I Wish They All Could Be Carolina Girls
Carolina girls grow up proud of their state. July 8 is the birthday of my cousin Kathryn Shade Davis. Cousin Kat was proud to be from Lenoir, North Carolina. She made me proud to be from the Tar Heel State too.
Cousin Kat was an ever-present force of nature when I was growing up in Hills Station, Pennsylvania. She lived at the end of our street with her husband, Cousin Bill, and my cousin Darrell, who they raised as a son. Darrell’s actual mother, Barbara, lived in Cleveland, but Cousin Kat raised him from the time he was three years old. She helped to raise me, too, from the time I was adopted and brought to Hills Station from Greensboro, North Carolina. Next to Momma, Cousin Kat was the most influential woman in my life as I grew up.
Cousin Kat was a privileged preacher’s daughter and the beloved only sister of a handful of brothers. She knew she was something special. I have a photo of Cousin Kat as a young woman with her parents. She stands between them, wearing a stylish dress and a determined look. She was a short, round, walnut-brown woman. She was a hairdresser and her own thick black hair was her best advertisement. She had an energy about her that lit up a room. That energy must have been concentrated in her right foot, because she was the fastest driver I knew. She drove an aqua blue Chevrolet and her head barely cleared the dashboard. When she drove by, all I could see was the top of her perfectly-coiffed head, and even that was a blur. I’m not sure how we were related, but I think her mother and my mother’s grandmother were sisters. I don’t know how she ended up in Hills Station, either. Maybe she came up from Lenoir to visit my mother.
But even though I didn’t know her personal history, I learned a lot from Cousin Kat. When I was little, she was my babysitter. During the few times that my parents went somewhere without me, I stayed at Cousin Kat’s house, spending hours playing with Darrell, who was three years younger, and looking at Cousin Kat’s magazines. She did my hair, giving me my first perm and accepting my first Afro. When I started school, she helped me with my homework. I spent hours with her, learning fractions and the capital cities of Europe. Her magazines taught me about life. Besides sharing her copies of Jet, Ebony, and Sepia, she also shared issues of True Stories and Secrets, magazines filled with stories of women, love, and trouble.
Long before I became a woman, I learned about trouble. My parents were older and not in good health. When both of them went to the hospital at the same time when I was thirteen, I stayed with Cousin Kat. When Momma died in July of that crucial year, Cousin Kat took me to the store to find a dress for the funeral. She did the same thing when Daddy died five years later. When I graduated from college, she drove me to the ceremony and cheered from the stands. I still have her graduation present, a gold necklace with a Capricorn goat. Over the years, we spent a lot of time together, as she helped me grow from a girl into a woman.
Cousin Kat made the best sweet potato pie in the world. I also loved her potato salad and her pecan pies. I tried to make the potato salad once, but it tasted nothing like hers. I never even attempted to recreate her pecan pie. She had a Betty Crocker cookbook filled with her favorite recipes, written on slips of paper in her loopy cursive writing. She loved to set a nice table, which she did every holiday – getting Cousin Bill to add the extension to the dining room table and using her best china, along with her nicest tablecloth and matching napkins.
After I left my first full time job and moved to California in 1988, Cousin Kat developed Alzheimer’s disease. Each time I saw her, she remembered less and less about our lives together. It was hard to see the woman who once knew everyone’s business not able to remember who I was. On a visit home in 1994, I took one last photo of her, with Cousin Bill and Darrell. But she no longer looked like my Cousin Kat. A confused countenance had replaced the warm, smiling face I was used to seeing. In May of 1995, Cousin Kat died. I couldn’t afford to return home for the funeral, but I talked to Cousin Bill on the phone hours after her funeral. “I’ve lost my heart,” was all he could say. Less than a year later, he was gone, too, following His Heart. In 2009, her beloved Darrell died. With the three of them gone, I feel like part of my childhood is missing. I wished that I could have gone home for her funeral. I wish that I could have gotten my hands on that cookbook. There is no one left to remember the happy and sad times that we shared over the years.
No one but me. I’m reminded of her when I hear a warm western Carolina accent. I think of her whenever I see a red and white Betty Crocker Cookbook. Or an aqua blue Chevy Impala. I’m thinking of Cousin Kat on this anniversary of her birth. I can still feel the strong spirit of that quintessential Carolina girl, captured in a faded photograph so many years ago and in a photo of the two of us, together with proud, happy smiles.