Love and Loss-January/February 1989

April 1, 2011
Visits with Cousin Macon: A Gift for Learning

Sometime in the winter of 1950, I heard from Aunt Ida that our bachelor cousin Macon Thornton had suffered a curious spell and was in the Roanoke Rapids hospital. I wrote to him at once; and by the time my school was out in June, he was back at home. I drove up from Raleigh to Macon, in Warren County, to see him. He met me at the front door, and that was a fact disturbing in itself— farmers are never home in summer daylight, not even those past sixty like Mac (which everybody pronounced as “Make”). He said his man Joe would be coming for him shortly. So we sat on the porch, with his sister coming to the screen now and then to say something trivial or ask a question. That was also a new arrangement— to see Miss Emma plainly checking Mac when she'd barely noticed his presence before—and it made me think he was still sick, whatever he said.

He said he was fine. “Yes, yes, just thin.” The chief sign of that was the black eyes blaring in his shrunken face, but he showed no trace of invalid neglect. He was dressed as neatly as always, with a starched white shirt buttoned at the neck and no tie. He even wore his black street shoes, and they looked as if black Joe might have halfway shined them. To my now-suspicious eye, Mac's face looked healthy all the same. He'd never been fat—the belly was the product of weak abdominal muscles—but the longer I watched and heard his new voice, a note too high, a fresh unnerving boy began to materialize in my old friend's place. Death had begun another in its broad array of tricks; it was moving Mac Thornton's body backward through time.

Our conversation followed the old pattern, me and my schooling. By then I was aimed toward college—Duke University, if they'd have me: the successor to Mac's old Trinity. As a Methodist steward and a long enthusiast for education, Mac was hot for me to go. I told him I'd need to win a big scholarship.

He pointed toward the hose, and Emma inside, and shook his head, then lowered his voice, “I'll help you out.”

I wasn't about to press for details, but at least I thanked him; and then we went silent, staring across the road to the rows of young tobacco that embraced the Baptist church, where he'd given me that first profitable row six years before. When I faced him again, I could see his eyes were full. I'd never seen Mac show a trace of sorrow, but tears were in danger of spilling now, and he wouldn't move to wipe them.

Then still not facing me, he told me what had happened. “Ren, I woke up in my bed, way in the night, and my pillow was sopping wet. Everything was dark and I couldn't see my hand before me, but then I felt around, and damned if the whole sheet down to my waist wasn't soaked. I said ‘Well, Macon, you're in your second childhood’—I though I'd started back pissing in the bed. Nothing to do but change my damned pajamas and stretch out on the floor till day. I stood up to turn on the light, but I never found the switch. Next thing I knew, I was waking up in a pitch-black world—not one chink of light—with something big pressing down on my face. I thought ‘Oh Lord, I'm in my grave. They've buried me and damned if I ain't still alive.’ But then I found my arms could move, far as they could reach—I knew Emma hadn't bought me no coffin with that much room. I had to be dead though, wherever I was; and let me tell you, Ren, I knew it wasn't Heaven. But I went on to sleep or passed out again, and it wasn't till daylight hit my window that I came to. I was under my bed in cobwebs and dust—God only knows how. Joe thinks I passed out, then halfway woke up, started to crawling and wound up way under the bed. Anyhow, now I could see my way clear. I crawled on and out and got on my feet and—oh Lord Jesus—my bed was all bloody, my face, my chest. Before I could wake anybody else up, Joe came in to find me. Time to cook breakfast and I hadn't showed up, so Joe was worried but nothing compared to what he was the minute he saw me.”

Price at Duke

Price pictured at Duke in the 1950s
Reynolds Price Papers, Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library, Duke University

The Thorntons were famous, in a village of confessors, for keeping their counsel; they kept their own bad news at home. Maybe the curse of insanity had made them way of confirming or checking their neighbors' curiosity. In my presence anyhow Mac never mentioned his sister Lucy's mad death, Emma's winter depression, or his brother Frank's eccentricity. He spoke of his family only to praise them or in an occasional affectionate joke. (One of his sisters had married a man of reputed thrift; so Mac one told me “Yes, he's very economical—takes Mamie's false teeth downtown every morning in the pocket of his vest; can't have her at home there, eating between meals.”)

Like us all, Mac well understood the point of such stories had no necessary bearing on the facts of the case. They were instant, and instantly welcome, attempts to augment the ongoing myth of the family—everyone's hope for outlasting the grave. And now having pictured his harrowing night, he gave me no further clue to what struck him—a lung hemorrhage from TB or cancer, an abdominal ulcer, a ruptured aneurysm, or a stroke?

Rumors about him proliferated but my memory is that Mac puttered along for a year or so, running his farms and strengthening a little but not regaining the weight. And in my first semester at Duke, I got another postcard—he would check into Duke Hospital soon for tests. He stayed about two weeks, and every day I'd walk the few hundred yards off main campus to see him.

