I don’t know why I’ve been feeling so sentimental about the past. Maybe it’s a normal part of growing older. Not so long ago I wrote about my mother’s 80th birthday. Today is Valentine’s Day, another source of memories. When I was a child in Atlanta, I didn’t like to sleep in my own room, so I often camped in my mother’s room. I loved to go through her jewelry box and the “pretty things” inside. Among these were an old Valentine’s Day card from my father and an identification bracelet, both of which were kept in an old envelope at the bottom of the jewelry box.
In my child’s mind, with no memory of my father, I naturally romanticized the stories I’d heard into an epic and tragic love story, a la Romeo and Juliet. The Scarboroughs were the Capulets and the Cottrauxs the Montagues, with high school sweethearts Nancy and Pete caught in the crossfire. Actually, there wasn’t a feud between the families, but my grandmother Scarborough (Nana) didn’t approve of the Cottraux grandparents (Mimi and Grandaddy). My Cottraux grandparents were world travelers, golfers, and loved a good cocktail party. Despite Nana’s hard-working farm family roots in Vermont, she very much embraced the role of Atlanta society matron and “old money” traditionalist. I was a little bit afraid of her, and adored Mimi and Grandaddy. Neither of my grandmothers, however, was the warm, hugging cookie-baking grandmother of my dreams. Nana was very stern and forbidding in my mind, and Mimi was more interested in the country club than baking cookies.
Nancy and Pete (aka Mom and Daddy) met at a dance, and the story was that the instant Daddy saw her, he told the friend he was with that he was going to marry that girl some day. In 1952, when Mom was only 16 and Daddy 17, they did just that. They eloped to South Carolina, where a 16-year old girl could marry without her parent’s permission. They kept it a secret until they no longer could. My sister Cathy was born in 1953. Mom was allowed to get her high school diploma, but had to study from home as it would “corrupt” the other girls to be around their married and pregnant friend. Her dream of going to college to study journalism was set aside. In 1950s Georgia, young mothers didn’t do such things. My father was by then a freshman at Georgia Tech, and they set up house in family student housing. (When I was little, this was very romantic to me as I had no idea how young they really were. As I turned 16 and then 17 I began to think of it a little differently. They were just babies themselves, I think now.)
Daddy became an engineer with Georgia Power, and was sent from Atlanta to Savannah and then Macon, where I was born in 1961. Daddy died less than a year later. Of course I’ve always wondered how different my life would be if he hadn’t been in the car at that time, that day, when the world irrevocably changed for us. Mom moved us back to Atlanta to be closer to family. By then my Cottraux grandparents were retired to San Diego, making them that much more glamorous and exotic to me than ever. Nana, however, was a powerful influence and support in our lives (and I never got over being a little afraid of her).
Remembering how much the card and bracelet had fascinated me as a child, when my mother was dying of lung cancer in 2009, she had me bring her the jewelry box one day. She handed me the card and bracelet and said, “I know you’ll take care of them.” I feel honored to be their keeper.
Never take your loved ones for granted. Someone might leave for work one day and never come home again, like Daddy.
And enjoy Valentine’s Day!