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Nashville Scene Bye-Bye Bonnie

Down to one good aunt

By Walter Jowers

FEBRUARY 21, 2000:  Last time we were back home in South Carolina, wife Brenda, daughter Jess, and I stopped by Sunset Memory Gardens, the cemetery where my parents are buried. Mostly, I went there to show off. I walked to the foot of my folks' side-by-side graves, I pulled up my shirt, and I flashed my bypass scar.

"Jabo, Susie, check this out," I said, pointing to the pink line that runs from the base of my neck to the middle of my belly. "If the docs had been able to do this back in your day, you might be standing up here in the sunshine with us. Here it is 65 degrees in December, and y'all are stuck down there in that hole."

Brenda and Jess have watched me talk to my dead parents before. They're used to it. They don't even hear me anymore. Jess lets her mind wander.

"Daddy, who's buried here?" she asked, pointing to the ground where I was standing.

"Nobody yet," I explained. "My daddy made a down payment on these two graves a long time ago, but I had to trade them back to the graveyard when he died, because he still owed money on his own grave. Granddaddy Jabo was a sweetheart, but he was one sorry-ass businessman."

She pointed to other nearby graves. "Well, who's buried here? And here?"

"Those belong to my aunts and uncles," I told her. "They're not all filled up yet. There's a dead aunt in one of them, and a dead uncle in another, but so far, Jabo and Susie are the only dead couple."

Well, that was six weeks ago. As of last week, the second of those double graves will be filled up. Aunt Bonnie died weekend before last. She'll be going in next to uncle F.H., who's been occupying his spot for quite a while now.

I hate to be a bad sport about this, but I'm just plain fed up with all this dying. Ever since I was 12 years old, every time I look up, somebody's eyes are rolling up like window shades. It's like being a Kennedy, but without the money and power.

Pardon my nostalgia, but it really does seem like yesterday that Jabo and Susie and all the aunts and uncles were not just alive, but flat-bellied, steely-eyed young. I've got home movies of Jabo jitterbugging with my cousin Sheila at Aunt Bonnie's Christmas party. He didn't even get winded. But a few years after that, WHAM, he vapor-locked while bugalooing, and the next thing I know, I'm swapping grave sites like an old man swapping knives, just to get him buried next to my mother.

That little neighborhood of graves is on its way to being a sad little model of the neighborhood where I grew up. We lived just two doors down from Aunt Coot and Uncle Guy, who were about eight houses down from Aunt Bonnie and Uncle F.H. We cousins called the aunts "aints," just like Aint Bea in Mayberry. To this day, when I call Aunt Coot's house, I ask for Aint Coot. I couldn't pronounce it right if I tried.

Coot and Guy are the last intact aunt-and-uncle couple. Coot--real name Thelma--is my mother's younger sister. She's married to Guy T. Grimes. The T. doesn't stand for anything. Guy helped Jabo build the Jowers house before I was born. Today he has a defibrillator built into his chest. He says it has restarted his heart at least seven times. Last time I was home, I asked him, "Let's say you're out in the middle of the lake, all by yourself on the boat, and your heart stops. Let's say the thing shocks you, but, God forbid, it doesn't work. Let's say they find you the next day. Is that thing still going to be blasting away on you every few minutes, or will it ever give up?"

"It'll try six times," Uncle Guy said. "Then it'll leave me alone."

"I don't know about you," I said, "but I find that comforting."

"I do too, son. Six times is enough."

Bonnie--real name Vondell--was Guy's sister. She drove all the cousins to school. Unlike the socially skittish aunts, she joined the PTA. Of all the aunts, Bonnie was the one least likely to go to pieces on you. So Bonnie was the first person I called when I found out that Jabo was dead.

Two weeks ago, Aunt Bonnie didn't just keel over. She got sick, then sicker. Lately, she was stuck in a wheelchair. Last Christmas, she went to a party at Coot and Guy's house. Mostly, she just sat quietly in her chair. Near the end of the party, though, she told the young men, "Don't you boys drink too much. Some of y'all are going to have to carry me down those steps."

Last Tuesday, some of them carried her into Sunset Memory Gardens. I wasn't able to get home for the funeral, but it was just as well. Of all my tender-hearted clan, I'm the one most likely to go to pieces and stay that way for a while. I wish I could do better, but after a while, a whole lot of dying and near-dying just scrapes a boy raw.

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