chapel bell that my sorority was “in charge” of protecting. I can tell them how Liz and Heather and I made a snowman on the front porch of Appleby Center and then snuck it into the lobby.

I can tell them how I was a student there just like their Grandpa, my father was before me, and I can say then that if they want to go there I’d be very proud.

I wonder how long that bit of forgetting will take?