Doris Gurley was my mom’s host-mother when she visited the United States for the first time in 1969. It was Eastern NC. Wayne County. Nahunta, North Carolina to be exact. Home to the Nahunta Pork Center, which still exists to this day (have you ever seen how a pig is slaughtered up close? I have. They do it with a rifle). It goes without saying, this part of the state wasn’t exactly the most exciting or forward thinking location. Or even now, really. It’s a myriad of farms, brushing up against one another, grassy pastures, cows, hogs and hog pens, endless fencing, and the open sky. Why my raven-haired mother (her name is Martha), at the time clad in knee-high boots and mini-skirts, was sent to this neck of the woods, is beyond my comprehension.
Mrs. Gurley (although, growing up we always mispronounced it ‘Garley’ because we sided with my mom’s accented manner of speaking) took in my mother, fed her, gave her a wonderful home, and even set her up on dates, against Martha’s wishes (at the time she had too many boyfriends as it was back in Bogotà or something). With a name like Gurley, and it being Eastern NC, you might assume a lack of intelligence. But Doris was a college graduate, with degrees in English literature and French. She loved language, and books, so she became a teacher. Additionally, she and her husband, Molton, owned a farm, where they specialized in dairy. Mrs. Gurley had chickens. She also had Dachsunds (which would kill and eat the chickens, much to Martha’s horror) and she remained a loyal and a close friend to my mother, even as time wore on. When my two older brothers and I were born, when it was too far for my Abuelita to travel from Colombia, Mrs Gurley was always there to help and take care of us. She provided the same love and care that she did with Martha.
Since I was old enough to remember, we’d take trips to visit Doris at the old farm (since sold off, her husband passed away long before I came into this world from a heart attack). We’d count the cow herds from Raleigh to Nahunta, and when the counts rose, we knew we were getting close. Since she lived off Gurley Dairy Road, I always thought she was famous. MOM! She has her own street named after her?! and as a young child, I marveled at the expansive property, and her little white house.
Her home in reality, was nothing spectacular. Aged, vinyl siding, a relic of early 20th century model home creation. A screened in porch, red wine carpet, one of those huge wooden TVs that sat on the floor and you had to change the channel by turning a hulking steel dial (she doesn’t have the batman channel! I’d complain). There were also pictures. Tons of sepia-toned photographs of relatives, ALL over the paneled walls. People I never recognized or would never know. I recall the way her house sounded. Rather, it was almost silent, except for the sound of clocks ticking.
We often went to Gurley’s to celebrate Christ’s Resurrection (which also meant not having to go to Mass, score!). There were so many Easter egg hunts she planned with my mother. It usually turned out the same. One of my older brothers would hold me back while the other found all the eggs and they’d split the loot. The hunts mostly ended with my tears.
More prominently, I can still taste her sumptuous Southern lunches. Her kitchen was always in the midst of baking, boiling, or simmering something. The mashed potatoes and gravy, her casseroles from asparagus to mac ‘n’ cheese, fried chicken, creamed corn, pecan pies (she had her own tree) and the best green beans I ever knew. It remains my first favorite vegetable and only Mrs. Gurley knew how to make them perfect. My mom, bless her heart, could never make them quite like Doris. At home, when I’d complain about it, she would snap back — “she cooks them with bacon fat!” while throwing her hands up in the air frustrated. Because of Mrs. Gurley, at a very young age, I appreciated and loved food. Loved the way a table was set, always simply, but pristine. And it’s imprinted in my memory, the way my entire family would grow quiet while eating her meals. It was too good to ever talk, really.
After our lunches, Doris would talk to me about literature because she knew I was the nerd alert of the family that loved to read. She knew I liked scary stuff (My 8 year old self always had some R.L Stine handy), but she gave me REAL literature. An aged copy of Edgar Allen Poe’s collection of stories. The Pit and The Pendulum, The Tell-Tale Heart, The Murders of the Rue Morgue — all gruesome, and I digested them as quickly as her food.
My mother told me yesterday, that last Friday, Mrs Gurley passed away at 95. I didn’t have a chance to say goodbye. Thankfully, my mother was able to sit with her, during one of her last days, and express how grateful she was to have this wonderfully generous woman bring her in as if she was her own, and that she would miss her. Doris said she’d miss her too. Even as an elderly woman, without one of her eyes, and blind in the other, she continued to analyze poetry (her favorite) until her death, headed the gardening squad at her retirement home, and never missed asking about me and if I was still reading and writing. She always remembered… her memory, unlike her body, never aged.
When we’d leave the Gurley farm, whenever our visits with Doris had ended, our bellies full, and our spirits high, my mom would carefully back us out in our green Plymouth mini van. Mrs. Gurley would, without fail, stand at the end of the driveway, waving us off. As we rolled away, and as Doris got smaller in our wake, she never stopped waving. She always waved until I couldn’t see her anymore.