The muscadines and grapes that weren’t eaten by Rose and me were picked from the vine and made into jelly. Nana, Mom, Rose, and me would work in the small kitchen of the apartment directly behind the vines. There was no air conditioning and the kitchen turned sweltering with the heat of the boiling grapes and sugar. We worked seamlessly together, each of us with a job overseen by Nana. It was my job to stir the giant pot of liquid occasionally; sweat would drip down my face, stinging my eyes. Once the jelly was poured into the mason jars that lined the counters, I placed the flat lids on each one before Rose put on the rings as tight as she could. Then each jar would be placed into boiling water to be sealed shut before getting pulled and placed on the counter for cooling. Throughout the whole process, the kitchen door to the outside was left open to let some of the hot air circulate with an occasional breeze. This meant flies would come in and out of the apartment; another one of my jobs was to use the kitchen towel to swat the flies away from the counter while the others worked. As the youngest, I was relegated to the simpler jobs that provided minimal opportunity for complaining. I still managed to complain. It was too hot and cramped in the kitchen for four people to move easily. I bounded in and out of the apartment, down the three concrete steps in the back, and ran through the vines to freedom.
Growing up so close to my grandparents meant that I was influenced as part of the Old South. Nana and Papa were from the Greatest Generation, and their love story was told to me many times by Nana. She loved to tell stories, and I would sit down next to her on a tiny stool while she sewed in her rocking chair and told me about growing up in Atlanta in the 30s. She lived with her parents in a nice neighborhood in Decatur, Georgia as an only child. She was expected to behave as a southern lady, unreproachable in speech and actions, which is something she tried so hard to impart upon her unruliest granddaughter, me.
John was the neighborhood paperboy who started delivering the paper to Jeanne’s house around 1935 when she was around ten years old . My grandmother, so shy and proper, begged her mother to allow her to be the one to pay the paperboy. Her mother allowed her to open the door and drop the coins in John’s hand without a word. “He was the cutest boy I had ever seen.” Years went on with this routine, with small exchanges of words with every drop of coin into the paperboy’s hand. Then in 1941, when my grandmother was 15, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. John signed up for the Navy. He asked her if he could write to her while he was away, and she shyly said yes. He didn’t need to ask for her address.
They spent years exchanging letters between Atlanta, Georgia and the South Pacific, where John was attached to the United States Marine Corps as a Naval bomb loader on the back of Marine aircraft. He flew multiple missions in the island hopping campaign, mainly the Solomon Islands. What he wrote in those letters I know very little, but the correspondence between the two teenagers sparked something in John’s heart. They exchanged photographs of each other during the war.
When Jeanne was 17, she was engaged to another man, a nice man, a family friend. She took his engagement ring and the wedding planning began. She wrote to John to tell him of this engagement.
Then in 1945, John was sent back from years on the warfront in the Pacific to teach fellow sailors in Florida. He showed up to Jeanne’s house.
“And when I answered the door, there stood the cutest boy all dressed to the nines in his Navy outfit! He took my breath away! This boy I had been writing to for years had gone off a boy and come back a man!”
Jeanne broke off her engagement to the nice family friend, much to her parents’ dismay and disapproval, and eloped with John Cannon in October of 1945.
When I graduated from Marine Corps boot camp in 2008, I came home to Papa singing “From the halls of Montezuma, to the shores of Tripoli, we fight our country’s battles on the air and land and sea.” He told me he was proud of me, and then nudged me and said, “but don’t tell your grandmother about those island women!”
When I got back from Afghanistan in 2010, Papa was already deep in the clutches of dementia, and I couldn’t ask him everything I finally understood about war, and about his experiences that he refused to talk about with anyone else in the family. I think we could’ve connected about the fear and the loss and the boredom and the excitement of the wars that bridged our generations. I regret not asking him sooner, but I wouldn’t have understood.
All of the stories we could have shared died with him in the middle of the night in January of 2011. My family told me he wasn’t doing okay so I called the nursing home and the nurse held the phone up to his ear while I sobbed and told him how much I loved him and how sorry I was that I hadn’t come back since I returned from Afghanistan and how much I wished we could’ve talked more and how I wanted him to sing “we’re going down the Dixie Road to take Savannah to school” just one more time. He passed away right after that. Nana told me he waited to hear my voice before he let go.