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Thursday, August 30, 2012

All these places have their moments...

I know it’s been a while since I’ve posted.  The last three weeks have been a whirlwind for good, bad and sad reasons.  Ideally, I would create three posts for three weeks – all full of witty creativity and insights – but I can’t really do that this time.  I am going to just type and get it out there.  Because that is what my soul just needs to do.

August 12-16 I was traveling with Heifer.  I visited a region called Puno.  We were in the city of Puno on the shores of Lake Titicaca.  I was there with a co-worker and the purpose of our visit was multifaceted:  Attend a Pass on the Gift Ceremony, meet with local project holders and project partners, and for me to begin my research on the impact of Heifer Peru’s work with women.  Immediately following my trip, I created a blog post about my experience at the Pass on the Gift ceremony.  Because the trip was almost entirely Heifer related, I am waiting on permission from Heifer International to share more of my experiences there.  It may be posted on the Heifer blog if I’m lucky and I will share it with you all that way.   I can say though, that it was a great trip.  It allowed me to see Heifer’s active work for the first time in Peru.   (For those of you who aren’t completely familiar with my work here and where I am, Heifer’s main office in Peru is located in Lima.  The actual “field work” where we provide training and deliver animals and other inputs is located in the more remote, rural regions of the country.  So I work in an office, but will often visit the field to see, evaluate and monitor projects.) 

I gave a presentation – in butchered Spanish – to a group of campesinas.  I shared my experiences in Nepal and compared the two countries and the challenges that women face in each – there are many similarities.  The women seemed to soak it up and appreciate it.  And I very much appreciated what felt like my first small success/accomplishment with my work here.  It was good for all of us. 

The trip to Puno was a very good chance for me to connect more closely with Heifer’s work here in a personal way.  And I needed it.  I posted earlier about the stages of culture shock and how I’ve been feeling.  Seeing the face of poverty up close provides one with a good swift kick in the gut.  When an old man walks up to you with tears in his eyes and says “Don’t forget us”….. you never will.

Once I returned from Puno I was more fired up about being here.  I returned on Thursday and went to work for half a day on Friday.  The weekend was great.  My boys and I (thanks to Bryan’s exploring) found the San Isidro market.  It is between our house and the ocean and just a short walk away.  What a great find!  HERE we can buy fresh fruits and veggies, bread, paper goods, cereal, flowers….lots of stuff that is way overpriced at the nearest grocery store.  Good to know.

So then back to work on Monday.  All is good.

Then I get an email from my mom on Tuesday telling me that she “hasn’t heard anything about Frances but I’ll let you know if there are any changes.”  What?  This is totally news to me.  I knew Frances was in the hospital recovering from surgery, but what is this about?  Why the need for an update?  So, of course the panic sets in.

Frances Hardin Byrd is the mother of my Dad’s best friend, Paul Byrd.  If you know me and my family you’ve heard me refer to the Byrds all my life.  Paul and his wife Jane were there when I was born and Jane boasts that she was the first to see me.  Paul and Jane have five kids.   They named their firstborn son Thomas Edward after my Dad.   
*Here is where I need an editor.  I have no idea how to explain in words the meaning and importance of the Byrd family in my life.  After the sentence “Paul and Jane have five kids” I could go on for years.* 

I’m digressing….

So Frances Byrd is special – to say the least.  As far as I have ever known, she is my grandmother.  I’ve spent every Christmas Eve, Easter, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day and a thousand other southern nights at her home with her and her husband, former Justice Conley F. Byrd.  They lived at 2711 Byrd Road in Redfield, Arkansas.  My hometown.   It wasn’t until I was in my late teens that I learned that I wasn’t actually a “real” cousin – whatever that means.  They Byrd family was and is my family.

Back to Tuesday, the email from mom, and my panic:  Apparently, Frances’ body had just had enough.  A few weeks ago she fell and broke her hip and was hospitalized.  One of her sisters had passed away on the day of Frances’ surgery.  During her recovery after the surgery in the hospital, her kidneys and lungs just started shutting down.  She suffered from emphysema and diabetes but was a damn tough woman and you would have never known, usually, that she was even sick.  But, the last year has been harder on her body and her mind.  But in the back of my mind, and perhaps all of her grandchildren, she was invincible.  All she had to do was get over this one more road bump and she’d be back in her chair by the window.

But not this time.  Frances passed away on August 22 in the early morning hours.  She was 85.  Her children had had some warning and she was surrounded by love until the very end.

My mom sent me a text saying “Frances has passed” at 8:36am on Wednesday morning. 

This is where I take a break from typing to regain my composure and dry the tears that seem to constantly be on the surface these days…..

By noon on the same day – thanks to my wonderful, resourceful husband and through the speed and graciousness of the Heifer headquarters F&A staff - Davis and I had tickets to Arkansas on bereavement leave.  We departed Lima at 12:15am on Thursday morning.  My mom picked us up at the airport and we drove straight to Redfield to 2711 Byrd Road – where I stayed for almost three solid days. 

