Soulsister.

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If you’re reading this, chances are you’re a friend who hasn’t met Ginny Meeks. I want to tell you who she is, but please, sit down and make time. She’s difficult to summarise. Ginny isn’t simply precious or rare – and she’d be the first to tell you that you are. This is an attempt to describe a kind of energy, of magic, that she and her family radiate which makes many of us want to be a better version of ourselves… It’s selfish therapy to write this, of course, and it’s also a love letter, but a hug worth sharing. You won’t get the chance to meet her now, but you can meet my fragments, best accompanied with a glass of wine.

It’s hard to pluck a linear strand of story from the blur of energy about one person. We’ve all experienced individuals who emit energy and others who absorb or dull it. Ginny is a light source with the full spectrum: an intimidatingly neon cloud of Stax, Motown, Grits, Sugar-Hill-Gang recitals, chaotic pet dogs, unrepeatable facial expressions, late-night stomping on top of antique furniture, limericks, cruising with the top down, hitting the gas, debilitating sarcasm, exasperating attention to detail, fierce loyalty and a laugh as famous as she is. And also quieter moments – stolen corners with Jane Austen, legs hanging off the dock above the creek, tearful eyes filling with easy pride for others, filling up diaries, investing in experiences, decrying idiocy,  Gone with the Wind, and thousands of handwritten thank-you notes.

It’s now six months since she left us, but she infiltrates hundreds of actions, decisions and thoughts every day. In each of her relationships, she powered up every channel she could for conversations and real friendships – far more than you or I will achieve in a lifetime, to a degree that’s hard to fathom; a seemingly unstoppable flow that somehow, hundreds of us received huge chunks of. These cartoonish chunks of affection were backed up by reason, warmth and humour, dished out in mammoth quantities.

Ginny was, and is, an astute original, the conversation-starter-and-finisher, a firmly-fixed moral compass, confidante, and of course, sister, daughter, mother and best friend. She’s been better at some roles than others, and much, much better than most, at all of them. A  thousand labels without trying to be, she and her family, and mine, are my icons and treasures.

After two horrible years, in which her closest went through more than most of us could ever endure, Ginny’s body denied us much of the time we wanted, but everything she is is shared among us and treasured.

I tried to explain her to someone who will meet her family next year for the first time. Just as people meet slices of my father through my siblings, my mum, his friends or me, there are always pieces of our souls to be found, dispersed but clear as day. He’s met many of Ginny’s already.

A couple of months ago, standing on her mother’s dock in Beaufort, South Carolina, beside an empty osprey nest and a silent but beautifully dark, teeming creek, her best friend read out the same quote quote I’d found half a world away, and also found comfort in, from Maya Angelou: “…People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

So how did she make people feel? Her sister Sydney can describe Ginny much, much better than I ever can.

“Ginny Meeks lit up a room even when she was a child. She was inquisitive yet polite, assertive yet deferential. She was wise beyond her years and yet every bit filled with childlike wonder. She was my protector and biggest cheerleader. As she grew older, she became the protector and cheerleader of countless others.”

Ginny was the biggest reader of this indulgent noticeboard of mine. She told me when she was proud, said “I love you” liberally, and gave the most brutally honest feedback with warmth – so you couldn’t even dispute it.

Powered by the intention of making things better, right or enjoyable (albeit often by laughing loudly at things that are plain stoopid), she energised us with that ‘insatiable spark’ so tediously attributed to many, but trademarked by all three Meeks ladies; Ginny, Sydney and their mother Lila.

Understanding these women requires understanding the setting; Beaufort, South Carolina, the location of what Sydney describes as ‘an idyllic Lowcountry childhood’ – the setting that Lila and her husband Buster built around the girls and each other.

“We were children of the ‘70s and ‘80s, listening to our 45s and our cassette tapes while dancing on green shag carpet. We vacationed with mom’s family in Pensacola and Fripp Island and with Dad’s at Pawleys Island every summer. We lived for the creek and ocean waves and time with cousins and best friends.” 

