My aunt Corine turned 95 on Sunday, August 7. She is my father’s oldest sister, the last remaining child of nine born to my grandmother and grandfather, who were both born in the first years of the 20th century, 120 years ago. As a historian, I probably appreciate this kind of longevity in a different way than most people.
Corine was born on the first Sunday in August in the summer of 1927, when Calvin Coolidge was president. He was the 30th president of the United States, and we are currently on number 46 (and remember that FDR served four terms). Coolidge has been dead since 1933, 89 years.
When she was born the Great Depression was still two years in the future. World War II was fourteen years away—and has been over now for 77 years.
Consider this: There were nearly 400,000 veterans of the American Civil War still living when she was born, a war that had ended 62 years earlier.
The very first major talking motion picture, The Jazz Singer, debuted that year on October 6. Philo Farnsworth transmitted the very first electronic television image in history on September 7. Charles Lindbergh flew the first solo nonstop airplane flight across the Atlantic in May. Forty-two years later she would witness the moon landing. The 1927 New York Yankees, widely considered to be the greatest baseball team in history with its famed Murderers Row that included Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, won 110 games that summer and then the World Series. Forty-seven years later she saw Hank Aaron break the Babe’s homerun record, and 47 years after that she watched the Braves win the World Series again.
She was born into a region where segregation and all its ugliness would reign supreme for another 40 years, and in an era when many of those formerly enslaved were still very much alive. She lived long enough to see the first African-American president serve two terms.
Corine remembers the 1936 Gainesville tornado, the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, and the day President Roosevelt died in 1945.
She also remembers the sound of people’s voices who were born more than 150 years ago. She is the last living person on this earth who knew my great-grandfather (her grandfather), the man she called “Grandpa Deaton,” born in 1873. He died in 1943, almost 80 years ago. She remembers not just him, of course, but every other relative alive then, all of them now only names on a family tree, their voices long silent. In her memory alone they survive as flesh-and-blood people.
Mother Teresa said that “In this life we cannot do great things. We can only do small things with great love.” Corine’s life has been a life of service and sacrifice. She was the oldest girl in a family of sharecroppers—six boys and three girls—with long years of hard toil in hot Georgia summers. (Dad used to jokingly tell listeners, “There were six of us boys in the family, and we each had three sisters.”) She revered her mother and father and lovingly helped to raise the seven siblings born after her. Indeed, she witnessed the entirety of those seven lives, literally from cradle to grave.
She labored as hard as her six brothers on that farm and remained on a first-name basis with work throughout her life. One summer afternoon years ago my father and I were repairing the roof on the garage at her house, and I went down the ladder for more supplies. When I climbed back up, there was Corine on the roof next to Dad, hammering away. She had seen her opportunity and didn’t miss it. Whenever Dad went to her house to do some work, he’d inevitably turn and find her by his side, whether yardwork, carpentry, or something mechanical. They were cut from the very same cloth.
Her cooking is legendary, and for good reason. Generations tucked in at her table, always groaning with fried chicken, fresh-cooked vegetables, delicious cakes and pies, every mouth waiting for her gentle invitation to “take out and eat.” Not for her the cookbook or the recipe on a 3×5 card. It’s all in her head and every attempt to learn how she makes her biscuits (unmatched), or her sage cornbread dressing (a Christmas staple) was met with a laugh: “Lord, Stanley, I don’t know, I just make it like mama always did.”
Corine (top right in the photo above) is now the last of Hubert and Reba’s nine children still alive, a singular fate that she neither understands nor welcomes but accepts without complaint. Age gains ground, little by little, and then in bursts. She is still in strong mind if faltering body, still living alone though lovingly cared for by two of my cousins, Susan and Kelly, who are surely angels on earth. She is a lone messenger from a long-distant and irretrievable past, the last living link to a vanished time and place, to the people who passed through those years with her, who laughed and prayed and sang and loved, now all left behind with tears and a promise to meet again.
Corine’s long journey continues, day by day. As she has always done, she faces the future squarely, with courage, strength, and quiet dignity, patiently awaiting the summons, prepared, as Elizabeth Gray Vining said, for the great change that comes after this life of so many changes, whenever that may be. She enjoys life, and she endures it.
On her birthday and every day, we honor her and all that she represents, the living embodiment of the love that shaped her and has radiated outward to all of us through all those years and the lives that live on through her. She is dearly loved and treasured.