Emily Morrison, my grandmother, revered her dead brother, Johnny Sanders. So much so that in her later years, when speaking about her own death, she insisted that she be buried next to him. She seemed comforted by the very idea. As a young boy, I spend the summers with my grandmother in South Carolina,whom I always referred to as Mama, after my family fled to New York City in 1946. I knew all of my grandmother’s siblings except two, a brother who lived in Charleston and Johnny Sanders, the mysterious object of her admiration, in the graveyard at Annivesta Baptist Church, an eighth of a mile from her home.
I don’t remember her ever expressing anything specific about her brother’s life that would have explained her reverence for him, only that her affection for him was so powerful that it was transmitted to me. In a long-forgotten corner of her den stood an old Civil War rifle and a rusty sword that once belonged to him. That rifle and sword stayed in that corner for so long that they came to be regarded as part of the décor. To most family members, they were useless relics of the past, but Mama Dolly held on to them because for her, they were a link to her beloved brother.
We visited my grandmother in the summer of 1972. By then, I had married a girl I met on the day Kennedy was shot and we had three sons. The day before we were to return to New York, I told Mama of my plans to visit with her the following summer. I would have to return far sooner, she replied, in a clairvoyant moment. That night she died.
Mama’s two daughters lived in New York City, and her two sons lived near her, so upon her death, her sons and their families took charge of her possessions including the Civil War rifle and the sword. At divvy-up time, there was confusion about what was where. I didn’t care about the other things; I expressed my desire to have the old rifle and sword from that long-forgotten corner if they were ever found.