My family held on tightly to theirs and ‘theirs’ is ‘ours’. I often try to explain that while Lila, Ginny, Sydney and their families are not blood relatives, they are our family. I have three sisters; Jessica, and Ginny and Sydney Meeks. My mother in Solihull loves a mother in Beaufort – and these women support each other, and hold each other’s grandchildren as silver-haired sisters with an ineffectual ocean between them. The Meeks probably have the hugest ‘non biological’ family you’ve ever seen, and a steady army of sisters who lost one of the best.

It’s fair to ask – how does a British family from the West Midlands find its heart in the Lowcountry? In 1981, (pre-me), the intrepid John Butcher (Butch) took his wife, the tolerant but cool-for-school Anne Butcher, on a road-trip down the east coast of the United States, bringing a 6-year-old and 4-year-old for the ride. Obligingly, Anne agreed, on the condition of one week at a beach, somewhere in this Monty-Python-esque journey.

Butch picked the most wildlife-tastic beach he find. Pre-google, he’d read that Fripp Island was home to deer, pelicans, loggerhead turtles, osprey, colossal cockroaches (sweetly named palmetto bugs), and an abundance of fauna to geek out on. While Anne was bronzing, and Butch spying on or tormenting wildlife, (he always resented David Attenborough for having the job he wanted most), my brother, 6-year-old Ben shouted at 6-year-old Chilton, a little girl in the kids’ pool who couldn’t pronounce his name without a southern lilt.

 “It’s NOT Biyenn – it’s Ben! Say Ben!”.

Butch met Gene. Anne met Beth. The dentist met the member of parliament and the  teacher met the town-polymath. The Beach Boys met the Beatles, and a sharp Solihull schoolteacher became firm friends with a southern sorority sister. Pre-Skype or WhatsApp, the Graces and Butchers began a friendship, that with annual trips, letters, phone-calls, Christmas cards and a steady exchange of southern hospitality, incredible kindness and eccentric humour, is now three generations and four decades deep.

There are too many adventures to list here, but plenty of music, wigs, beer, buckets of crab, in-jokes,  traffic-cones on heads, more road-trips, infinite bug-bites, silliness, and later, grief, across what is now several families on both sides of the Atlantic; Graces, Butchers, Meeks, Birchalls, Bookers, Tuppers..  and now Fowlers, Shumans, Simpsons, Hefners and Simmons.

It’s strange that the friendships that are among the most valuable are the ones I was born into and didn’t even get a say in; an established alliance begun by six year olds in a pool.

The Low Country is the captivating setting for Forest Gump and Gone with the Wind, and a corner of the world that’s uncommonly beautiful and uncommonly kind. With spanish moss hanging from the trees, impeccable “Yes Mam’s” and grace before grits, it’s easy to romanticise, but after living in five cities, four nations and three continents, after thirty years of coming back to Beaufort, I can say it earnestly.

Beaufort is an intricate community, governed by church-faring morals, easy smiles, impeccable manners, boat-rides and good beer. It’s home to the oldest African Baptist church in America, a block from Lila’s home, a stone’s throw from the Episcopal church that weaves through so many family stories. The main street is alive and well, albeit, peppered with out-of-town-golfers, but has not given in to Mall-life, and at the Post Office, or out at Walgreens, there’s always a face you know.

Downtown, kids play ball among streets of antebellum homes, and galleries and antique stores sit pertinently between ancient trees – watered by expensive pet dogs. Baseball-capped families carry shrimp buckets, ice boxes and gluten-free cookies, and the always-encroaching K-Marts, Wal-Marts and Real Estate Developers creep into town. Beaufort smells like creek mud, cinnamon cookies, damp wood and Elizabeth Arden. And among this, my parents fell for a congregation of smart, funny people, the kind Dad sought out in any country – interested and interesting – in that order – like Ginny and Sydney’s parents Buster and Lila.

