‘Give me the roses while I live’

Published 7:53 pm Wednesday, March 11, 2009

“Give me the roses while I live

Trying to cheer me on

Useless are flowers that you give

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After the soul is gone.”

That is one of my favorite gospel songs.

Mainly because it was one of my grandmother’s favorites, and we sang it at her funeral.

Mainly because it’s so true.

I’ve been very fortunate to have had many people in my life who have lived these words. My grandmother, Nettie Vee Newton Grayson lived these words. She never stopped working. She and my grandfather Jim Grayson ran the Court Square Grocery right next to the Butler County Courthouse. My grandfather had started the State Cab Company in Greenville years before.

Ma, as the grandchildren called her, loved her music—seven-shape gospel music, Sacred Harp music—she used to sing with her uncle Sidney Newton, Mr. Rock Killough, Guy McGough, Mrs. Rock Killough, and Arthur Newton, her brother, and Mrs. Ruth Whiddon, just to name a few, on Sunday mornings on WGYV.

Pa loved to carry on foolishness and make folks laugh. One, of course, was sticking his false teeth out at me to make me scream.

Hollie and Lucille Sexton were my mother’s parents. They worked in the Dan River Cotton Mill for many years. I was so blessed to have grandparents who took us kids to church and taught us how to behave and sit quietly, and who also sneaked us candy and quarters when Momma wasn’t looking.

My grandfather cooked the best homemade biscuits with chocolate syrup. And if you’ve never had homemade biscuits with homemade chocolate syrup, you haven’t lived. Trust me.

My grandmother, Macille, could tell some stories that would make the hair stand straight up on the back of your neck. Like the one about the little boy laughing and running after my grandfather when he was riding a horse home late one night, and how soon afterwards, their first-born son passed away.

Iola Franklin Newton was my great-grandmother who was brought up around the Central Community. I loved to hear the stories of how she wanted to play dominoes all the time—in fact, she kept a set of dominos in her apron pockets. Now, she could cheat, but she’d get mad if she caught you cheating. My great-aunt, Ruth Newton, once told me that Grandma Newton loved to dance, and she could do the “Buzzard Lope.”

Please don’t ask for any demonstrations, because I have none to show.

But I do have a wonderful picture of Grandma Newton in her apron with the pockets bulging full of dominoes. She’s standing next to her quiet sister, Jo Anna Newton Armstrong. Now Aunt Joe’s byline was this: “A woman ain’t good for nothing but eatin’, cleanin’, and washin’ dishes.”

That’s good stuff, folks. That’s rich.

Or this family story that was recorded in the Nov. 22, 1899, Greenville Advocate:

“Miss Mollie Newton, a daughter of Mr. Cornelius Newton, of this county, met with a very serious accident last Friday evening. Young Mr. Newton, her brother, was feeding a cane mill after dark, but the moon, however, was brightly shining. Miss Mollie went out to the mill, and by some means got her index finger caught in the cogs, which cut the finger off at the first joint. She jerked her hand away and the tendon running up the arm came out up to the elbow. Dr. R. E. Smith was called to see her and amputated the finger just above where it was cut, and says that he has seen many cuts and mashes, but he has never seen one where the tendon was pulled clear out of the arm, and had never seen one so painful.”

That’s painful just to read.

My great-aunt Ruth Newton, just recently passed away at the age of 101. I went to visit her right after she had turned 100, and she kept showing me all the birthday cards she had received. She kept turning them over and over in her lap, looking carefully at the names, trying to read them. She was a piece of living history – a living, breathing reminder of the past, something that was still very much alive to her. Just because I was not alive during World War I, World War II, or the Great Depression doesn’t make these memories any less painful or real to those who lived through them.

All of these little pieces of living history are put together to make a much bigger picture – the family.

And I agree with my grandmother: Give me my roses while I’m living because after I’m dead and gone, it’s too late.

May we never take another moment, or another loved one, for granted.