Myrtle Joan Perry, known as “Jodi,” married Carl Keatley when she was 20 years old. The marriage was not easy and money was scarce. Through it all, Jodi built and nurtured a hearth for the family. Within four years, she birthed three daughters, Jan, Judi, and Jimmi. Jo came six years after Jimmi and six years after Jo, came the only son, Jon. Jodi once told me she was convinced that she would be pregnant forever. As the family grew, Jodi sewed, took in ironing, and worked when she could. In good days and bad, Jodi gave all effort for her children and built a family circle of story telling, singing, jokes, and love. Jan left for college at age 17, Judi and Jimmi both married soon after. Carl passed when Jo and Jon were still at home. Making ends meet was difficult to say the least but, nevertheless, Jodi rose to the task and continued to provide for the family until Jo married and Jon, being the last of the five chicks, joined the Air Force.
All five Keatley kids grew to be professional, successful adults and parents. Jodi, small of stature with a giant attitude and never shy to speak her mind, continued to be a kid at heart. She worked out at a gym every day and drove a pickup truck when she was 80. Arriving at her 90th birthday party, she skipped through the rain from the car to the door wearing two-inch heels. She popped inside, smoothed the skirt under her smart peplin jacket, patted her beautifully coiffed hair, and said “Don’t tell anybody how old I am.” Well into her 90s, she could out shop most of us, out talk all of us, and sing any part of just about any song. She doesn’t care much for rap.
Jodi is now approaching her 98th birthday (don’t tell her I said). Her mobility and mental acuity impaired by strokes, she now resides in a nursing home in Floyd, Virginia, near daughter Jimmi. The annual family gatherings, once at different points of interest, are now held in Floyd and will be as long as Jodi there resides. What I have named “The Keatley Gathering” happens each summer. All of Jodi’s descendants that can make the trip convene for four days rich with togetherness, singing, hugs, storytelling, and non-stop laughter. I am married to that only son, Jon, and am privileged to be titled “the fifth Keatley sister” and happy to be part of the pack.
Once in the middle of every party, Jodi now participates in the gathering through visits with smaller groups of us and a short appearance at our main event, which is the meal with the highest attendance and includes a theme. This year it was tropical dress and parrots. Jodi’s communication is scrambled but she still laughs at funny stories and shows tenderness when reaching out to a great-grandchild. She may not call us by the right name, but she knows we are family. Her spunk and wit shines through on a regular basis. When we said something to her about having a better attitude, she came back with “I’ve got a fartitude.” Scrambled she may be, but she is definitely still in there.
Even when not physically present, Jodi is there in the antics and expressions of her progeny. Her determination, creativity, and love of God and family is thick in the expressions on each face, the joy in each song, and in each prayer spoken before mealtime. The siblings, or the “Js” as my daughter Katherine calls them, include a chemist, an educator, a physician’s assistant, a sales person, and an engineer — in that order — but they all laugh at the same jokes and love the same memories. The group of Jodi’s kids, grandkids, and great-grands hosts a broad and scattered range of age, demeanor, religious affiliation, and political opinion, yet we are all strangely similar. From 10-month old Sawyer with his content smile and no opinions yet formed to plain-spoken, strongly opinioned first-born, Jan, we are bound by respect and love and delight in each other’s company.
This year, on the last evening, after lunch with Jodi, we gathered at the home of Jimmi and her husband, Rob. Their home rests on the Blue Ridge Parkway and is the result of Rob’s master carpentry and Jimmi’s dutiful assistance. The gathering means so much more in a place built and nurtured by one of our own. Around a fire ring, with the Blue Ridge Mountains spread before us we joined hands for the prayer before the eating began. Scattered over the tables and benches, with the sun kissing the mountains goodnight, our eating, game playing, and talking was punctuated with the little ones chasing each other around and the ever present laughter. Oh, if I could only bottle that laughter. With the moon rising above the tree line, we broke out the guitar and sang songs. We do a vigorous rendition of “Salty Dog” and we laugh our way through a customized version of “Where, Where Are you Tonight” with a special verse for most family members. Amazing Grace is sung with a hint of tears. I am sure that others, as well as I, can hear Jodi’s strong tenor singing with us. This year six-year old Mason, grandson of sister Jo, sang “Coffee Cups” with his mom and dad. The tradition continues.
Eventually, the babies start to tire and little by little, the long good-byes begin. The next morning brings go home time. Some will see each other at the Floyd Hotel breakfast, others not until next year. The spell unravels as each car pulls away. Finally, just a few of us remain. We savor a few last hugs, then, tidying up a little here and there, we make our way to the car. As we pull away, I look longingly at the house, framed by the shadows of the mountains, now dark. Needing something with a bit less maintenance, Jimmi and Rob have their house on the market. We have probably shared our last gathering at this magical place. However, the real magic is our family bond and we will find another place to gather and once more to enjoy the love of family ties.
The next morning, those of us at the hotel, say quick good-byes underlined by the need to get on the road. We sisters are in our regular clothes this morning, the matching PJs provided by Judi for each of us to wear to breakfast are safely packed away for another day. We all say the same thing again and again, “I hate it when it’s over.”
In the car, I look back through my pictures. I always take shot after shot, trying in vain to capture the feeling of the gathering. The pictures are nice memory triggers but none can do justice to the real thing. Preserved images can not capture the sparkle in Meg’s eyes as she talks about the baby expected in February or the love in Jo’s eyes when her grandchildren reach for her. The bubbling of the laughter, the sound of our voices blended in song, and the sweetness of just looking around at everybody can not be captured in images. Seeing the pictures is like hearing a choir whisper the Halleluiah Chorus. But as I look through the images, I am overwhelmed with gratitude for the priceless gift of these precious ones I call my people. My heart says “Thank you, Jodi” for planting and nurturing the seeds of the family that has so blessed my life. My soul offers a prayer of thanks for protection of everyone until we meet again. I lay down the phone and look up at I-77 stretched before me, leading the way to the airport in Charlotte.
I hate it when it’s over.
Just for clarity, the sibling and offspring list:
Jan Adams – married to Dick Adams. Son Joel Stryker (Shelly) with one son, Jordan. Son Jesse Stryker (Michelle) with five step-children, one of which is Beth – not sure of other names.
Judi Spooner – married to Harold Spooner. Daughter Joanie Hartley (Benny), with daughter, Megan Helvey Bear (Craig) expecting child; sons Andrew (Christina) and Justin Helvey; and daughter Amy Helvey. Son, Jeff Spooner (Lori) with daughter, Haley Spooner Van Vankenburgh; son, Alec Spooner; and daughter, Rachel Spooner.
Jimmi Beard – married to Robert Beard. Son Rob Beard (Stephanie) with son, William Beard and daughter, Katie Beard. Son Michael (Anna) with son, Aiden Beard.
Jo Medford – married to Tim Medford. Daughter Jaime Poston Money (Dave) with son Mason Money and daughter Maggie Money; Daughter Jessica Medford Price (Beau) with sons Finn and Sawyer Price.
Jonathan Keatley – married to Carla. Step-daughter Susan Saniei-Hay (Kelly) with daughters Jade and Deja Saniei-Hay; step-son Stephen Saniei with daughter, Gwen; and daughter Katherine Keatley.