Living beyond tragedy
By the time my grandmother arrived at the well, her blindfold had slipped. It was a place she recognized. She passed it each day on her way to work. She begged them not to do it, but the four robbers didn't listen. They threw her in head first. She landed on top of my grandfather, who was already dead.
My grandfather was murdered on a cold, rainy night in 1963. My maternal grandmother, a petite, soft-spoken woman named Earlyene Culpepper, could easily have died with him, but she survived and came to live with my family several months before I was born. She became a built-in second mother for me, reading me bedtime stories, sewing Halloween costumes, and helping me with my homework. The events of that December evening weren't mentioned often in our house when I was growing up. My grandmother referred to them simply as "the tragedy."
More than twenty years later, in the fall of 1986, I was taking a college course in feature writing and was assigned an "inspiration piece." I instinctively turned to my grandmother. It was only then that she told me the full story with a calm resolve, revealing a complete picture I had never known.
In moments of national crisis, I often think of "the tragedy" and my grandmother's response to it. Hurricane Katrina was no different. As news of the storm rolled in and the Kenyon alumni featured in this issue of the Bulletin told us their stories, I began to contemplate my own chances of becoming a victim of something horrific. My sense of security faltered. The enormity of Katrina sank in slowly for me, landing with a thud long after the rest of the world seemed to have synthesized things. It was then that I came back to that conversation I had in 1986 with my grandmother.
When I sat down to hear her describe that horrible night, I learned that my grandparents had just returned to their rural Alabama home after attending a Christmas party in a nearby town. The garage wasn't attached to the house, so my grandfather let Earlyene out at the back door while he parked the car. Four men with guns were waiting in the house.
Earlyene had gotten to the kitchen table when she saw the robbers and screamed. One of the men hit her on the back of the head with a gun, knocking her to the floor. After my grandfather entered the house, the men held him at gunpoint and took his money and his watch. Earlyene watched the robbers take him into a bedroom as he pleaded for mercy. Three shots rang out.
"That was the last I ever heard from my husband," she told me.
My grandparents were then taken in separate cars to a nearby rock-lined well that was thirty feet deep. When my grandmother was thrown in, her leg caught on the rough walls, tearing most of the flesh away. Earlyene spent twelve hours in the well, drifting in and out consciousness.
"I knew I was standing on my husband," she said, "and I think in my subconscious mind I knew he was dead, but the biggest thing that worried me was that I was hurting him."
My grandmother knew that a woman named Daisy would come to the well in the morning. As soon as she heard the sounds of traffic, Earlyene began to cry for help. Daisy heard her. Eventually, a boy was lowered into the well to retrieve my grandmother.
What's remarkable to me is not that my grandmother lived. It's how she lived during the nearly four decades after my grandfather was killed. She clung to an incredibly strong faith that only grew stronger. She conquered fear. She embraced forgiveness. She laughed frequently. And she loved my three siblings and me.
My grandmother's recovery wasn't easy. There were several skin grafts on her leg. Doctors told her that the cold well water helped coagulate the blood and stop the bleeding. Bandages were a part of her life for almost a year. She was in a wheelchair when she testified at the trial of the four ex-carnival workers who were apprehended in Oklahoma the day her husband was buried. For months, she relived the night over and over in her mind. This was long before antidepressants. She shunned any sleep aids, tranquilizers, or other medications that weren't essential.
My grandmother's faith helped carry her through. And forgiveness was key. "Deep in my heart, I know I've forgiven them," she told me of the robbers, who were sentenced to life in prison. "The greatest thing I learned from it is submissiveness. Nothing, not even your family, belongs to you."
I know that if she survived, I can survive whatever comes my way. It would be wrong of me to imply that my grandmother left me with some type of survivor's manual for life. She didn't. Her triumph over adversity is more akin to a faint generator that hums in the back of my head. It reassures me. It offers hope.
Reports of crime and disaster surround us every day. What's missing from those reports is often the most miraculous part: the tale of survival. Not just living through tragedy. Living beyond it.
My grandmother passed away at the age of ninety-two on December 12, 2001, one day shy of the thirty-eight-year anniversary of my grandfather's death. She was buried next to my grandfather under a tombstone that had held a place for her name since his burial.
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