Frances also had 3 other children, 17 grandchildren and 15 great-grandchildren.  Her obituary is here.  Something to notice when you read it (and if you don’t read it then I’ll point it out for you) – is that my parents were listed as honorary children and my sister, Bryan and I were listed as honorary grandchildren.  I had the honor of speaking at her funeral alongside some of her other grandchildren and children.

Deep breaths.

You see, I could write a novel about those three days in her home and all the memories I have with her and her family.  Actually, novels HAVE been written about Frances’ family, her sisters and brother and her own parent’s legacy.  I could write about all the stories that were told, the raw emotion her husband expressed as he grieved the loss of his wife of 63 years, the laughter that was shared when reflecting on some of her pranks, the many reflections on how it was such the typical “grandma’s house” like how her candy basket stayed full and no one ever saw her fill it, the dozens and dozens of people that walked through the doors to offer condolences, and the angst  that we all felt as we realized that when we left for our own homes at the end of the weekend, that the place would never ever be the same again.  That this was the last time we would see it just that way.  With her nick-knacks everywhere, her letters and papers she stacked everywhere, the thousands of pictures she kept in albums full of her family and friends, the books, the smell…so much.  It is impossible to describe.  She was one of the greatest women that I’ve ever known.  She was “green” before green was cool.  She was a writer, a teacher, a farmer, a lawyer when her husband was sick, a campaign manager, a newspaper editor, a chemist, a champion free-throw shooter, a fierce competitor, mean checker play – a mother, wife, sister, friend and more.  What she was best at (and this is according to me – one blaring theme of the weekend is that everyone had a different reason for Frances being special) was making every single person that knew her feel like they were special to her for their own special reason.  That you and her had a special bond like no other.  That you were #1 in her eyes no matter what. 
Ms. Frances.  I believe that in a person’s life they can count, usually on just one hand, the number of people in their lives that will love them no matter what.  Like hard core love, through thick and thin.  When you make mistakes, they don’t care.   For me, Frances was one of those people. 

When I spoke at the funeral, I read a letter to her that I wrote a few days after she died.  It was buried with her in her coffin, along with a plastic Easter egg with one Peruvian Sole (coin) inside of it.  She hid the same plastic eggs every year.  Each with a dime inside.  Davis put a bag of turnip seeds in her coffin from him and his Papaw.  She loved my Dad’s turnip greens.  I also spoke on behalf of my father at the funeral.  He is currently in Alaska and couldn’t make it home.  His absence was very weird.  Everyone kept expecting him to be in the back room somewhere drinking coffee and telling stories.  At first, he didn’t have anything he wanted to share at the funeral, but he changed his mind at the last minute and sent it to me.  Here is what I said on his behalf:

“Now that I can think better, I DO have something you can say for me about Frances.  From Tom Tom, from Alaska:  Frances had the house and home where I could go and visit.  Where I could jump off this fast spinning world we live in and just REST.  A place where I could go and listen to her describe the people I would have loved to have met.  People like Alf Hardin, Walter Wolfe, Slick Caw’ze, Orvel Clark and XL Carter.  I could listen to her describe the farms that washed away and the people that made things keep going.  The timing in her speech, that only she had, that went with the stories she told was like a gift, like her.”

It was one of the most moving and intimate services I’ve ever attended.  No one gave a sermon to save souls – it was just a few people who told their favorite Frances story or special memory of her.  It was beautiful.  So many people were there.  She would have loved it.  Family and friends – that was what was most important to Frances.  And afterwards, everyone went to her home and ate.  Just like always.  Just like she would have wanted.

2711 Byrd Road.  This is what home looks like to me.
SO.  I am now back in Peru. Getting a dose of my family and friends in Arkansas was a surreal experience.  It was a great feeling to be in Redfield albeit for a crappy reason.  Bittersweet.  Everyone kept saying that – that they wished I wasn’t there but they were glad I was there.  I felt like I was in some movie, like Fried Green Tomatoes or Steel Magnolias.  It felt like a dream.  And now I’m back and I still feel like I’m in a dream.  I got back to my house in Lima in the wee hours of Wednesday morning and was completely exhausted all day.  Today, Thursday, is a national holiday in Peru and we are home again.  I’m still dazed, still kinda confused, and still wondering just how my world works without Ms. Frances being at the end of 2711 Byrd Road when I get back home next summer.  I’ve ventured out once in the last 24 hours – to the grocery store.  Turns out, life kept moving over the last week while mine seemed to stand still. 

Ms. Frances hated it when I travelled.  I’d be so happy to tell her where I was going next and always surprised when she frowned and said “But WHY?”  She did not want me to move to Peru!

So, Ms. Frances, I’m sorry that I wasn’t home when you passed.  I’m sorry that I chose to travel far away from home and that it worried you.  And now you’re gone.  You’re up there with my Papaw and my other grandparents.  And while it is extremely hard for me to understand and trust, I know that I’m going to be just fine in this country and on this adventure.  And not because you’re looking down on me from there.  But because of what you equipped me with when you were here. Thank you. 


  1. Many hugs Jessica. Thank you for sharing this story. Ms. Frances seemed be amazing and I can almost imagine what her home felt like. Thinking of you and the days ahead.