He was born in Atlanta and lived there until he married my grandmother and settled on a farm in Sharpsburg. I grew up there, too, on the same old farmland, walking the same trails, experiencing the same seasons, watching the sun set from the same places. They raised their four kids there. Two of those children raised their families there, too. Now there are 12 of us that call that place home.
Last weekend, I returned to "the farm" for a day to celebrate his birthday (we also celebrated my grandmother's birthday, which is on May 7. She's 77. In three years, I suspect she'll be the star of the party). One thing that my aunt did in preparation for the big day, was to write to over a hundred of grandad's friends asking them for letters - memories, anecdotes, anything celebrating their connection to Sam (grandad). The result was incredible. Over 70 people responded, sending in letters that told of memories we'd never heard, talking of the Sam as he was known to his friends, in every stage of his life. A childhood friend recalled pranks they played on the teacher in middle school. A cousin told of being teenagers together, racing his '34 Ford down to the Georgia coast. A buddy from the Air Force spoke of yet more pranks that happened in the cockpit during flight training. My aunt pasted all the letters into a big book and gave it to him that afternoon, and he spent the rest of the day reading through them. What a way to celebrate.
I've always been saddened at the thought of celebrating people after they die. On the radio yesterday, there was a great piece on Evelyn "Mama Bird" Johnson, a pilot who logged more flight time than anyone else, and who passed away at age 102. Charlie Mayer produced the story from an interview she gave in 2003, but imagine if it had been released before she died, perhaps when she turned 100. It's good to hear about people while they're still around, to know they're there, breathing, somewhere. It's more than good. It's fulfilling. It's important. It's what life is all about. Making connections, having feelings, especially warm ones. And it's good for the person, too, to feel appreciated.
After the family party and receiving his album of letters, my grandad returned to his house with my grandmother, Betsy. Hours later, they were still curled up together on the couch, reading letters. My grandad said it was the best day in his life. And he's had a remarkable life. I was happy to be a part of it, but the best part was seeing that pair so happy. Why wait til it's over to give thanks?
Photos by Frank & Beth Marchman