We went home to Tennessee for Christmas. This year was different from so many others because on the 23rd, I had a reunion with my Latin class. I’ve spoken before of my teacher, Grady Warren. This year, the students that he and his wonderful wife Kaye taught over the course of 3 decades came together to honor them. It was fabulous: we had pictures from old Junior Classical League conventions and got to try and figure out who was who. Great fun.
And, it leads me to a story…
Once upon a time, I was a toddler who lived in a tiny house on old highway 79 in Oakwood, Tennessee. Because it was a highway, the only little girl I was allowed to play with was the one who lived three houses up: Tammy Milliken. She was smaller than me, a tiny little thing with a mop of brown curls and big, sweet eyes. She was the only child that came to the Millikens, who were a hard-working farm family. My mom would take me over to her house and we were allowed to play sedately in her fenced-in back yard. Eventually, we moved. I didn’t run into Tammy again until high school.
When we met up again, we were rivals. In Latin, we both studied mythology; I beat her at all the conventions. In forensics, we both competed in extemporaneous speaking; she beat me soundly for four years. We hung out together at conventions, where we became great friends. I hooked her up with her boyfriend, who went to my school. When she turned 16, she bought a car with money she’d saved for years—picking tobacco for her father. In every way, Tammy was a model student, daughter, and friend. Except for the fact that she beat the tar out of me at every debate tournament, she and I grew closer every year.
Our senior year, we’d decided to both go to Austin Peay State University. We had agreed to be debate partners—after all, how could anyone beat us? It was going to be fabulous.
We had it all planned out.
Two weeks before we started school, Tammy was killed by a drunk driver. What makes her case so different(odd? horrible? sad?) is that the man who killed her was driving a dump truck at 7 a.m. while still inebriated. He crossed the median and hit her head-on. She was one mile from her house, on her way to see her grandmother. Her funeral was the last time I had seen most of the people I saw last Sunday. We’d huddled together in great clumps at the funeral home, shocked, dazed and angry. Long lines of adolescents filed in front of her coffin, to take one last look at Tammy, whose face was miraculously intact, and to hold the hands of her stunned parents. I remember leaning over to kiss her and then saying to her mother, “You know Tammy was like a sister to me, Mrs. Milliken…” before choking up and moving on.
So on Sunday, as a group of Latin geeks from the 80s found themseleves in the same place at the same time, we all took a moment to remember Tammy and to honor her place among us. She was the first, and the hardest, loss to our number. For a little while, it was like she was there with us, laughing and falling back into the old jokes.
Strangely, I didn’t see a picture of her. I don’t know if I just missed it or if there really wasn’t one. It didn’t matter; her face has swum before my eyes pretty consistently over the last few days.
Yesterday, I went with my father to visit my grandparents’ grave. While I watched my aunt adjust flowers on their headstone, I looked around. Fifteen rows from my grandparents, I saw two headstones that read “Milliken.” One was a dual stone, only one side filled for Mr. Milliken. Mrs. Milliken lives alone now, on a farm not far from the cemetery. But next to him was Tammy’s grave. I hadn’t been there since she’d been interred. There were fresh flowers there, and it was there that I saw her picture. She smiled out at me from the headstone, the braces she’d been buried in glinting slightly from the flash. I smiled back, and laid a single flower on her grave.
There really isn’t a point to this story, unless it's that I’ve noticed lately that graves have become associated with holidays. I paid my pilgrimage to my mother’s grave this morning as we were leaving town. Tammy's was the first grave to bring pain and confusion to my life; it was fitting that I should remember her along with this last, more vicious pain. Perhaps you, who are my friends and peers and audience, would like to know that once upon a time in a tiny hamlet buried in Tennessee, there was a girl named Tammy Milliken who was everything that I am not. And twenty three years after her death, a group of 30- and 40- and even a few 50- and 60- somethings that gathered together in a church hall in Tennessee who remembered, and missed, her still.
In this season of resolutions and gift exchanges, it may help to know that you don’t have to be great, or successful, to make an impact on this world. Consider that my gift to you.