The Meeks settled in Beaufort in the 1970s. Lila was a lecturer in American literature at the University of South Carolina, and Buster, a lawyer after retiring early from the military. They shared the same wit, warmth and lack of falseness, and internal libraries of general knowledge that could hold down any conversation well beyond small talk. With a love of good music, art, books and classic movies, both had the glint in their eye that their daughters inherited and used repeatedly to their advantage.

Buster could be found standing at the back of the group photo, or pulling a child away from calamity while holding a huge bowl of Frogmore Stew, amid loud family gatherings or barbecues disrupted by the odd hurricane. John Butcher looked forward to stolen conversations with Buster and Gene, about history, humour, music, politics or the ‘opinionated’ women in their lives, typically providing their own louder, running commentary on procedings.

Sydney said “…It is hard to overstate how important that community is to the person that Ginny became. Everyone knows everyone, and everyone looks after everyone. When there is joy, the whole group celebrates. When there is tragedy, the community bands together to mourn and take care of each other. Ginny felt that overwhelming sense of community throughout her childhood, and she both sought it out and created it for others throughout the rest of her life.” 

Set apart from the town, over meanders of the Harbor river, along a raised road across a marshy expanse of creek, Distant Island was, and still just about is, a quietly beautiful enclave just enough out of town to be wild, but close enough to be part of that community. A part, but apart, the Meeks could find solace or company whenever they sought it, while carefully avoiding suicidal deer on the drive home.

A looping drive of fifteen houses, each with their own dock tiptoeing into the creek, Distant Island is a small kingdom shaded by trees that arch over the road like a regal tunnel through the woods. Up the drive, onto the porch, and inside the olive-green house, the walls were illuminated by Lila’s vivid print collection and the smell of books and good food. In this house, Whitman, Wharton and Faulkner vied with Little House on the Prairie, Joni Mitchell, Dolly Parton and Willie Nelson, and the girls furiously filled their journals while at least one boss-eyed Boston Terrier would be busy terrorizing seated guests or destroying elaborate table arrangements. Even just a few months ago at Sydney’s, her Terrier eliminated an entire wedge of Gruyere cheese in the nano-second we weren’t looking.

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“Our parents encouraged us to celebrate our community, and also to appreciate art, music, literature, and travel. They taught us that the place you’re from matters immensely, but that you must constantly seek out experiences far away from where you’re from in order to get a more complete picture of the world. Ginny became who she was because of the values our parents instilled in us. As for her spirit, there was never a doubt that Ginny would be confident, caring, whip-smart and devastatingly funny with Lila and Buster Meeks as parents.”

Around 1985, Ginny became the Grace’s babysitter, and in 1986 she joined them on a holiday to the UK, the year that Prince Andrew married Sarah Ferguson, and a three-year-old pigtailed Madey (me) shouted obscenities at the crowds gathering below our hotel room (under the instigation of my big brother).

That Summer, we felt the force of a few of the Meeks trademarks: sparkle in the eye, exceptional manners and lightning-fast wit. At fourteen, she understood and matched every joke (and Dad and Gene Grace were fond of deliberately trying to obscure crude jokes as part of the joke). She laughed with the adults, while being one of the kids.

While ten-year-old Ben Butcher was typically being shouted at (normally deservedly), eight-year old Jessica was in awe of this girl who was almost a woman; a mass of big, brown eighties-hair, stone washed denim and sweat-shirts. It was the warmth and the ease with which she engaged with anyone – any age, any demographic.” that would make Jess see Ginny as a role model for many stages in her life.

Straight-A student and class valedictorian, at school, Ginny was voted “Most Likely to Succeed” and both she and Sydney did. They each signed year books with smart quotes and empowering praises, but were no goody-goodies. Their originality meant they would always be the cool kids, and Beaufort Academy was not a place for Mean Girls – not when parents saw each other a minimum once a week, and every babysitter doubled up as a spare older-sibling in at least one other household. Ginny’s high-school senior quote was “Lightheartedness in the face of adversity is the sign of true courage.” She proved that more than any of us ever hoped she would have to.

