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There is one last annual task to be done (which I dread—which is why I put it off until the very last day of the year)—which is writing the 2018 obituaries.  Usually I use the last week of the year to write about people whose work was important to me or who were overlooked by big media outlets (which have a facile fascination with interchangeable movie stars and pop musicians). However, this year I lost somebody important to me, so the unmet artists, scientists, politicians, and celebrities who died in 2018 will have to find someone else to write tiny blurbs about their lives. I will only write one obituary, for my grandmother, Mary Rose Ferrebee (March 24th, 1927 – October 30, 2018).

Grandma Ferrebee

As a nation, we tend to regard the crazy fearless people of the frontier and the wild west as lost into the distant mythologized past…but for me, I got to live up-close and personal with such people: my grandparents!  Grandma Mary was indeed larger than life in such a fashion, but in an especially down-to-earth way which makes it hard to quantify the breadth of her legacy. Let me explain by giving you the portion of her biography I know about.

Mary Rose Ferrebee was born  (Mary Rose Jarvis) in Granny’s Creek, West Virginia in the late 1920s.  She had an adventuresome youth spent flouting conventional mores and stereotypes—a trend which culminated during the Second World War when she entered into a career in aviation manufacturing. She described this phase as when she was “Rosy the Riveter, painting the fluorescent yellow tips on [Grumman] Hellcats.” Coincidentally, it doesn’t sound like that glowing yellow Hellcat paint was especially wholesome, since health problems led her away from aviation and back to more traditional careers in short-order cooking, bartending, and cleaning.  It was also during this era when she met Grandpa Dencil, back from the war early, who courted her with a banana (a rare and precious commodity during the war). Grandma apparently said “I don’t want a banana I want the real thing!”  This high standard of honesty cemented their relationship, but it also sometimes led to tensions in an era when most people did not always express what was on their mind so openly.

The family traveled to the West Coast in the fifties (my grandfather decided to take up the, um, aerospace trade, painting missiles and ICBMs at Vandenberg), and then back to West Virginia where Grandma ran a bar/restraint/hotel (an inn, I guess).  All sorts of folks from all walks of life came through there (Senator Byrd even played his fiddle at the Henry Clay Hotel, back in the day), but usually it was local people having a drink, playing pool, and gossiping.

I remember many exciting things from the hotel, like listening to “Whiskey River” on the jukebox, playing pinball and video arcade games (the first of my childhood), and listening to the tales about the secret lives and strange fates of everyone in the county.  As the keeper of a public house in a small town, Grandma knew everything about everyone.  She also, you know, ran a bar in West Virginia and she sometimes had to deal with particularly unruly patrons breaking pool cues over each other’s heads (for which eventuality she kept a chrome .357 Magnum snubnose somewhere back behind the bar, in order to invite unwanted customers to go home).

Operating the town’s beer hall privileged Grandma with a profound grasp of people’s desires and weaknesses and while other people maybe would have used such knowledge to aggrandize and enrich themselves, or at least to twist the knife with cruel taunts, Grandma more-or-less accepted peoples’ appetites, eccentricities, and flaws as a part of the broader tapestry of life (which is not to say she didn’t spend a certain amount of time feuding with people who had disrespected her).  She was particularly blunt about sexual and bathroom matters and although this made me blush and blush as a child (and a teenager, and an adult…and now), it strikes me as a wise choice for living a more healthy and honest life.  I wonder how many people live miserable lives or die long before they should because society has convinced them that ever talking about such earthy concerns is somehow indecorous.

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Grandma always had time and resources for the people in her life…or for anyone who needed help.  Growing up I often recall my parents being able to make important purchases thanks to Grandma’s largesse, and she likewise bestowed homes, cars, tuition, and mortgage payments to other children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren.  Whenever I came to visit, she would give me cigar boxes of half-dollar pieces or rolls of two dollar bills from the bar safe.  There were many such presents and much praise, Not only was she enormously generous, she was also fearless and she always stood up for those who could not stand up for themselves .

After she retired, some disreputable folk down the river had a big ill-mannered fighting dog which ran around the river bottom snarling at people and forcing them to abruptly rush inside.  Since this included Grandma’s little grandchildren and great grandchildren (who would be seriously injured or killed by a dog attack), she asked the neighbors to keep the dog fenced up or at least tied-up, but they laughed at the request of a seventy-something woman and went back to drinking and doing whatever else they were doing.  One day these neighbors were in their backyard drinking, carousing, and ineffectually shooting at cans.  Grandma went over and asked if she could shoot some cans too.  They laughed and acquiesced, perhaps thinking to teach an old lady some pointers or to have a laugh at her attempts, whereupon she pulled out the trusty .357 and blew enormous magnum sized holes in the cans which they had not been hitting.  “Tie up that dog!” she said as she left, and this time her wishes were followed.

She was large (not to say fat) and strong and she also had that .357, which taken in combination with her maverick personality make her sound like an intimidating person, however I think anyone who knew her would characterize her foremost as kind and generous to excess (and also as fun and funny).  My mother would despair since she (Mom) would give my grandmother the gifts the latter wanted—fancy dishes, kitchen gadgets, or new towels or what have you—only for Grandma to give them away in turn.  Grandma, however, seemed to think that owning a bunch of junk was not really the principal fun of life—another laudatory perspective which we could all learn from. With characteristic generosity, she decided that, upon her passing, she would donate her mortal remains to science (the medical teaching hospital at WVU).  As she said “I sent so many people to college, that I decided I would like to go there myself.” Not only is this helping the family save some money (a final cigar box of cash), but it is helping a new generation of healers learn.  However, it robbed Grandma Mary of a fitting eulogy, which is why I am writing this.

Frankly though, Grandma never yearned for the fame and universal acclaim which other people pursue so doggedly. I don’t think Grandma thought of greatness as being all that great (perhaps she recognized that “great” people have money troubles, erotic misadventures, and go to the bathroom like all other people). Or to explain it better, I think she saw that every life was great to the person living it and the glowing esteem of the world was a sort of political trick, mostly unrelated to the actual important business of life like making sure people are fed, children are cared for, and the sick or infirm have somebody to look after them.

When I was a child, I thought it was normal to always live in a glorious golden halo of love where people tell you how great you are and give you things.  It is NOT the norm (thanks so much for the update, New York), but it always seemed like it, thanks to my family. Grandma Mary was an especially big part of that. I suspect everyone who knew her would say the same.

Grandma gave me so many things—big home cooked meals, toys, whatever book I wanted, tvs, video games, musical instruments, boxes of money, jewelry, a truck…you name it, and I took and took with both hands. But now that she is gone, it strikes me that what I would really like to have is her generosity, her warmth, her courage, and above all her loving heart (I think she would smile, too, to hear me still asking for more).  She was such a big part of the world that I never really thought about how it would be with her gone.  It is like the mountain or the forest or some other ancient & impervious force of nature vanished.  However, her love is still here with all of her family and friends (who are numerous).  Her tireless care, affection, and kindness are woven into the very fabric of existence, not like the ephemeral works of models, rappers, or tv charlatans, but in a truly integral way that sustains people for life and holds up the world.

Readers, I hope you don’t think I am ending on a down note for the new year.  Grandma lived life to the fullest, and it is up to us to do the same in this new year and in all the others to come. Her gifts of generosity and compassion could indeed be ours too, if we just muster the strength of character to give with such an open heart.

Good bye Grandma, I love you.

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