Yesterday was my grandmother’s memorial celebration, held on our family farm in Ellicott City, Maryland. It was also the day that Hurricane Irene hit America’s East Coast. (Ellicott City is a couple of hours from the coast so all we got were some downed trees and power outages. But still.)
My grandmother’s name was Frances Wellford Mason, born Frances Colquhoun Wellford. Colqhuoun is pronounced “Cuh-HOON”, which is how she got the nickname Cooncie. All of her grandchildren called her that.
Cooncie died peacefully in her sleep, in the big farmhouse she lived in for 60 years. She was nearly 92. When Cooncie died, there was a small wire-and-bead elephant sitting on the windowsill in her room; I gave her the elephant when I visited from Joburg last November. Cooncie loved elephants and had always dreamed of going to Africa to see them in the wild. This elephant, made in Melville by my friends Samuel and Silas, became a precious possession of Cooncie’s in the months before she died. My aunts are planning to have her buried with it.
There is a lot I’d like to tell you about Cooncie’s amazing life. There’s also a lot I’d like to tell you about Cooncie’s farm, Squirrel Hill, which was a second home to me growing up.
There’s a lot I’d like to say about Cooncie’s crazy, quirky, fascinating family, who made me into the person I am today.
Christmas at Squirrel Hill, 1976. Left to right: my great-grandfather Poppa-Daddy, Cooncie, Jack, my uncle Edmund, my aunt Mary Mac, me, and my mother Jeanie. That bulge under my mom’s dress is my sister, Susanna. She was born three months later. (Photo: Tenney Mason)
But, jeez. Where do I start? There are enough stories to fill a set of encyclopedias.
I know this is cheating, but here is the link to Cooncie’s obituary in the Baltimore Sun. It’s very well written and gives a nice overview of her life.
I had also planned to show you lots of great pictures from yesterday’s celebration. This is probably the last time that all of my sprawling family tree, whose roots have spread across the world, will be gathered together at Squirrel Hill. But I’m afraid I didn’t do the greatest job recording the day.
First off, it’s hard to take pictures during a hurricane. Most of the party guests were inside the dark house or huddled in tight groups on the front porch, shivering and trying to avoid being rained on. Also, it’s hard to take pictures while talking to people – especially people you haven’t seen in 20 or 25 years. And especially in my case. I had some variation of the following conversation about two dozen times yesterday:
Person: “Hi! You’re Heather, right? Tenney’s daughter?”
Me: “Yes! Great to see you…!” Fumble desperately for Person’s name. Give up.
Person: “How are you? What are you up to these days?”
Me: “Well…I live in South Africa now.”
Person: “South Africa?! Wow!”
A torrent of questions followed, the most popular of which were:
- “What do you do in South Africa?”
- “Why did you move there?”
- “Where do you live in South Africa?” (The only easy question.)
- “What’s it like living in Johannesburg?” (Often pronounced YO-hann-ess-berg)
And then, my favorite:
- “Is it safe in YO-hann-ess-berg?”
So I didn’t take as many nice photos as I’d hoped. But here are a few.
My father delivers a eulogy about Cooncie’s life. He talked about her love for animals, her passion for historical preservation, and her hard work raising five children and running Squirrel Hill. He also told us that Cooncie once won a Barbara Bush look-alike contest. Dad spent hours locked in his room over the past week, working on the eulogy. He did a great job. (Photo: 2Summers)
Donald Savoy, otherwise known as Man-Boy. Donald is a retired Arabber. Arabbers sell fruits and vegetables from horse-drawn carts in the streets of Baltimore City. Most people don’t know this tradition still exists in Baltimore. Cooncie was fiercely committed to helping the Arabbers maintain their way of life, and to helping their ponies. Along with my aunt Mary Mac and uncle Steve, Cooncie founded the Arabber Preservation Society and made Squirrel Hill a refuge for retired Arabber ponies. (Photo: 2Summers)
It was a long trip home. But I’m really glad I made it back to say one last good-bye to Cooncie.