For many people, June is the best month in the year and it has been for me most of my life. It offers so much to enjoy: abundant fresh vegetables, fishing in the river or creeks, first watermelons when growing conditions were right, swimming at Coleman’s Bridge on the Ohoopee, and mockingbirds singing through the night. Last, but not least, there was no school, even when I was in college and seminary.
In truth, June had its negatives. Where I grew up, tobacco season came with its weekly rounds of hard labor harvesting the tarry leaves. Removing the blooming tops and suckers that emerged at the base of every leaf by hand made “picking days” seem mild, in part because such work usually was afternoon labor. Weeds in cotton patches that somehow had evaded hoes and plows had to be pulled by hand. Still, cooling trips to the swimming hole and supper with plenty of iced tea and succulent sliced tomatoes offset the bad moments.
It was early June in 1953 that I first met Annette. We first dated in September and by June 1955, we were married, had been for six months. We liked the same things and enjoyed doing them together: swimming in the Ohoopee, fresh vegetables (growing, harvesting and eating), homemade ice cream, fishing. She was a skilled “stringer” when anyone was “putting in” tobacco. She liked Nat King Cole’s song about “Lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer,” but knew the words did not fit our world. The good stuff was spiced with plenty of work. We savored all of it, making all of it good.
In his poem, “Ulalume,” Edgar Allen Poe finds himself in “The ghoul-haunted woodland of Weir,” where he comes upon the vault of his beloved Ulalume. There are no ghouls in my woodland of Weir, which increasingly is found in the month of June, but it is haunted by memories of loved ones and recurring sorrow. This June is the worst one yet.
June Elizabeth Williams Edwards was my closest cousin. We were crib mates, classmates and playmates. She and Ronnie were married a month after Annette and I. We shared anniversary celebrations through the decades. She got her name from her birth month, June. This June we did not get to celebrate her birthday. Cancer won its long, hard-fought battle late in May shortly before her 89th birthday. My woodland of Weir is darker now.
Last Sunday was Father’s Day and my children celebrated with me. I love them and am grateful. However, a certain recurring emptiness intrudes. It is an emptiness once filled by my father, gone for nearly a quarter of a century. He was a simple man, but not simple-minded. His hands were gnarled by hard labor and arthritis, but gentle in their caresses of children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. His character shone with generosity and integrity. He taught by example more than lecture. Momma is gone, too. Their part of my woodland of Weir is dark as it has been for so very long.
Annette died 10 years ago, after struggling for 13 1/2 years with a series of autoimmune disorders. The only medications that provided relief had serious side effects. She did not complain of pain, only that prednisone made her gain weight. Finally, one seized her that did not respond to prednisone. On June 24, 2013, her light went out and so did mine. Woodland became a dismal swamp.
Ten years! If anyone had ever told me that I would live 10 years without Annette, I would not have believed it. Time apart had always been painful, especially the several times when I had to leave her in a hospital in Savannah and drive home with a heavy heart and try to sleep in a bed that was empty except for me. It has been that way for 10 years.
I knew it was coming, this journey through the woodland of Weir to her vault. It is called an “anniversary reaction” and I have them around the dates of several important events in our life together: first date, birthdays (hers, mine, children’s), wedding, her death date and those of my parents. Often, there is a sense of foreboding before the reason comes to mind. This anniversary is harder than most. Is it because I just lost June? Is it because my disability worsened dramatically over the past year? Is it because “10” is a marker in time and life span?
I intend to go through my woodland of Weir Sunday, bearing roses to her vault. She always did like flowers, especially roses.
Roger G. Branch Sr. is professor emeritus of sociology at Georgia Southern University and is a retired pastor.