We Are Family – A Dedication to Mary Armstrong

On Tuesday, September 8, 2020, I was overcome with warm childhood memories of my Aunt Mary, along with feeling her with me, followed by a knowing that her time was short. I did not know that she had recently taken a fall and had developed life threatening blood clots. In fact, I had not spoken with her in years, except through facebook.

On Thursday, September 10, 2020, I received two facebook messages from cousins letting me know that she had passed away an hour and a half earlier. Although I have not been home (the Jackson, Mississippi area) since 2005, I have fond, fun, heart warming memories of Aunt Mary during my childhood, teenage years, and early adult years.

I have been on and off sad and letting the tears flow since finding out, thinking of those memories, and also thinking of my own mortality and that of my mom, dad, and Frank.

I felt moved to write about my feelings and these memories, wanting to also get them outside of my mind while they are still clear and crisp, and as a dedication to my Aunt Mary. If any of my cousins, aunts or uncles, or my mom or dad have anything to add to this, I would love for you to share.

(This is from one of the last visits I made … Summer of 2002 – taken in New Orleans at my dad’s house, from left to right: Robert Downs (my dad), Aunt Mary, Aunt Carolyn, Uncle Millard – Siblings)

There was the home made macaroni and cheese she made for all the holiday gatherings. I loved her mac n cheese, the creaminess of it, with the cheese browned perfectly on top. We had very large family gatherings for holidays when I was growing up, with so much food I cannot even remember it all. Six or more different types of pies (coconut, lemon meringue, pumpkin, sweet potato, chocolate cream, pecan), two or more different kinds of cakes (chocolate, vanilla with coconut frosting), homemade candy (divinity, pecan pralines), turkey, ham, creamed corn, black eyed peas, okra, sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes, butter beans, snap beans, cornbread, rolls, sweet tea, and unsweetened tea.

I remember Aunt Mary’s loudness and boldness. She was not a shy, quiet person. She had big energy.

I remember all of the trips to Liberty Land in Memphis, Tennessee. She would gather whoever wanted to go, and drive us from Jackson to Memphis. Of course, always stopping at Graceland as she was a HUGE Elvis fan.

I remember the wooden hope chests she got for each of her nieces. Each with a lovely hand painted landscape. I still have mine, packed with memories, rather than hopes.

I remember the many camping trips with her and Uncle Jerry. So many camping trips. Again gathering who ever wanted to go and off we went. I remember the many times in Bogalusa, Louisiana, floating down the Bogue Chitto River in warm black tubes, of course, always one for the ice chest too. I remember receiving my first kiss on one of these camping trips, from another young man who was camping with his family.

There was a time that Aunt Mary made ceramics. She was all in for this, having huge kilns in sheds in the backyard, and going to craft fairs at malls, setting up tables in the middle of the mall with the dozens of other craft makers. I have memories of going with her and Uncle Jerry to these events, much of the time they were not very close to home. I’m pretty sure my cousin Stephanie was a part of this, too. We’d help get everything set up, then we’d wander off, walking the mall, window shopping, trying on clothes, and flirting, I’m sure. When it was over, we’d help break down, loading everything that didn’t sell. I still have a ceramic Easter egg Aunt Mary made for me in 1984. I’m not sure I have anything else, most likely broken along the way, or discarded with the many moves and moving more towards minimalism.

I remember when my mom and dad were still married, and my Aunt Mary, my mom, me and cousins went to see fire works at the mall, July the 4th maybe. We drove in mom’s purple fiat spider (if I’m remembering correctly), watching the fireworks right from the car as the top was down. I will never forget the song, “We Are Family”, coming on at some point, and we were all singing, bouncing, and bopping around in the car. I was very happy in that moment.

I remember when I went home for a visit in July 1998, for my 10 year high school reunion, and to have an engagement party while there, since none of my family would be traveling to Washington state for my wedding in October (except for my dad and my two brothers). I remember how much fun my Aunt Mary seemed to have at the party. That woman could dance. She danced ’til she was dripping with sweat, and could dance no more. (I have a photo of her dancing, as soon as I come across those photos, I’ll come back and post it here.)  I’m almost positive one of the songs she was getting down to was The Twist, by Chubby Checker …

I remember watching old home movies at Aunt Mary’s house. She had reels and reels of film.

I remember huge Easter egg hunts in her back yard. This was serious business for our family. The adults probably hid around 200 eggs, taping coins on them, hiding some in difficult to find spots with $1 or $5 bills taped to them!

(Camilla at a 1973 Easter egg hunt)

I remember walking across the street to Aunt Mary’s house, from my grandmother’s house, walking in the side door, and helping myself to food and goodies, staying to chat if anyone was home. I don’t remember many house doors being locked growing up. Even as a teen in high school, I would stop by my best friend’s house, go inside, have something to eat, find some clothes to borrow (we wore each others clothes), or take a nap even!

I remember one Christmas I got a ten speed bicycle. We were living with my grandmother at the time. I hopped on it for the first time, leaving from my grandmother’s carport, down the slope of the driveway, into the street, and realizing I didn’t know how to stop the damn thing (hand brakes, instead of pedal brakes). I kept going straight into my Aunt Mary’s driveway, underneath her carpet, trying to slow myself with my feet, with the wall of the shed completing the stop for me. Yes. I banged right into the wall, scratching my hand, but otherwise all good.

I remember climbing the plum trees in her backyard, finding the ripe plums, plucking them from the tree, and eating them right there.

I remember that time in her backyard that I jumped off the trampoline and landed directly in the middle of a bed of fire ants. Have you ever pissed off fire ants? They don’t mess around. When Aunt Mary realized what had happened she scooped me up, took me to the bathroom, turned on the bathwater, ripped my clothes off, and plopped me in the tub.

I do wish I had let you know how much these memories mean to me, how much you meant to me in my early life, Aunt Mary. I will walk into the pain of not having shared this with you, and know that somehow you receive this message. I love you.

(Recent photo of Aunt Mary, posted by one of my cousins)

You can find Aunt Mary’s obituary here …



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“Words of Alchemy”, published December 2019, is a free-verse poetry memoir covering the last 6 years of my life. The poetry of nature, the poetry of healing, the poetry of appreciation, the poetry of love, in one beautiful book.

Amazing news! My 18 year old daughter, Lillian Darnell’s debut book, “Where Would You Fly and Other Magical Stories” was published January 2018. Learn more and order here

Wonderfully exciting news! My 14 year old son, Thomas Darnell‘s book, Biggest Little Photographer is published. Be inspired! Learn more and order here.