As we pulled into the church parking lot, the old smokestack caught my eye. I made a mental note to take a picture of it before before we headed back out.
The family and I exited the car and made our way around to the back of the church and entered the small fellowship hall. It was time for the “family reunion”. I use quotes because it wasn’t a preplanned get together. No, unfortunately, family reunions these days almost always mean there’s a funeral involved. This was no exception. We were there to celebrate the life of my grandmother, Louise Scales Gregory. She died on April 10th at age 95, the last of the three Scales sisters.
First, though, as required by Southern Baptist law, we had to eat lunch provided by the home church. So, Lockhart First Baptist Church served lunch to our family in the fellowship hall. The sweet potato souffle was unbelievable. Thank God for country cooking.
After eating and doing some catch up with cousins I hadn’t seen since Louise’s sister, Toby, died a couple of years ago, I decided to give the kids a tour of the church. I wanted to see if anything had changed since I was their ages and visited my grandparents here.
To my surprise, a couple of things had changed. One, the attendance and offering board had been moved from the front of sanctuary to the foyer in the back, next to the exit. Maybe seeing the weekly numbers on the way out makes a better impression. I don’t know. I do know, it made me sad to know the ATTENDANCE TODAY line had been one less over the past few years, ever since Louise had been unable to attend.
Another change I noticed was a shiny baby grand piano. With no one around, except my immediate family, I checked to see if it was unlocked (some pianos have the ability to lock the fallboard over the keys to keep out hacks like me). Fortunately, for me, it was unlocked, and I sat down.
After a few minutes of noodling (playing chord progressions but not really playing anything anyone would recognize), I remembered there was one tune I could play reasonably well, and I broke into Freebird. I don’t think my grandmother would have appreciated it, but I doubt she would have recognized it. Soon, the pastor appeared. I was busted. He really didn’t care. He had just heard the piano and wanted to see who was playing.
That was a good enough reason to quit playing, though. Besides, the time had come to head over to Union to the funeral home for the service. Usually, funeral services in the Deep South are held in a church, especially when the deceased was a long time member. However, my grandmother, in her unique way, had specific instructions: “Don’t be hauling me back and forth”. This meant she considered it a waste of time for her body to be carried the twenty-five mile round trip from the funeral home to the church in Lockhart and then back again to the cemetery in Union. That was my grandmother.
As we mingled for a few more minutes in the fellowship hall, I remembered the smokestack.
“Come on,” I said to my daughter. “There’s something else I want to see.”
She and I then walked across the parking lot toward the smokestack, and I took the photo you see to the right. Turns out, the smokestack is pretty much the last remaining remnant of the old Lockhart Mill which shut down at the end of 1994 and then was torn down a few years later. I took my picture and even added a few of the church. As we loaded up the car and headed to the funeral home, it occurred to me this could be the last time I visit this piece of my family history.
A little while later, after short funeral and graveside services, which would have pleased my grandmother, I drove home while my passengers napped (standard procedure). I thought about the day and realized the old smokestack was a perfect metaphor for my grandmother in recent years.
See, she suffered from dementia much of the the past decade and had reached the point where she didn’t even recognize her own daughter. For the last couple of years, she was pretty much confined to her bed at a nursing home. Even though we had the physical reminder of her in the final stage of her life, the true Louise had been gone a long time – much like the old mill. Sure, there is a smokestack to remind the residents of what once was, but the mill that was the lifeblood of this little town vanished a long time ago.
So, goodbye, Louise. Our family’s “smokestack” may be gone, but memories of you will live on just fine.
Love you, Granny.