Mac had a private room and mostly stayed in bed, though he could sit up on the edge of the bed for meals. I was in his room several times when his supper tray arrived—always a big a bowl of unadorned white rice, with a tablespoon of honey for optional seasoning. Then as now the hospital offered a famous rice diet. Originally a therapy for hypertension, it had soon become a regiment for weight loss. Mac no longer seemed overweight, so maybe blood pressure was the concern. But again he never said and I didn't ask. We'd talk the old talk; I'd stay half an hour, telling him most of my tranquil news. All of my life, in the presence of reluctant talkers, I tend to rattle on—any foolishness to fill the holes. But always with Mac I could tolerate silence as a natural state, a function of our ease and trust. So in the hospital we'd often sit through long mute stretches. By then though, I was finally old enough to wonder what he thought at such times.

Did his mind turn into the kind of blank screen we assume in, say, a grazing animal; or was he poring on dreadful visions of what lay ahead? I never asked. Sometimes he'd end the silence between us with a sudden assertion, old as our closeness, “You've got a fine mammy. Always treat her right—but I know you do.” Can all his thoughts have been about others? And what had he thought, those thousands of evenings at home with only Emma, his bachelor brother Frank, the radio, and Life magazine? All my evidence, from the years I knew him, says he thought of nothing but others. How and in what terms, though? In any case, once he described that first nightmare, he never said one more word on the subject of age or death. And when he'd catch the hint that I was restless, he'd thank me and say “Yes, yes—do your lessons.” And I'd be back the next day.

Once with his hairless ankles dangling at the edge of the bed, I suddenly realized what young people seldom know, especially in America now where children hardly know anyone over fifty. I saw that this old man was once young as me. Neither my Aunt Ida, who was his old grammar-schoolmate, nor my mother had photographs of him in youth; and with all the compulsive snapping I'd done singe age thirteen, I'd never taken once picture of Mac and now I couldn't. So I tried to imagine him as a boy—the one who figured so mischievously in Ida's school memories—or as Mother's memory of him as a fond openhanded store clerk. All I could ever be sure of was the eyes, surely they'd never changed. They were threatening to outlast his shrinking body; and in my mind till now, so they have.

Without me, in the hospital he'd have been almost entirely alone. Emma couldn't travel the seventy miles, Frank wouldn't, and Joe was so busy with the extra chores that he came only at rare intervals. But I got to the room one afternoon and found Joe with Mac. It was one of the few times I'd seen Joe indoors; he looked uneasy as a buffalo in the parlor and was already on his feet, anxious to leave—in those days, any country person's first aim was to get home by dark. When we'd shaken hands Joe clapped his felt hat back on.

Mac said “Joe, take your damned hat off. Ain't raining in here.” But he laughed and told Joe to get on back and cook Emma and Frank's supper.

Joe said “Mr. Frank ain't been eating a whole lot since you come up here. I keep making him boiled custard; he'll drink a glass of that every hour or so. Miss Emma now, she's bolting her feed.” Of course we laughed; Emma's appetite was legendary—she'd eat a dry saltine every week or so. Her blue-flame focus came from something less earthy than food.

Once Joe was gone Mac paid him the ritual compliment. “Joe's all right. Been mighty good to me.” But that day he supplemented it, “People in general have.” I told him he'd everything he got and more.

Mac said “I loved my fellow man.” This time his eyes stayed dry; but I remember noticing he used the past tense, though I saw no signs of imminent death.

The doctors still hadn't scheduled his departure, so when I stood to go, I said I'd see him tomorrow.

Mac said “Please sir. But here, put this in your inside pocket.” He handed me a sealed white dime-store envelope, no sign of writing. “Don't lose it now.”

I assumed it was my annual tobacco profit—my number of rows had risen in eight years; by then the yield had climbed to two hundred. Mac hadn't said “Don't tell Emma,” so I wondered if I misunderstood. Still I said “Whatever it is, I thank you.”

He looked out his window on the university gardens, stripping now for winter. Then he said “How damned old are you, Ren?”

“Eighteen, nineteen in February.”

He faced me. “Then I'm thanking you for eighteen years.”

The walk to my room was the equivalent of two city blocks; but since my arms were heavy with books, I didn't stop to open the envelope. I just knew that two hundred dollars would come in handy for my Christmas trip to New York; I already had tickets to see Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh in Caesar and Cleopatra and Antony and Cleopatra , and they hadn't come cheap.

Jack my roommate was in from band practice, already working at the broad desk we shared. The light through our single window was the same bluish haze of so many school memories—late walks home from senior-play practice or touch football when the actual players became near-ghosts, the light of late childhood longing and sorrow mingled in an unendurable sadness that we mostly endure. Jack asked if I'd seen my cousin; was he better?

