A good deal of my childhood and young adulthood were spent in country clubs and among people who were blasé toward most of what went on around them. What I remember most about the brunches, golf lessons, tennis dates, and parties was the enormous effort it took the adults to give the appearance of being just fine with everything. Sybil Cooper was lonely – her husband, like so many husbands, had no interest in truly knowing her – and gave tea parties to fill the emptiness. I never understood why, but my grandmother, like her friends, dreaded these afternoons with Mrs. Cooper. And so, my grandmother would take me along so that Sybil would feel appreciated. Dressed in white gloves and hats, my grandmother and I would head out for the club where for two hours twelve to fifteen women would quietly sip tea and sometimes play bridge. There was little discussion other than a word or two concerning the new arrivals at the Nettie Lee Dress Shop or who wore what to church the previous Sunday. Not until I was a teenager did I understand that the conversations were limited as they were because Mrs. Cooper was not one of “the group.” Her husband had money and a membership to the club, but that was not enough to make Sybil belong. I was the only child to ever attend the teas, and I had a tacit understanding with my grandmother that my purpose in being there was for Sybil.
It was not until I was a teenager, after my grandmother died, that I understood why the other women did not care for Mrs. Cooper. She was genuine. I saw it in her smile, in her eyes, in her tenderness. I felt her loneliness in the hugs she gave me. After tea one day, while the other women had left the room to gather their coats, Sybil took me in her arms, smiled and said, “I know how big your heart is. I know how much love you have in your heart. Where do you think it all comes from?” That moment with Sibyl is as alive in me now as it was then.
When I was twelve, my grandmother died. No one told me she was sick. When I think about it, I’m not sure it would have made a difference if someone had told me about her illness because I had no concept of death. I was a particularly sheltered only child who lived most of the time in her imagination; my family protected me from harsh realities such that I was particularly unsuited for living outside of the country club and the family home. Her death was no more different than when she went out shopping with friends. The food began to arrive immediately from neighbors. While the women spread the dining room and kitchen tables with covered dishes of chicken, mashed potatoes, green beans, and cornbread, the men stood in the formal living room talking about football and politics. My mother and her sister came home and stood together thanking the women for the food, seeing them to the door, jotting down names and the dishes they brought. I was the only child in the house.
And then Sybil came to the door. And with Sybil came her smile and her quiet tears, the only tears I saw that day. She greeted my mother and aunt, left her pan of rolls, and asked if I wanted to take a walk around the back yard. She took my hand, and we walked out into the bright June sun. For many minutes we just stood together looking up into the full green of summer – the maples and oaks and poplars filtering that brilliant light. She bent down beside me, smiled and said, “I know how big your heart is. Where do you think all that love comes from?”