Remembering Celestine Sibley
On Thursday night, I had the unexpected pleasure of speaking to a local chapter of P.E.O. International. The meeting was held at the home of Gilda and Lee Morris in Brookwood Hills, a gracious neighborhood that sprawls on the eastern side of Peachtree Street, opposite Piedmont Hospital. The chapter is 148 years old; many of the women I met were second-, third-, or even fourth-generation members of the group.
When Claudia Gimson asked if I’d be interested in speaking one Sunday during coffee time, after church, she explained that memberships in this chapter were largely passed down from mother to daughter—sort of like a “secret society,” she joked.
I didn’t even know what P.E.O. meant until I arrived for the meeting and asked Lee, a fellow parishioner at St. Dunstan’s and also Fulton County Commissioner of District 3 (which covers all of Buckhead, Sandy Springs and parts of Midtown). “Papa Eats Out,” he said with a big smile (Gilda allows him to stay for the social time and the program, but he has to leave during business, he says).
“We’re not quite that secret,” Claudia chimed in, and then she explained a little more about the philanthropic organization that supports the advancement of women through things like scholarships, grants, awards and low-interest loans.
My talk was about a book I wrote more than 16 years ago; although I was a little embarrassed to be talking on such an old topic, I also was glad to do it on the off chance I could divest myself of a few more copies, thereby freeing up closet space. To that end, I made it a little easier by offering signed books, with proceeds going to one of the P.E.O.’s many charities.
Celestine Sibley: A Granddaughter’s Reminiscence was published about a year after my grandmother’s death. When it came out, it was welcomed amid much fanfare with 400 of my grandmother’s readers and friends coming out to the Atlanta History Center for the inaugural signing. She was a reporter, columnist, and author of 30-something books, noted in the various obituaries, including The New York Times, as a Southern icon.
At the end of that year, I had done some 200 speaking engagements and book signings and was pretty much tired of the sound of my own voice. I stopped doing the talks because it felt a little too much like being a professional granddaughter. See, when I started writing for a living and publishing books and things, it was unnerving not to be able to appear anywhere as myself; and this book was sort of the cherry on top of that unfolding experience (i.e., because I was the namesake, the minute anyone heard my name in book and reading circles, they could no longer see me as an individual person, just a conduit to someone they admired: “Oh, I loved your grandmother!” was the happy refrain—and there the conversation ended).
As I’ve gotten older, though, it’s changing. I think it’s a little like a story my grandmother used to tell about a man whistling at her on the street and how she wasn’t insulted at all; in fact, she stopped to thank him. When you don’t get so many whistles anymore, the individual ones have more meaning.
The book wasn’t about her celebrity as a columnist and author anyway, just simple things that make up life, like walking in the woods, hiding dirty dishes under clean towels, sleeping spoon fashion, and vinegar and beer hair rinses—the stuff that endears all of us to our grandmothers.
Anyway, before the talk, Lee and Gilda asked for a show of hands around the room to see how many P.E.O. women remembered Celestine Sibley. Maybe 25 percent actually did, and that was oddly liberating.
Even more liberating, however, was the conversation afterward, which mostly revolved around the love and specialness of grandmothers, and around the idea of committing our memories of them to paper. And I recommend it—more than 15 years after her death, I can still read my then-fresh memories, and the sound of my granny’s voice becomes present again, as if she were sitting in the passenger’s seat, telling me to speed up (I got two tickets that way) or reminding me that no one can hurt your feelings unless you let them.