It struck me as polite but odd that he asked every day but had never joined me on a visit, though Mac had asked more than one question about him; still I was glad of a well-meaning partner my age. I had to say “He's dying.” Only then did I see that, of people I'd loved, Mac would be the first to die. I took out the envelope and cut it open—the usual tablet paper wrapper, but with no written message, and three crisp thousand-dollar bills.

In student eyes even today that would be a princely gift. In 1951 and in the circles I moved in, it was almost imaginable. Mac had said years before that he meant to help me through college. Then in my last year of high school, I'd won a full scholarship. At that point he apparently decided to lie back. Now this. The customs of our friendship said I shouldn't run back to Mac now and pour out thanks. It would rile us both, in unknown ways, and one of us might do something uncontrollable like weep. But the next afternoon I went straight to him.

And then more than ever, I could hear his death. When I'd said my thanks and renewed my promise to “be some count,” Mac said, not just the old “don't tell Emma” but then “I can't leave you anything in my damned will.”

I told him I meant to put it aside for graduate school.

He said the old “Yes, yes” of any country preacher and then “Ren, don't never stop studying.”

Only now do I wonder what he hoped I'd learn.

When I was home for Christmas that year, I got another postcard from Mac. He was back in the hospital, again in Roanoke Rapids; and he wished he could see me. It was eighty-five mile from home but when we went to Aunt Ida's for Christmas, my parents, my brother, Bill, and I all drove the further fifteen miles and climbed to Mac's room.

Again he was lying alone in a single; the walls were that hue of milky green with which otherwise merciful institutions punish their charges. He was slightly thinner than the last time at Duke, and oxygen tubes ran into his nostrils, but the black eyes caught us with no surprise. He'd never been a jovial greeter; and even this near an end, he kept up a courtly self-possession.

Despite the hissing tubes, talk was much the same as always, though manners required him to share his attention among the four of us. I know he never mentioned his health and none of us asked. I know he never joked, even with Bill. He also never spoke of going back home; but he managed as we did, with no gulp or tear. It was all questions, short pointless questions—was it cold outdoors, did we have a new car, had we got good grades? (“Don't think I doubt you; I know you have.”)

After fifteen minutes Elizabeth, my mother, saw that we tired him. When she leaned to kiss him and say goodbye, he didn't protest. He held her hand an extra moment and said “Old James” ( James for Jimmy, her nickname). She was one of the hemisphere's tenderest hearts; tears sprang up in her ten times a day, but now she restrained them.

So when he extended his hand to me, I followed Mother's lead and kissed him once on the bare domed head, the first time ever. At the door I paused for one look back. For another first time, he was watching for that. The eyes were untouched by his enemy and the further leanness made his scimitar nose as much a prow as Abraham's when he bent to slay Isaac. But the cool restrain of all our past forbade me even to make a farewell, though common sense and animal need told me to say “I'll remember you every day of my life.”

Mac said “You know what I say to that.”

I trusted he meant he'd return the service. I know he believed in ongoing life; and like all our kind, and the large majority of human beings always, he thought his soul would recall those he left and could go on doing them further good deeds. His body anyhow died in that room.

So on in the winter, Bill and I drove to Macon to sit through his funeral at the church he shared with all Mother's family, the tall white room where he'd spent so many hot Sunday mornings over on the left in the Amen Corner. My parents had gone to Norfolk for the simultaneous brother, Skinny, the one who spilled Father's drinking secret in my hot presence years before. But though Mac's nephews bore his coffin, for once I knew my place and was there. If I'd been asked to say a few words, I hope I'd have said that he moved unpropped through sixty-five years with wit, generosity, and undimmed eyes.

It took two pastors to lay him away. The Methodist minister mainly presided; but Father's old helper Robert Brickhouse delivered a short fine eulogy. At the end he said that he'd been asked by Miss Emma Nowell, Mrs. John Nowell, Macon Thornton's sister—to read a poem that had been Macon's favorite.

I thought “Mac Thornton never read a whole peom.”

But Robert Brickhouse forged ahead; and when he got to final line of Leight Hunt's swaying “Abou ben Adhem,” I heard a startling echo of Mac's own voice—Write me as one that loved his fellow-man .

It's not a line you could read these days, for a dead old bachelor, without suppressed laughter. But even as late as the 1950's, you could say what you meant and not be foolish. Mac had said his version of the line to me some months before, and I hadn't recognized it. He'd always said “Emma's a most remarkable woman,” and again she'd proved it. She also saw that the words were cut on his white gravestone.

It stands no more than fifty feet from the graves of my Rodwell grandparents, Aunt Ida and Marvin, all three of their sons, other Rodwells and Drakes, and the high dark cedar my own mother planted in her childhood. Now that I'm only ten years short of Mac's last age, I can say that no one buried there gave me more of a single crucial gift than Mac Thornton gave—not the years of money but a deep-cut picture to study and learn; a single figure, no visible props, consuming life gladly and giving it back.

Clear Pictures Kate Vaiden