Georgia Green Stamper is a 7th generation Kentuckian who grew up in Wendell Berry country on her family’s tobacco farm. After her graduation from Transylvania University, she moved to the Appalachian region of the state where she lived for thirty years near Ashland. A former English teacher, Stamper speaks with groups throughout Kentucky, on behalf of the Kentucky Humanities Council, to encourage the preservation of local and family stories.
Summer of Doubts
In this one, granddaughter, you are one month old, looking sleepy and fat as a sausage. My mother, your great-grandmother, is holding you, staring at your face, memorizing it to carry with her into eternity. She will have surgery for ovarian cancer three days later, and within seven weeks we will bury her. In this photograph, though, she is still very much alive and dressed to the nines to meet you. Her red hair is styled, her lipstick in place, her clip-on earrings shining, her leopard print jacket impeccable.
It’s what people call a sweet picture, the kind that gets pasted into baby books and family histories, but when I look at it my emotions fight with each other. I love remembering that she got to hold you and see that you were okay, that she got to see your mother’s excitement and know that she was okay, too. But the question I didn’t dare ask at the time lingers on the edge of my heart, taunting me. Did I do enough for her while doing so much for you?
Your mom had been on bed rest for three months before your birth because you tried to get yourself born way too early. Frankly, my dear, you worried us to death that summer, but I was even more worried about your mother. My strong, sturdy girl, a family pillar since her childhood, seemed on the brink of hysteria. She was convinced that you were going to die, like her grandmother’s stillborn babies had done, or perhaps even worse, that you’d be born months before your time, damaged in a near unbearable way.
Week after week, I divided my time between my fragile daughter, who lived in a city two hours away from mine, and my mother, in some sort of rapid, unexplained decline huddled in her apartment near me down the road. For your mother, I cooked meals and decorated your nursery to keep hope alive, and helped her cope with complete bed rest in an antiquated old house with only one bathroom, and it on the second floor. Mostly, though, I tried to keep her laughing, tried to keep her from going crazy. The nights, especially, were long and scary with your father, a frazzled young medical resident, working thirty-six hour shifts.
I didn’t totally neglect my mother. Your grandfather was here in town to check on her every day when I was gone, and I always came home to take her to her near weekly doctor visits. Something was wrong, she kept telling everyone, but, well, she would need tests, and those took time and scheduling and most of all me, and she would say, you’ve got your hands full right now with the girl. We’ll wait and do the tests later, she said, after the baby comes. She fretted about you so in those months before your birth, willing to gamble with whatever time she may have had left for your healthy arrival into the world. For all I know, she may have bartered her own deal with God or with the Devil because you arrived healthy and robust, full term, on October 2, and we buried her on New Year’s Day.
You’re way too young to understand what it feels like to be wedged between two generations, balancing the lives of both in your heart, knowing that each needs you in ways they never had before. We did the tests, finally, less than a month after you were born. I tell myself it would have made no difference if we’d done them in July, but that’s the question I can’t answer. That’s the question that won’t go away.
So we have this beautiful picture of you cradled in my mother’s arms on the last good Saturday of her life. She would have surgery three days after the photograph was made, and never get dressed again. And we have you, our sweet, pretty, smart Annelise born out of our summer of doubts, our season of love.