But I don’t adore the day because of the early arrival of spring but because it is the birthday of Lucy Cummings, the blessed woman who raised me from birth to age thirteen.
She has been dead for many years, but her crucial influence, the benevolence of her understanding and constant affection, remain with me every day.
February 2nd is an appropriate birthday for a woman who counted for little in the world’s eyes, a white Kentucky country woman with perhaps an elementary school education, who never left the state until she began to travel with my family—and then greeted the new and strange with manifest enthusiasm.
Taking care of us children in a hotel on the bombed-out Normandy coast—this was shortly after World War 2—she learned enough French to order our meals in the dining room and to form friendships with the hotel staff, although not, as I remember, with the other nannies—stiff and starchy French and German.
Together, we explored the lush and somber countryside, stopping in at a farm where I had my first taste of yogurt, the real thing, bitter as vinegar, spooned out of a glass jar.
Nursie—as we called her—took great pride in the Practical Nursing degree she earned in mid-life, wearing the cap and pin with delight. She also wore a gold brooch, given to her by our mother, which dangled a small gold heart for each of us five children. Her only other jewel was a braided gold friendship ring, so securely settled into her finger that she could never remove it.
She knew the Appalachian folk songs of her childhood, humming and singing as she worked—and she worked, cleaning, washing, and mending as well as taking us on walks, minding our manners, tending our meals, putting us to bed and getting us up in the morning. She was often very tired.But, tired or not, she would sing: “Barbara Allen,” “The Briary Bush,” “The Old Rugged Cross,” and a hymn that begins, “I come to the garden alone, when the dew was still on the roses.”
She wore a crackling white nylon uniform, heavy support stockings, and laced up black or white shoes. My one snapshot of her, now faded and cracked, shows her wearing the raspberry-pink jacket she bought one Easter, enjoying the splash of unaccustomed color.
She is buried in the poor section of Cave Hill Cemetery in Louisville, Kentucky, next to her mother, the “Mom” she cared for and supported all her life. A flat metal plaque marks her grave, over the hill from the ornate slate and marble monuments that guard my family and people like them.
She planted a magnolia by her mother’s grave, and in the decades since, it has grown and flourished, each shining green leaf, with its little prickle, a testament to the rich heritage of her life.