I had just left Gainesville. Wayne had labored over my salt and pepper hair to give me an amazing noggin full of purple strands. I had my favorite podcast blasting over the car speakers, the sunroof was open, the day was good.
My aunt called.
I had texted her to get an update about my grandmother, who had recently received a devastating cancer diagnosis. I hadn’t received a reply, but I knew she was busy.
As soon as I saw her name pop up on my phone’s screen, I knew it wasn’t good. Grandma was gone. I had to pull off to the side of the road, finish our phone call, and sit for a few minutes, hazard lights blinking, cars flying by completely unaware and uncaring of the fact that one of the greatest women on this Earth had left us. I cried. I scrambled through my center console, looking for any and all spare fast food napkins to sop up tears and snot. I knew she was going to die, because we all are, but that didn’t mitigate my sadness. I was fortunate enough to say final good-byes two weeks before, but it still stung. My tears were, and are, a mix of sadness and anger. Because I allowed myself to be gaslit for decades and had voluntarily cut off contact with my grandmother in order to support the woman who had lied to me.
Thelma Hutsenpiller Berkley grew up in and around Lewisburg and Fairlea, West Virginia. She was born in August, 1921, and like most women of her age, she married young and had two children. Unlike most women her age, she left her husband when he turned out to be an unfaithful lout who just up and ghosted her and stopped supporting his wife and two young children. Grandma moved back in with her parents, found a job with the telephone company, and worked, supporting her children and raising them as a single mother. It wasn’t easy, but she did it.
One April day, in 1968, when the telephone operators went on strike, my grandfather–along with many other telephone company engineers–was called in from Charleston to Fairlea to help fill in. It was my Grandmother’s responsibility to help train them and there was this tall, handsome man named Simeon Berkley. He looked familiar to my grandmother because he was the brother of one of her neighbors. He asked her out to dinner and a year later, they were married. And she was the only grandmother I ever knew.
She knitted, crocheted, tatted, quilted, embroidered, grew the most gorgeous gladiolus and roses, canned, cooked, baked, gardened… everything. You name it, she knew how to do it. In her later years, she developed macular degeneration and gradually lost her sight. She quilted by hand and the last quilt she ever made, her cousin Earl helped her thread the needles so that she could finish. She knitted afghans for my three children when they were born. They weren’t up to her normal standards, but that’s because she knitted them by feel. The gardens she and my grandfather planted were full of fruits and vegetables that they would share with their blended family of children–six in all–and the cattle they raised help feed all of us throughout my childhood. I honestly wonder how, looking back on my childhood, my parents would have fed me if it hadn’t been for Thelma and Simeon Berkley.
My grandfather died in 1992. For 18 years, Grandma continued to live alone on their 70-odd acre farm in Greenbrier County, West Virginia. Every morning, the fog from the Greenbrier River blankets the rolling fields, obscuring the surrounding mountains. Each day, the sun will burn off that fog, revealing beautiful vistas. It’s a magical place. They called it, “Pleasant View Farm.” I don’t know. It’s more than a pleasant view. It’s a knock-your-socks-off view, but that’s too big for a sign.
Over two years ago, I re-established contact with my grandmother. Even though we hadn’t spoken in decades, she had still sent me cards for Christmas and my birthday, with some money tucked inside. She sent me baby gifts when I was pregnant, the odd postcard when she would travel. I later found out that she waited, all these years, for me to realize the truth of the lies I had been fed on a regular basis. And when I woke up, she welcomed me with open arms, no judgement. Over the course of several visits, she sat in her pink recliner, I sat across from her, and we talked. Constantly. We caught up, laughed, cried, and consoled. A couple of times, these talks went late into the night. I learned many truths, found out a lot about myself, her, and my mother. These moments are absolutely precious to me and I’m so fortunate to have had them before she left us.
Our family was like a Brady Bunch of knitted and sewn together connections. Four children for my grandfather, two for my grandmother, numerous grandchildren between all of them. None of us were treated any differently from the others because this one was a Berkley or this one was a Hoke. We were all loved, cherished, and provided for. My mother tried to make me believe otherwise. As I sit here, 24 hours in a world without my grandmother, I’m crying. I’m sad, angry, lost, tired, hurt, and just gutted. I know that within the next few days, I’ll be driving back north in order to celebrate Grandma’s life and accomplishments. Until then, I intend to wrap up in the quilt she made for me all those many years ago and think about the time we had together. She was a wonderful woman who lived a long, incredible life and every single one of us who knew her will miss her terribly.