Cousin Carolyn and the Magic Carpet Ride
“Come on Beth, while Urkie’s not looking, let’s do a magic carpet ride even though she told us not to.” My cousin Carolyn’s magic carpet ride meant my sitting on top of one of our grandmother’s assortment of throw rugs and Carolyn pulling me at top speed up and down the hallways and other wooden floor rooms of Grandmother’s boarding house in Birmingham. Urkie was what Carolyn called our grandmother, much to Grandmother’s dismay. Her name was Ottie Belle Urquhart and she was a widow and the sole proprietor of a boarding house for men who lived in small towns or rural areas, and worked during the week in Birmingham for Hayes Aircraft Corporation. She also played the piano beautifully and taught lessons to Carolyn and me and a few other lucky students.
I asked Carolyn not to call Grandmother Urkie because it hurt her feelings, but Carolyn didn’t seem to mind. When I reasoned with her that we shared a last name with Grandmother and could be called Urkie too, Carolyn found that uproariously funny.
Grandmother had strict rules that we were not to go to the part of the house where the boarders lived, but as soon as Grandmother would go outside to hang clothes on the line or pick figs from her trees, Carolyn would dare me to take turns with her running back to their rooms and remembering as many things as we could about what we saw. Framed photographs, shaving kits, magazines, and maps were all fascinating to us.
We were usually there during spring break or a week in the summers when we were between the ages of nine and fourteen. Walking to Aunt Edna’s store just down the alleyway from Grandmother’s house to pick up bread or milk for the boarders made us feel important.
Carolyn, with her blonde hair, blue eyes and rail thin body was two years older than I was, and I found her to be strange, brilliant, and eternally clever. She could write a song, poem, or story in a matter of minutes. She taught me how to set a table for a queen and king by dragging out Grandmother’s china and silver and turning the dining room into something that could be found in a castle. Carolyn had never left the United States or visited a castle, but from books and her imagination, she could emulate the best of them.
She talked Grandmother into allowing us to drag out all of her makeup, and she transformed me into a princess, one who was worthy of eating in the royal dining room. Grandmother was patient and kind with Carolyn because she knew Carolyn’s daddy was an alcoholic, and her mother had a horrible temper. Carolyn, who was unfamiliar with being treated kindly, seemed to want to try Grandmother’s patience and elicit an angry response akin to what she was used to at home. I felt sad for Carolyn because my parents told me often that her parents, my aunt and uncle, beat her and her brother with a belt and left marks. Back then, we didn’t know it was called child abuse. They encouraged me to treat Carolyn with kindness because she needed it. For me, it was not hard because Carolyn clearly adored me and lived to make me happy and show me a good time.
One night when Carolyn was fourteen and I was twelve, we were staying with Grandmother for Spring Break. For some reason, the boarders were not there. We were watching the Midnight Movie on TV, an indulgence Grandmother allowed us mainly because she liked watching too. Grandmother started to cough and left the room to go find cough drops. When she returned, her face had been transformed. She said, “Beth, you better call your daddy.” Carolyn ran out the front door and I decided she had gone to get help. As we waited for the fire truck my daddy had called to come, Grandmother died of a cerebral hemorrhage. I felt guilty forever because I went out on the front porch because I was scared to see her die. I’m sure Carolyn felt bad too because she didn’t return for a long time afterward, and I’m still not sure where she went.
Carolyn’s dad, my Uncle Ralph, had returned from the war a broken man. He eventually divorced Carolyn’s mother and drank himself to death. Well, actually the gun he used on his head hastened that. Carolyn, who found him, said she never could get that image out of her head.
Carolyn’s first marriage came early and didn’t last. Her husband, a professor at Auburn University, decided he wasn’t all that ready to commit. Carolyn had become pregnant during her short marriage and lost the baby just a few days after he was born.
Later, it became clear that Carolyn suffered from depression and also COPD. Her second husband Gary, a wonderful, devoted partner, stood by her side through the ups and downs of trying to get her medication right. Carolyn called me once and told me that if Gary died of some heart issues he was having, she would kill herself and planned to leave her money and her cats to me. I told her I didn’t want either one and would rather have her.
When my family moved away from Birmingham, Carolyn asked me to promise we would always be pen pals, and we kept that up for quite awhile before drifting apart, mainly because of laziness and busy lives. Our contact was limited to quick visits to Birmingham or family reunions. Several years ago, Carolyn asked me to renew our pen pal concept, this time through email, and we did so.
Carolyn was a lifelong staunch liberal and an atheist, much to the chagrin of my Southern Baptist, Republican parents who tried to save her from these evils with no results except that she stayed angry with them most of the time. After my parents passed away, Carolyn and I stayed in very close touch by email and phone, sort of to comfort each other.
When Trump ran for office in 2016, Carolyn was at first amused and sent me funny items as I did to her. When he became President, she became despondent. She emailed her feelings to me each day. I became her sounding board. Some days Carolyn was funny, some days completely dark, but always she was clever.
I received the call from her husband Gary on Christmas afternoon, 2016. “ She’s no longer with us,” he said through his tears. While Gary had attended a Christmas breakfast, Carolyn had taken every pill she could find in the house, mostly hers, a lethal combination. The end all in one holiday morning.
The obituary Gary wrote said, Goodbye Miss Blondie, You were just too special for this world. I will miss you forever.
I miss Carolyn a little more each day as well. My older, funnier, smarter, more cynical, totally irreverent cousin is no longer just an email or phone call away.
Beth McKim grew up in Birmingham, Alabama but has for many years lived in Houston with her husband and their Labradoodle, Lucy. In addition to writing, Beth is also an actress but sees no Academy Awards in her future. Her poetry, essays and short stories have been widely published and include anthologies and online and print journals such as the Birmingham Arts Journal , Write Place at the Write Time, the Mayo Review, and the Siblings Anthology.