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A TRIP HOME to Esto almost always includes a visit with my mother and grandmother in the Esto cemetery, along with so many other good people I have known and loved. The history of our town is told in those headstones.

This trip brought a special treat: After church on Sunday, we all adjourned to the fellowship hall for fried chicken, peas, creamed corn, fried okra and other delicious Southern delicacies. Naturally we gathered around the piano afterward to sing hymns.

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Inez

Inez and her chicken and dumplings.

INEZ WAS ONE of Esto’s Wells sisters. “She always wanted to give,” remembers her sister Jeanette. “She had a big heart.”

I remember her big heart and big hug, which usually came with a big smile and a raucous laugh. But not the day she came to see my mother lying in the intensive care ward. Only family members were allowed to visit, which didn’t concern Nez. “I’m family,” she said, and walked right in with me.

Mother had been there a few days by then. She’d had an aneurysm in her brain and was showing no signs of recovery. The doctors acknowledged she sometimes moved her arms and legs, but said it was involuntary. As Nez and I stood by her bedside, she seemed to grab at the arm of my sweater.

Nez was absolutely certain the doctors were wrong and assured me: “She knows who you are.”

Mother died before the end of the week. But I never saw or thought of Nez again without remembering that reassuring moment in the intensive care ward. I always hoped to see her when I came home to Esto. One visit she’d heard I was in town and stopped by early in the morning to say hello. My sister-in-law told her I was still asleep.

“Well, wake him up,” said Nez. I’m glad she did.

Delma Lee Smith Kirkland (center) with her parents in Esto in the 1920s.

ESTO’S MOST SENIOR CITIZEN — and one of its most beloved — died early Sunday morning, May 17, 2010. Delma Lee Kirkland was 94 and a lifelong resident of Esto.

She had been at home, in bed, for nearly a dozen years, since she had begun to drift away. She spoke only rarely at first, and then not at all. By the end she had stopped even opening her eyes. But someone was always near her side, usually one of her children or grandchildren.

News of her impending death came first on Saturday afternoon to a caretaker as she sat on the screened front porch of the family’s old white wooden house. She said it seemed as if God Himself spoke to say He was going to bring Mrs. Kirkland a blessing. So she went inside to be sure everything was alright. As she repeated what she had heard, Mrs. Kirkland, for the first time in weeks, opened her eyes and looked back, seemingly into her caretaker’s very soul. By morning, her long, lingering journey was over.

Her funeral on Wednesday morning, May 20, brought a full house of friends and flowers to Esto Baptist Church, where Mrs. Kirkland had worshipped all her life. A former son-in-law, Tommy Holman, captured her spirit in his eulogy.

“We got our phone calls early Sunday morning, one week after Mother’s Day, that Nanny had passed away,” he began. “Nanny was the wife of a farmer,” U.T. Kirkland, he said. “She knew her job and she did it well. She raised two children during wartime and she supported the endeavors of her husband until he passed away. She kept a good house and filled the table each meal with good and healthy food.”

Delma Kirkland (center) with daughter Vivian Holman and husband U.T. Kirkland in 1975.

He spoke directly to those who had doubted the family’s decision to keep her at home, in bed, for so many years.

“There are many who would question why it was that Nanny was required to live so many years confined to a bed and fed through a tube,” he said. “There were many who voiced their opinion that Nanny would not want to be there in that condition. There were just as many who questioned why her family did not resign her to a nursing home.”

He had an answer. “Those who questioned did not see what Nanny was giving to her family,” he said. “Even in her nonverbal state Nanny was giving her family a reason to remain a family in these times when so many families have drifted apart.”

Some might also have questioned why it was a former son-in-law delivering the eulogy, one whose divorce had been extremely painful for the family. He had an answer for that question, too, remembering that Mrs. Kirkland had once told him, “I can’t say what’s right or wrong for other people and it’s not my place to judge.”

“That was the way Nanny lived her long life,” he said. “She worked hard, she loved devotedly, she accepted unconditionally, she cried some, but she laughed much.”

Her capacity for love was brought home powerfully just as the funeral was beginning when a group from the Association for Retarded Citizens in Chipley, where Mrs. Kirkland had worked later in her life, entered the church.

“She helped and encouraged challenged individuals toward a better life,” her ex-son-in-law said. “She was a natural at this job because it was ever her way to help and to encourage others. This job came as natural to her as her smile and her jovial laughter.”

Despite the loss of a neighbor they had known all their lives, many in the crowd that filled the church had smiles on their faces and a humorous story to share as they moved outside for the graveside farewell.

Afterward, a bounteous old-fashioned dinner on the grounds awaited inside the church’s air-conditioned fellowship hall.

“I think she would have loved her funeral,” said Annie Laura Kidd, Mrs. Kirkland’s 85-year-old first cousin and “sister of the heart,” as the obituary noted, who clutched a rose from her lifelong friend’s casket. “She always said she wanted a lot of pretty flowers.”

VIMEO | Delma Kirkland and Annie Laura Kidd remember picking violets when they were little girls.

JOE BOB CLARK is one of Esto’s most successful sons, having moved all the way down to Bonifay, the county seat, and become a prosperous insurance and real estate agent.

Even as a kid I was aware that Joe Bob was an important man. People from Esto who had a problem went to Joe to get it solved. Several times when I was in school in Bonifay he helped and encouraged me — especially the day I turned 16 and thought I just had to have my driver’s license that day. When I was a senior in high school, few things seemed bigger than getting invited to the weekly lunch of the Kiwanis Club, to which all of the businessmen belonged. A boy from Esto could feel way out of his league at the Kiwanis lunch, but Joe was always there, welcoming me in, introducing me around. We kept in touch through the years.

In retirement, Joe has come full circle. He still lives on a hilltop just north of Bonifay, but he returns often to Esto, just 12 miles up the road. He also has taken on the role of caretaker of our neighbors who have gone on to the great beyond. He makes it his personal mission to keep the grass cut and the graves tidy in the Esto cemetery.

My mother is buried in that cemetery. And my grandmother and Uncle John, too. So is nearly everyone else I grew up loving in our little town.

But not my father. Cottontop, as they called him, lived hard and died young, when I had just turned 4. He was buried up the road at Lee’s Chapel, where many people from Esto had been buried before we had a cemetery of our own. The cemetery at Lee’s Chapel didn’t get the care that Joe lavished on Esto’s dead, though, and my father’s grave was in bad shape. I’d found through the years that the best way to deal with the absence of my father was not to think about it too much, and that was how I dealt with his grave, too.

One day I raised the subject with Joe Bob. What did he think about moving my father’s grave to Esto?

“Well, I sure wouldn’t want my people buried up there,” he said. And then he went out and found a local funeral home that would dig up my father’s grave and rebury his casket in Esto.

In the end, I couldn’t do it. I found the prospect unearthed too many memories I’d learned to forget. It’s enough for me to have Joe Bob in the Esto cemetery, cutting the grass, taking care of people in Esto, just as he’s always done.