“Stand by the roads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls.” Jeremiah 6:16a
Garby lived with my “Daddy Bill” on Lakewood Drive near the country club in Enterprise, Alabama. Her real name was Florence, but the first grandchild re-christened her, and that was that. By the time I came along, no one could convince me she had any other name.
Garby had designed and built her house on Lakewood in the style of the Italian villas she remembered when she was stationed in Trieste with her family in the early ‘50s.
With her children grown up with families of their own, Garby’s home stayed immaculate. But she never seemed to mind us grandkids exploring all the rooms and closets— except two. The formal dining and music rooms were strictly off limits. They boasted beautiful wall-to-wall white carpet and velvety couches.
These two sanctums were used by the family mainly during Christmas, Easter, and Thanksgiving. Adults sat in the dining room while we kids were exiled to the kitchen. And it was an important rite of passage for us to finally be invited to the dining room table to talk politics and football with the “big people.”
After dinner, we’d retire to the music room, where my daddy played on a small Wurlitzer. Although the room was fairly small, Garby sat on a little cushioned stool right next to the piano so she could see and hear everything. When I learned, Garby often asked me to play her favorite hymn: “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” I’d sometimes agree only if she played it as well. A couple of times she consented, and played with small, arthritic hands—which she apologized for on every missed note.
What a friend we have in Jesus,
All our sins and griefs to bear,
What a privilege to carry,
Everything to God in prayer…
The best time at Garby and Daddy Bill’s house was Christmas. They put up a 10-foot Christmas tree that might as well have been 50 feet tall to the children. Hundreds of lights shone through twinkling ornaments, and presents covered the floor around the tree. On Christmas Day, we’d search for our names on the boxes, while Garby sat smiling from her favorite perch.
Something about Garby always impressed me, especially as I grew older. This woman endured a level of grief and hardship like few others I’d ever known. Divorce, single parenthood, the tragic, sudden deaths of two husbands, emotional abuse, grinding poverty, depression, etc. But through it all, if you walked into her home, you’d have thought she’d been born with a silver spoon in her mouth and enjoyed only happy days.
Garby was always prim and proper. She was slender and elegant. She wore tailored slacks and turtlenecks at home and fancy dresses to church. She had her hair done every week at the same salon (the Hairum in Enterprise), played bridge with the same friends she’d played bridge with since she was a little girl, and faithfully attended the same First United Methodist Church, even before she officially met Jesus.
Garby was the original Steel Magnolia.
Growing up, I was very fortunate to live so close to this wonderful lady. We were just a few miles up Highway 27, and could pop down at will for a swim in Garby’s pool, or to watch her television (she had cable).
I was the eldest grandson, and at some point when my siblings and other cousins were being born, I made the comment to Garby “They just keep comin’, don’t they, Garby?” She laughed out loud.
For a year I attended Enterprise State Junior College and often stopped by for lunch between lectures. Daddy Bill was usually out playing golf, but Garby was always in her favorite wingback chair with her feet propped up, working on a crossword. There were copies of Reader’s Digest and Talbots catalogues everywhere.
The first thing she’d do was raise her arms and beckon me to come “give her some shugah.” Garby would then tell me to go the fridge and get a cold “Doll Baby Coke.” Doll Baby was Garby’s deceased older sister… but that’s another story.
We’d sit and chat about life and current events. Sometimes I’d talk about my classes, but they weren’t particularly interesting. Mostly, I just enjoyed sitting with Garby. Her home was peaceful and never-changing.
I liked that.
When I was 19, I left Alabama to work near Washington, D.C., in a six-month internship. But the six months turned into much longer employment, and life changed. The next time I was back in Garby’s living room, I introduced her to my fiancée.
A new chapter in my life began, and we seldom made it home for visits. When we did, there was usually a new great-grandchild in tow. “They just keep comin’, don’t they?” Garby would poke in her soft, Blackbelt accent— and it was my turn to laugh.
Garby died on Christmas Eve. It was sudden and unexpected. This petite lighthouse of strength and stability, who had weathered so many storms, had finally succumbed to a last, great wave.
I remember little else about that Christmas Eve— except one thing. As I slept that evening, I had a dream.
I was back on Lakewood Drive in Garby’s living room, which was decorated for Christmas. Garby was in her wingback chair, wearing a white turtleneck with a beautiful golden brooch. But instead of waiting for me to come to her… she rose and came to me.
She embraced me.
“You’re home! I’m so glad to see you, honey.”
I don’t know about you, but most of the time my dreams consist of me flying around in my underwear while eating banana moon pies and speaking Gaelic. But this was different. This was real. And even after all the years since that Christmas Eve, my dreams often take me down the ancient paths again to a certain home on Lakewood Drive to visit the Grande Dame who lives there still… and who’s always glad to see me.
I’m sure one day she’ll play that old hymn again. Only this time, I’m confident she won’t miss a note; and I’m equally confident that, though dreaming, my eyes will glaze.
…I miss you, Garby.
Matt Chancey is a business owner and founding board member of the Persecution Project Foundation, an organization serving the Persecuted Church in East Africa. He lives with his family in Enterprise. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org