This is my Aunt Mamie, my grandmother's sister, at 15. The two of them couldn't have been more different: Mamie was the exotic beauty of the two sisters; Kate was the demure blonde. Mamie smoked heavily, liked to have an occasional drink, and loved to party; Kate was religious and never smoked or had a drink. Mamie would often accompany her husband Ben on business trips overseas, visiting post-Revolution Russia with him twice and meeting privately with Lenin on both occasions; Kate never left the country. Mamie and Ben collected the most amazing antiques I've ever seen in one place and displayed them throughout their beautiful 200 year old home on Legare Street in Charleston; Kate and my grandfather lived in a home Kate's father built on Lamboll Street, until my grandfather's retirement; and vacationed only in Asheville, where Mamie and Ben kept a home also.
Mamie was also the first woman in Charleston to get a driver's license and drove a Red Cross ambulance in the city during World War 1.
Whenever our family visited Charleston from Virginia, Daddy and I would drop in on Mamie at her home on Legare Street, where she lived alone; she and Daddy would smoke and talk nonstop while I fidgeted on the couch. For a tiny person she had a deep, powerful voice, ravaged by decades of chain-smoking.
She had the sharpest mind of anyone in the family and more business sense than all of us together. I was staying at her home with Daddy one Christmas when I was 10; one night I met up with her in her bedroom, where she conducted most of her business by telephone. She was in the middle of loudly lecturing someone over the phone, patiently trying to impart business advice to them, when I walked in. She finally hung up the phone and sighed heavily. "Do you know who that was, Willie?" she asked me.
"That was your cousin Pat [Mamie's granddaughter and a card-carrying bitch on about the same level as my sister Alicia]. You know Pat, don't you, Willie? Well, I love Pat, I really do, as much as I love any of my family. But, Willie, she is absolutely the stupidest human being on the face of the earth!"
I loved hearing that. "You're not stupid, are you, Willie?"
It was pretty evident that Mamie was dying during the summer of 1969, just a year after my dad had passed away. Tiz, my mother, flew from our home in Alexandria down to Charleston to be with her; and while there, Mamie's son Owen proposed to Tiz, telling her he wanted to take care of her. Tiz accepted, and she and Owen visited Mamie to tell her. Mamie, of course, was thrilled and gave them her blessing.
A couple of days later I had a dream that I was in Mamie's bedroom with my uncles, aunts, and cousins as we stood around her bed listening to her. She sounded just like she always did, in total control of the conversation. Suddenly Mamie turned to me and asked, "Willie, what are you going to do with your life?" I told her that I'd just finished my sophomore year at Davidson and hadn't made a decision.
She said, "That doesn't answer my question. What are you going to do with your life?" I said I was majoring in English and would probably go on to grad school.
This only made her more anxious. "Will! What are going to do with your life?" I replied that I'd probably teach school like my dad. She said, "Thank God!"
Then she got out of her bed--which freaked me right out because she weighed about 75 pounds at the time and I knew she couldn't get out of bed without help--and walked towards me. I took a step backwards. Then, all of a sudden, she lunged towards me and collapsed into my arms and died.
That woke me up. Maybe 30 seconds later my sister Ruthie came into my bedroom to tell me that Tiz was on the phone and that Mamie had just died. I said, "Oh, shit..." and got up to talk to Tiz. I asked her what had happened. She said that she and Pat and Pat's brother and my dad's brother Owen and Mamie's son were all gathered around Mamie's bed, just talking. Then Mamie just closed her eyes and died. I asked Tiz if Mamie had asked about me. She said, "As a matter of fact, the last thing she said, she looked at me and asked me, 'Tiz, what's Will going to do with his life?'" I waited until Tiz came home to tell her about my dream.
For years afterward Tiz would end our phone conversations with "Well, let me know if you have any dreams about me dying, all right?"