The trip back to the homeland this week

I’m always ambivalent when I go back to Kentucky. I do love and also generally like most of my family, but on the other hand, I don’t belong in the political and religious climate of the place. ‘Cause I mean, seriously, “agnostic, bisexual, polyamorous SF geek” is not exactly a common breed in those parts. And there is enough darkness in my childhood that for the most part, I’m content to remain a few thousand miles away from it for the remainder of my days.

And yet. When userinfosolarbird and I went to my Grandma Hyson’s funeral this week, I did feel it necessary to do a few things.

One of these was, on Monday afternoon, going to see the house where I grew up. The neighborhood looked surprisingly unchanged from my childhood memories–although of course smaller in scale to my 42-year-old eyes than it’d been when I was small, or even a teenager. 902 itself, the house my father helped build for us, looked quite a bit smaller in particular and it did have changes. The shutters are solid white now, instead of the green with white borders that they’d been when I was a child, and the house numbers are new. There is only one tree in the front yard now rather than two, and that tree is significantly taller and thicker around than the maple saplings I remember.

The big ditch by the house is the same, though–the ditch that’s big enough to be labelled “Slop Ditch” on maps of Louisville, a ditch whose size hadn’t ever really registered with Dara until she actually saw it, at which point she proceeded to inform me that it was really more of a big creek or maybe even a small river. The thick summer plant life growing all along the banks, another thing that fit well with my memory, is certainly river-like.

Preston Highway, at least where my old street intersected with it, also looked much the same. I pointed out to Dara the church we’d attended, as well as the building that used to be the movie theater where I first saw Star Wars, and which is now (sadly) a Verizon store. The huge hardware store I remembered on the corner was still there, although the building I remembered as white is more of a silvery-gray now. And the tiny convenience shop just around the way from that hardware store, the Easy Shop which was my impetus to walk six entire blocks from home because that was where the candy was, isn’t there anymore at all. That made me kind of sad.

We went over to see my old elementary school as well, since that wasn’t too far away, and that too seemed a lot smaller than I ever remembered. But we also wound up wandering to a part of Louisville that hadn’t ever been a part of my childhood: the Bardstown neighborhood, which turned out to be surprisingly congenial to Seattleites used to walkable streets. I could have easily seen Bardstown, with its walkable main street and street parking for several surrounding blocks, as a neighborhood hub in Seattle. And since it has a huge comic book store as well as a nice little coffee shop and a used book exchange, I am fairly sure it must be a haven for geeks all over Louisville.

Monday night sent Dara and me to Lexington. We dropped in on userinfostarsongky and userinfogazerwolf, and had a lovely chat with them; then we went out to dinner with our old friend Brent and another acquaintance from LexFA, David, and that was lovely too.

Tuesday was of course Grandma’s funeral, and as funerals go, it was… not bad, actually. It was nice to spend a couple of hours just hanging out with the family, sharing conversation and a lot of old pictures, especially many old pictures of Grandma that I’d never seen before. Dara and I were also even introduced to an old high school friend of my aunt Kim’s–who, it turns out, is an SF geek herself and is someone whose path we fleetingly crossed attending Rivercons while we were still in Kentucky. So that was pretty neat.

So was what Dara told me after we got home: that a friend of my aunt Teresa’s, while Dara had stepped outside, had given her a bit of a look and asked, “Are you the outdoorsy type? Do you like to hike?” To wit: LOL, of the very, very old school variety.

The actual service turned out to be surprisingly informal and sweet, as it was officiated by a gentleman who wasn’t actually a pastor. But he was an old, old friend of Grandma’s family, the Careys, and had spoken at previous Carey funerals. His name was Billy Maxie, and he rambled quite a bit about the history of Grandma’s family. Two things that he said, though, stood out for me.

One was that the Careys, he said, were always singers. That if you met a Carey, you’d know that they’d automatically be good at singing, and how they’d always be leading the singing at church and such. He said that if any of us with Carey blood found ourselves just singing, that that would be the Carey genes expressing themselves.

I couldn’t help but think of me walking to at from work, belting out Great Big Sea. And I had to smile.

And the other was something awesome that I don’t think I’d ever known, or if I did I’d forgotten: that Grandma was one of the many millions of women who, during World War II, worked in the factories while their menfolk went off to war. Aunt Kim backed this up afterwards by saying that Grandma had built airplanes, and she’d always had a hard time envisioning her mother with power tools. My Aunt Teresa says that Grandma had also been a bit of a clothes horse and loved her fancy dresses, and hated wearing the “dungarees” that they were required to wear at the factories!

Mr. Maxie finished up though by doing something really, really sweet: saying that as a member of the Disabled American Veterans, he’d paid a lot of respect to men who’d served during WWII. This time, though, he was going to do it for my grandma, because he firmly believed that the women who did their part by working in those factories were every bit as deserving of the same respect as the men who’d done the fighting. And so he stepped in front of my Grandma’s casket and very formally saluted her.

I teared up at that. That, all by itself, made me happy I was there.

Dara and I both got to have a bit of a chat with Mr. Maxie after, and he was startled to see that Dara had her mandolin with her–because he had in fact intended to have another gentleman play mandolin for him during the service, but that gent had not been able to make it. Mr. Maxie told Dara that if he’d known she’d had a mandolin, he’d have put her to work. And he seemed pleased to learn that I myself was of Carey blood, and that I did sing a bit.

Afterwards, because I had never actually seen it and because my mom was buried in the same cemetery, I told my brothers and sisters I wanted to see Mom’s headstone. So we went over there to pay our respects, bringing Marc’s and Sarah’s children with us. It was a bit of a crowd with the great lot of us, and it turns out that Mom is in kind of crowded company. But I was happy, in a wistful kind of way, to at least see the place where she rests.

Then we all convened at my uncle Randy’s house and hung out together for several more hours, eating food, chatting, and looking at a great many more old pictures.

Like this one, which is perhaps one of the earliest ones of Grandma in the entire set of pictures I saw. I’ve come home with the originals of a lot of the pictures I looked at, but this one in particular was old enough that I didn’t want to separate it from the rest. So I just snapped a pic of it in turn with my iPhone, just so that I can show you all an even younger picture of my Grandma, and a glimpse of the Stylish Young Miss that she was. I think that pose of her is adorable.

Stylish Young Miss
Stylish Young Miss

Tuesday night, after Dara and I parted ways with my family, we wandered off to the one other part of Louisville (aside from my middle school and high school from downtown) that I could remember with any immediate clarity: Jefferson Mall, which had always been the “good” mall when I was a kid, and which still periodically shows up in dreams of mine, heavily mutated, as the upper level of a dreamscape Nethack game. I remembered the L-shape of the place, and the skylights over the food court, and I had a very, very niggling memory of the Willis Music where I might even have gotten that ancient orange Elvis songbook I have once again, thanks to my brother.

There were thunderstorms Tuesday afternoon and evening, clearing out the awful heat and humidity that had made most of Monday unbearable. A good thunderstorm is one of the few things aside from my family that I do miss about Kentucky, and I was happy to see that one. A parting gift from the state, as it were.

And I bought a Louisville shirt in the airport, on the way home.