After high school, she headed to an internship at the Whitehouse. A couple of America’s most powerful lobbyists today count Ginny as their closest – even if she occasionally nullified arguments with a glass of wine and no agenda but conversation.

Ginny earned a BA from North Carolina University, where she became a Tar Heel – loudly supporting UNC’s Basketball Team… To give British or Middle Eastern readers an idea of how militant perfectly-normal Americans can be about College sports, I can’t, really – except to say that the passion surrounding a collection of young men playing for team glory and not multimillion salaries creates a very authentic breed of sport and fan, and “She was incredibly skilled in the art of hating Duke,” the rival NC team.

Following time at NC with a J.D. from USC (legal qualification, not Bourbon), Ginny chose the quiet, unassuming city of Miami to pursue her Masters. In these years, there are grey areas – we know she studied hard, and possibly may have partied very hard, of course – collecting more lifelong friends along the way.

In November 1997 the Meeks, and all of us, lost Buster to a long illness that had quietly ravaged him for years. It was November 11th, Remembrance Sunday – when  Commonwealth countries remember those who gave their lives fighting for their countries. Not long after, Ginny went into organization mode, privately making sense of the biggest loss in her life by taking diligent care of others, trawling through paperwork, cases upon cases, and trying as best she could to tie up every loose end. As Sydney described it; “During law school, she single-handedly got her family through a tragedy that few people can imagine and then returned to school and finished in the top of her class”.

That year I was fifteen, and having a wretched time at a school in which I did not and could not fit in. It was either my mother’s spark of genius or madness, to send her unhappy teenager to South Carolina to stay with Beth Grace and Lila for the Summer.

It sounds awful to say it, but what was the hardest Summer in the lives of the Meeks was possibly one of the most precious of mine so far. I got to spend long moments with each of them, absorbing their humour and strength, even in their toughest moments. I got to stay up, laughing with Ginny and Sydney until 2 am for just a couple of nights in Pawley’s Island that are with me forever, and though I barely got to know Buster, I started to understand him through them.

Lila and I watched classic movies, and the Graces took me on epic road trips, and that Summer I understood that trying to fit in, to perform, or please, isn’t necessary, but being yourself is essential.

Before I had any idea of ‘strange fruit’, Lila would quote Atticus Finch to me, and in their home, where Buster had played Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Ahmad Jamal records. the community – all of it, and doing the right thing, was a given, without needing to shout about it.

Both of the girls became legal professionals who, like their father, would go out of their way to use their expertise to help whoever needed and deserved it. Sydney became a defence lawyer for individuals often from the wrong side of the tracks, for whom the legal system was not always a protective force. Ginny practiced estate law for twelve years, and like her father, was “a skilled and compassionate lawyer who went above and beyond for her clients” – many of whom she ended up befriending. A successful attorney who always gave back, always paid it forward – and was adored by her clients for it”, she provided pro-bono services to several area nonprofit organizations in their early stages, and in 2010 she became a Professor of Law.

Like her mother, Ginny could easily hold a room full of students, and explain complicated concepts with concise humour. A mentor on campus or off, fellow tutor Lisa Smith Butler described “a colleague, mentor, friend, teacher and a terrific human being. She made everyone feel comfortable and welcomed. She laughed and made us laugh. Her smile reached her eyes. When she entered a room, it lit up. She was beautiful inside and out.”

Many, many people describe how Ginny lit up a room. It happened often. They describe how she made them feel more confidant, or the air lighter – someone or something that brought positives out in people around her. People described my dad with the same quality, and I see flashes of it in my brother. I see Ginny’s fearless talking to strangers shared in my mother, and her kind but debilitating put-downs employed by my sister.

In 2002, Dad picked up Ginny’s hand on her wedding day and led her around the dance floor with pride. He whispered into her ear; “Ginny – I’m going to say what Buster would have said if he was here – don’t take any shit.” 

