Today I bring you a guest post from Cindy Cunningham. I met Cindy through my memoir, Dancing in Heaven, as she explains below. From time to time readers of Annie’s story have contacted me to share their own story. I’ve decided to share with you any stories I receive for which I have permission to do so. My plan is to create a permanent page on my blog with links to these stories. Thanks in advance for reading Cindy’s story about Vera.
I live in southern California, but home is just north of New Orleans, LA. Most people who don’t live in Louisiana hear New Orleans and instantly think big city. I actually grew up in a very small rural area called Covington, which is north of New Orleans, just a stone’s throw away from the north end of the Lake Ponchartrain Causeway, which separates New Orleans from country living.
My children, identical twins, Aimee and Jaime (now 32 years old) and my son, Scott (now 34 years old) along with their children and my parents who are now 75 and 78 still live in Covington. Our grandchildren either fly out yearly to visit us or I fly there and visit them. While my 15-year-old granddaughter was here on a visit she told me she had to read a memoir for her upcoming honors English class. I searched around and read several introductions and found yours. We both began reading and memories of my own childhood came flooding back.
My grandmother became a wife at the age of 15 and was eventually the mother of six children. Each child was born at home, a house with a beautiful high ceiling my grandfather had made from the logs he had harvested over the years. Back in the 1930’s in rural Louisiana there just weren’t hospitals and doctors to care for you. My grandmother did manage to get a midwife to attend the births. Each and every one went smoothly until my Aunt Vera was born. May 29, 1938 changed my grandmother’s life forever. The birth wasn’t going smoothly. The baby just wasn’t entering the birth canal correctly and in desperation the midwife took an ironing board and pressed on my grandmother’s stomach in an effort to make the baby move. Eventually the baby was born, but severely damaged. My Aunt Vera had cerebral palsy. She was a beautiful baby, just a baby trapped inside her body. Nobody knew enough back then to help her. She never got to attend school and was carried by my grandparents everywhere they went. She couldn’t lift her head or straighten her legs or control her arms. She sat in a rocker with a cushion in my grandmother’s kitchen as long as I can remember. Her bed was a twin bed placed along the wall in my grandparent’s bedroom. She slept in that bed until the day my grandmother went to awake her as she had done for 55 years. I remember clearly getting the call that Vera had passed away. My initial thought was “How will my grandmother live without her?”
Growing up, Vera was always there. I saw her disabilities, but they were who she was. I watched my grandmother carry her from her bed every day and put her in her special rocker in the kitchen so she could be with everyone all day. Around noon it was routine for her to be moved to another rocker in her bedroom (also my grandmothers bedroom) so they could watch their favorite soap operas. I would visit when I got older and mention a soap star to Vera knowing she was all into it and would be excited about my opinion. She would light up and rock back and forth and try so hard to make words come out. Words always eluded her. Only grunts and noises would surface. Sometimes she would get so angry because she couldn’t express her feelings and she would get flushed in her face and finally her body would go limp and she would fall back into her rocker with the look of defeat. I wanted so badly to give her the gift of speech.
My grandmother told me stories of when I was little and would play around Vera’s chair and poke her and laugh and hide. She said Vera loved it and laughed along with me. Growing up seeing her so disabled was a natural thing for me, but it didn’t stop me from wishing it had been different for her.
One of my fondest memories is of going to church with my grandparents and Vera. They attended a Baptist church in the country and Vera had a special rocker to the right in the front row. My grandparents would sit next to her during services. Everyone would come by and speak to Vera and she loved it. The church family was a big part of her life.
It seems my entire adult life while I was raising three children of my own, I kept Vera in my thoughts. Every time I was out and about and saw a raffle or something that I thought might make her days brighter I would enter her name. I remember once my grandmother called me and asked if I had entered Vera in a drawing. I had so many times that I just said yes. She said that K-Mart had called and asked to speak to Vera and she told them that she couldn’t speak because she was handicapped. They told her that Vera’s name had been drawn for a huge 4-ft pink energizer stuffed bunny. I had to laugh. My grandmother had someone pick it up and when activated it clapped it cymbals together and marched. I was right. It did brighten her day. No matter how trivial it was to most, it made her laugh.
Vera had about twenty baby dolls and my grandmother would dress them for the day and lay them out for Vera to see. She would pick one and insist my grandmother place it in her crooked arms. She would then rock it for hours. Once I got her an anatomically correct baby boy doll and she loved it. She laughed so much when she saw it. The other thing she loved was punch balls. My grandmother would tie the band to her finger and she would use her dominant right arm and swing it around. As with your sister, Diane, Vera’s right arm was always the stronger one. She could swing it back and forth, but it always ended up curled up like the left one. Her back was always hunched over and her legs crunched up too. She was almost in a fetal position. I use to wonder how her back didn’t kill her.
One Christmas I decided to buy small trinkets for the twenty-four days leading up to Christmas. Vera loved Christmas and no matter how old my grandmother got she always went all out decorating for Christmas. I also bought a hanging shadow box that on the 25th day would be given to Vera to put all of her trinkets in. I made up poems about the trinket of the day and mailed it anonymously to Vera. When I visited she was so excited about the trinket of the day. Neither she nor my grandmother could figure out who was sending them. The buildup was grand and it did my heart good to see their excitement. On Christmas day I brought the shadowbox over, and revealed myself to them. Vera was so excited she was beside herself.
Looking back I think of all of the things I did to try and make Vera’s life happier. I think maybe on top of her being happier, it healed my heart in a way. Imagining a life being trapped inside yourself with no voice or control over your limbs was so heartbreaking for me. She deserved better and I couldn’t give it to her.
Vera died June 8, 1993. My grandmother was 79. I thought about how my grandmother would, for the first time since she was 15, have freedom. But how much freedom can you have at age 79? Her health wasn’t good and she had always put Vera first.
Reading your book about your sister made me cry, made me laugh, and made me realize that there are so many Vera’s in this world and you and I were lucky enough to have them. My life is so much richer because of Vera. Her life was not a waste. She touched so many lives in so many ways and her legacy will live on. So will Diane’s. I miss Vera every single day, but I know the day she flew away that she was whole for the first time in her life. She could walk and sing and God was rewarding her for what she didn’t have here on earth.