Next Monday, I will be 41. I don’t need or want any fanfare or hulla-balloo. I’m very comfortable with the number 41. I have always been someone who is grateful for every year that I have on this earth. I have cultivated that attitude toward aging for several reasons, all of which have to do with friends or family.
When I was just 19, a sophomore in college, I lost one of my dearest childhood friends who died suddenly of natural, but difficult to determine causes, in her college dorm room one weekend. The last day that I spent with her before her death was a day on my grandparents’ pier here at Lake Gaston. She was an exceptional human being who touched so many lives and accomplished amazing things in her brief 20 years. Ever since her funeral, I have tried to adhere to the mantra Carpe Diem, which is Latin for “Seize the Day,” from one of my favorite movies, Dead Poets’ Society, starring Robin Williams.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, I just lost my maternal grandfather, whom I called Dadaddy, Norman Brake, Sr. at age 94 in October. This man survived living in a sharecropping family during the Great Depression, serving in the US Navy off the coast of Japan in WWII, working in the textile mill, being a lieutenant in the Roanoke Rapids fire department, and overcoming several heart attacks. You’ve heard me speak of him before. He and my grandmother Elsie, whom I called Nanny, gave me all of my wonderful childhood memories of Lake Gaston at their place in Whippoorwill Hills. My Nanny, however, died suddenly at age 69, just a few months shy of turning 70 and a few more months shy of her 50th wedding anniversary.
Nanny was one of a kind. Dadaddy bolted an old metal office chair to the end of their pier. That was Nanny’s fishing throne. Ironically, it was she who would fish for hours at a time, while Dadaddy was puttering around on various projects or drinking coffee (all day long) while sitting on their deck and listening to the radio.
She wasn’t fishing to catch trophy fish. She didn’t have a fancy rod, lures, or anything. It was just her, with her cane pole, one of those orange corks and bait of bread balls, red wigglers or Catawba worms. You could open their refrigerator at any given time, and there would be a container of worms. When Nanny did get a bite and pulled in (not reeled in) the fish, usually a bream, speckle or catfish, she would start up the hill, holding her pole in one hand and the line with the wriggling fish in the other, calling loudly for Dadaddy, my dad, my uncle, my brothers or my male cousin to come get the fish off the line for her. You know, I can’t remember ever seeing her take the fish off of the line. When she was calling out, all of us would stop whatever we were doing – swimming, fishing, playing croquet (yes, this was actually one of our favorite Lake Gaston pastimes), horseshoes or cards – to come see what our beloved Nanny had caught. She could catch several fish a day, and each time brought the same reaction from her and from the rest of us – utter excitement and pure happiness. It was that simplicity and pure joy that showed me from a very young age to enjoy every moment that the good Lord gives us.
We all loved our Nanny so much that when she went to Heaven at age 69, so close to that next milestone birthday and anniversary, I know those of us who were left behind felt cheated in some way. What I had to learn and now know with complete confidence is that my Nanny had no regrets. She loved every moment of her life, a good life of hard work, love, and simple pleasures, many of which she enjoyed right here at Lake Gaston.
If I could ask everyone in the wonderful Lake Gaston region for a birthday present, it would be this. Enjoy every moment you have and make the most of it. Life really doesn’t get much better than life here at Lake Gaston, now does it?