I stood at the foot of her grave, the Bahia grass tickling the back of my knees and a cacophony of summer insects loud in my ears. I hadn’t come to Monroeville looking for her, but I’d found her.
Twenty-seven years ago, almost to the sweltering June day, I stood at the foot of another grave, this one not yet ranked. The red clay freshly turned. The Bahia grass. The bugs.
Sook was the elderly cousin of Truman Capote, who spent several years living with his kin in Monroe County, Alabama. While the other relatives worked, young Truman stayed at home with her and their dog, Queenie. “We were each other’s best friend,” he wrote — this young, lonely boy and this aging, eccentric woman.
Capote recounts their special relationship in “A Christmas Memory.” Mama recommended I read this autobiographical short story while I was researching an article I was writing. I wonder if Mama knew how much of little Audrey I would see in “Buddy,” Capote’s childhood nickname, how much of Sarah there was in Sook.
Sarah, charged with my care, as well as keeping Granny’s house and cooking our meals, was my only companion while the rest of the family worked. Sarah. So tall, skinny as a rail, cheekbones sharp and high, hair braided in two perfect inverted french braids that circled her head. Sarah. Brown eyes filled, it seemed to me even at a young age, with sorrow. Eyes that would sometimes light up with laughter as we played before going dark again.
As far back as I can remember, it was Sarah who dressed me, tamed my stick-straight mop into pigtails, or even braids like hers when I begged and her arthritic fingers would allow, fed me, read to me, and entertained me. We were each other’s best friend — at least she was mine.
Our days were filled with bed-making, dusting, sweeping. Sarah let me “help.” We would hang the laundry out on the line while we sang “Bringing in the Sheaves,” which I thought was “bringing in the sheets” because that’s what we did when they were finally sun dried.
“Bringing in the sheets, bringing in the sheets,
We shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheets.
Bringing in the sheets, bringing in the sheets,
We shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheets.”
In the summer, we would pick blackberries in the ditch down by the road. Always looking out for snakes, we’d pluck the dark, black fruit, trying not to eat more than we saved but not always succeeding. When our bowl was full, we’d go back to the house and make cobbler, Sarah’s long, brown hands covering my pudgy pink ones as we rolled out the dough for the crust.
Once I started school, I saw Sarah less, mainly during school breaks and summers. It was different then. I had friends my own age, playdates; I was old enough to go to the pool. I still helped in the kitchen, Sarah showing me how to fry chicken until it was perfectly “cripsy” and how to make chocolate icing in a double boiler, cooking it until it “looked right.” She still reached out to tuck my hair behind my ear. She still hugged me tight.
I was in high school when Sarah got sick. She quit working for Granny. After more than thirty years with our family, after being there every day of my life, she was gone.
I went to visit her at her little house under the hill. It was dark and suffocatingly hot inside. Sarah was wrapped in a blanket. I kissed her cheek when I left. I knew it wouldn’t be long.
Brother and I tried to slip into the back pew at her funeral, but Sarah’s six children invited us to sit with them as we paid our respects. On the second row, I cried as if I was, indeed, one of her own. I had loved her like I was. I believe she felt the same.
Later that day, I stood at the foot of her grave. A grave not yet marked. The red clay freshly turned. The Bahia grass. The bugs.
Fast forward to Monroeville 2014. My husband and I decide to take a detour on the way back to Birmingham. We want to see the literary heart of Alabama. There is a walking tour pamphlet. See the Monroe County Courthouse; here’s the Wee Diner where Gregory Peck ate; here’s where Harper Lee’s house once stood; next door is the foundation of the home where Truman Capote lived.
The home where Truman Capote lived. The home where Sook lived. The home where they made all those fruitcakes, drank the leftover whiskey, made kites. The home of Christmas memories.
Continue on around the Courthouse Square; notice the Monroe County Bank, site of A.C. Lee’s office, and the Monroe Journal, which he also owned; here is the LaSalle Hotel, where Gregory Peck stayed; visit the cemetery where you will find the graves of A.C. Lee, Son Boleward, the inspiration for Boo Radley and many Truman Capote’s relatives.
Truman Capote’s relatives? Sook! I’d wondered if she was real. Now I knew she was. Not looked for, but found. As a real friend can be. As real as Sarah.
And that’s how I came to be standing at the foot of Nannie “Sook” Rumbley Faulk’s grave, remembering my own best friend, tears mixing with sweat trickling down my face, the Bahia grass tickling my knees, a choir of summer insects singing them both home. mb