In December 2006, the Butchers, and all of us, lost Butch to a long struggle that had ravaged his heart for years. It was Christmas Day. In those months, as we reassessed our paths and ourselves, Jess did a Ginny, and went into organization mode, while Mum descended into the same numbness Lila had felt not long before, and both still share. Lila knew what to say, and how to say it. Jess took care of us when we couldn’t see straight, and the Graces and Meeks reached across the void.

Dad never got to meet Darden or Nolen, Ginny’s two greatest accomplishments. Darden  was born in 2005, and Nolen in 2007 and the two became the energy sources for everyone else’s giant lightbulb. I won’t begin their stories here, but the opening chapters are already brilliant.

“She was arguably the loudest and most passionate fan at every one of Darden and Nolen’s school sports games. She was best known, however, for the countless ways, large and small, in which she helped others every day of her life. Often those on the receiving end of her help were people she barely knew.”

Ginny was diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer in April 2015. With the incredible help of her family and a collective of friends who redefine the term “best friends for life”, and a medical team who did everything in their power, and then some, Ginny did her best to keep the cancer from abusing her body for as long as she could. Sydney described lighter moments during this time: “During one gruelling radiation regimen Ginny befriended one of the techs and within weeks had helped him obtain guardianship of his disabled daughter. She would schedule her own medical appointments around meetings she had with patients at an estate planning clinic at the Cancer Center.”

“To keep us going, she would wear a rasta beret with dreads. She encouraged her niece to serenade her with an ad-libbed song called “Bald Is Beautiful.” She kept the women in the infusion area laughing throughout her treatments, and would tell the patients in the waiting room “It’s OK, I talked to the doctor and he said we’re all going to be fine.”

Even before Ginny’s first round of treatment was complete, Lila was planning the celebratory trip to Europe. And you’d better believe that between Lila and Ginny, we had our month-long itinerary mapped out …six months in advance! And it was, indeed, the trip of a lifetime.”

We are each bit-parts of a greater story, in which Ginny has a lead role. It’s a funny one, brightly coloured, and ongoing, carrying all of us about it like the Harbor river.

Like Ginny, losing a much-loved father was a part of the story we never chose and wore too soon. And, like Ginny, I have a smart, fiercely funny and inspirational sister and mother who are rocks in their own rights, with no shortage of friends, extended family or stories. Losing her can inevitably become part of the fabric that defines us, and having a piece of her makes it much richer.

Ginny’s and Sydney’s children are my nephews and nieces. As they grow, all too fast, they are friends of ours in their own right – (despite not being allowed to hold a can of beer yet).

The crater left by Ginny is a gap hundreds of people wide and by its ripples, a few thousand deep, and affects many she never met. A piece is always missing, but we’re also heavier; a little bit clueless and more acutely aware – of her, of our place, of what we have. The space is deafening and very quiet, but the story, one of the hardest ones we have to tell, is also a wonderful one, that’s nowhere near finished.

I found one more quote by another female poet, Mary Oliver:

“The end of life has its own nature, also worth our attention. I don’t say this without reckoning in the sorrow, the worry, the many diminishments. But surely it is then that a person’s character shines or glooms.”

You never met Ginny. I hope now, you feel like you did. These last words are from a Whatsapp video on my battered old phone:

“Ok Madeleine. You know I don’t know how to do this stuff very well. I’ve been thoroughly enjoying having your mum here. It’s so weird talking to this dot. She has been a breath of fresh air, and the kids have loved it. I’m trying to deal with the chaemo treatment. I’ve lost all my hair again, …but I’m feeling pretty good… It sure is nice to have all of this attention from everybody – it’s overwhelming. Anyway, we do want you to come visit sometime soon, and I’ll talk to you when I have a little more energy – god – look at all the wrinkles on my face! Good god – I need to get my gap done – ugh – I’ve got a lot to do! I don’t like doing this – not in the bright sunshine anyway. It’s 80 degrees here – we’ve got the windows open. I guess it’s 80 degrees in Dubai. Urgh. I wish I had something to report, but we’re all good, and I love you, and I’m proud of you. Right. Bye.” 

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