(Excerpt from Retirement: A Journey Not a Destination by Katherine P. Stillerman)
My first month of retirement ended with a trip to Georgia to celebrate Grandmother Margie’s birthday. The party, and annual event for family, had for the last decade, been hosted by Bill’s younger brother, Jim, and his wife, Pam, at their spacious home in Social Circle, a bedroom community of Atlanta. The journey was long, and it was tempting to forgo driving down for the short overnight stay. However, it was always worth the effort to be present at the gathering of the Stillerman clan to honor Grandmother Margie on her special day, which in 2011 marked her ninety-second year.
By blood and by marriage, our family roots run deep and have been nourished by fertile soil that feeds us and makes us strong. As our family tree continues to grow and branch out, separating us by distance and responsibilities, the annual birthday party calls us back to our roots, to renew the ties that bind, through the sharing of our favorite dishes and the retelling of our favorite stories.
The food and drink were sumptuous and plentiful that evening. Outside, in the ample back yard, the guests sipped on fruity sangria, beer, and soft drinks, around the pool, as we waited for Jim and Pam’s Low Country Boil to be served, steaming hot and spilled out onto a picnic table lined with newspaper.
Inside in the cool kitchen, the granite counter groaned with side dishes prepared by each family member, and a giant platter of Covington’s best, and maybe even the world’s best, fried chicken.
There was something for every palette and taste, and everyone loaded up a plate with his or her favorite combination. For me, the piece de resistance was once again Pam’s great aunt’s old-fashioned eight-layered caramel cake, with icing so think and sweet that I had to dilute it with a large scoop of homemade peach ice cream and wash it down with plenty of Chardonnay, so as not to lapse into a glycemic coma.
As the scorching August sun began to disappear in the west, cooling things off a bit, the younger cousins stayed outside to run barefoot and play in the yard, thrilled to be together and out of reach of their parents’ watchful eyes. The adults settled down inside, where we visited over second helpings of dessert, with coffee, and listened to the four Stillerman siblings joke and spar with one another about growing up in Atlanta.
As eldest son, David led off with the story about the time their mother threw twelve boxes of Krispy Kreme Donuts down the basement stairs at their house on Peyton Road. He and younger brother Bill both played in the West End Elementary School Band. They were required to sell donuts to raise money for their yearly trip to Daytona Beach for the big band concert.
Their Mother, Margie, had already bought dozens of boxes, and she had filled the freezer in the basement to capacity with the donuts that they had not eaten, sold, or given away. At that point, she put her foot down and clearly instructed the boys not to bring home any more donuts.
However, the band director was persuasive if not intimidating. At the next band practice, he called on David and asked, “How many boxes can you sell this week?”
David gulped and said, “six.”
He continued down the roll and called on Bill with the same question.
Bill hesitated before he said, “six.”
When Margie spotted the two boys making their way through the kitchen door loaded down with twelve more boxes of Krispy Kreme, she completely lost it! She snatched the boxes from the boys, threw open the basement door, and hurled them down the steps.
The joking and sparring continued, as Bill engaged Jim in their ongoing argument about which of them was least bald. David made fun of both his brothers, flaunting his full head of hair.
Their sister, Jane, told the story about the annual family Christmas Eve celebration around the tree and the year that Jim tried to read Luke 2. The family custom initiated by their father, Hy, and mother, Margie, was that as soon as they were old enough, each of the children would be required to perform before they were allowed to open their Christmas presents. David would play his trumpet; Bill would play his clarinet; and, Jane would play the piano. The year Jim came of age, he chose to read the Christmas story from Luke 2.
When this chubby little cherub with thick, horn-rimmed glasses, opened the family Bible and began to read, David and Bill got their tickle boxes turned over. Both parents shot stern glances at the two older boys and attempted to shush them as they dissolved into laughter. In the process, Hy got tickled, and before it was all over, everyone in the room but Jim was hysterical. From that year on, the reading of the Christmas story took on a new meaning and the mere mention of Luke 2 associated with Jim’s name evoked a round of laughter and the retelling of the story.
As the adult conversation ran its course and the darkness came on, the children were rounded up from outside, and everyone gathered around the birthday cake for a rousing chorus of Happy Birthday to You, followed by the snapping of lots of pictures of the birthday girl blowing out the candles, with lots of help from the great-grandchildren.
As the hour grew late, we reluctantly began gathering up our empty dishes and our children and grandchildren, and making our goodbye rounds. Happy and satiated with good food and loving company, we lingered to embrace each other and to wish each other safe travel, before we scattered and returned to our separate lives.
We filed through the front door to hug and thank Jim and Pam for allowing us to overrun their beautiful home, and made our way onto the front lawn and through the thicket of tall pines encircled by the haze, emanating from the warm summer earth as it rose to meet the cooling night air. High above, beaming down through the fog, the stars from a crystal-clear Georgia sky illuminated the path to the car-lined driveway, where we claimed our rides and drove away from another joyous gathering of the Stillerman clan.
Little did we know that in only a few short months, we would come together once again, returning to the arms of the family, to embrace one another in grief and loss.
The devastating news came in December that David had been diagnosed with kidney cancer. After a valiant attempt by his medical team to treat the tumor with surgery and medication, David suffered complications resulting in a blood clot to the brain. On January 4, he died peacefully, surrounded by his wife Carol and his children.
As the family gathered, this time to celebrate David’s life and mourn his loss, I thought about that happy night in August when we were all so recently together. I have filed it among my treasured memories, a snapshot of the way we were.