Written by Kelli Fuqua Hart, Ocala Magazine Executive Editor
I lost my great-grandmother, Ida Mae Fuqua, in 2006, when I was pregnant with my daughter. The events surrounding her death always weighed on me because for 27 years, my great grandmother and I had been extremely close. Yet, the day she passed, unexpectedly, I couldn’t have been much farther away, having just landed in San Diego, CA.
My great grandmother was not sick. She was of sound mind and lived in the same home she had lived in with my great grandfather for decades. There was no cause for concern that would have made me think my trip to California was in bad time. However, only hours after landing, I learned of her passing, which happened peacefully in the midst of her afternoon nap.
I struggled for a few years, having not been there to see her or be with her after they rushed her to the hospital, where they said she was still alive but, comatose, for only a brief moment before finally drawing her last breathe. And I wasn’t there.
I spent one night in San Diego before flying back to Ocala to lay her to rest. I had my solace by her side, saying my “goodbyes” and asking her to stay with me and watch over me, knowing I was about to be a new mother… A terrified new mother.
Years passed and needless to say not a day went by that I didn’t think of or miss her. The home she had lived in for years- the home we created so many memories in- had ended up in the hands of my great aunt who used it for collateral of some kind and ultimately let it end up in foreclosure- a devastating blow to the entire Fuqua family.
Seeing it boarded up and crumbling for quite some time, I finally decided, one beautiful Saturday morning, to pay it a visit one last time before it would belong to a stranger.
I called my dad and told him of my planned visit and he offered to go with me. My hope was that maybe I’d find an old flowerpot or red wagon that I could take home with me as another memory of my time with Ida Mae.
The house was locked tight, windows boarded and the secret key she would leave in her hiding place was now gone, cobwebs in its place.
I wanted desperately to get inside and see, one last time, the stove she used to make her famous Mountain Dew Cakes. I wanted to see if it still smelled like “Nanny” or if maybe there was anything in there, anything, that I could salvage.
I do not know what made me do it, but I took my set of keys- which had my own house key, my shop key, my car key- and I began to try them, one by one, in her door.
One by one, I was defeated until… Click! My house key unlocked her door. Shocked, I took a step back in disbelief. Of all of the keys in the world and all of the locks, mine and hers matched perfectly.
I called for my father, who was equally astonished and somewhat creeped out, and we carefully entered the empty home.
Nothing felt the same. It was cold and empty, not warm and buzzing like it had been. The counter radio wasn’t playing. The sun wasn’t shining through some of the ugliest drapes you’d ever seen. There was no precious Ida Mae to meet me, offering me a glass of her sweet tea.
I fumbled through drawers but they were empty. The furniture was gone. Everything was gone. Except in one back bedroom, where I found a few garbage bags filled with newspapers and trash, mainly packing materials. I still ripped through them all looking to find any last trace piece of my great grandmother.
In the last bag, under piles of paper, I found her old pocketbook. She carried it with her everywhere. I hugged it because It was the last piece of her I would ever have. It was light, apparently empty, but I opened it to put it to my nose in hopes it would still smell like Wrigley’s gum- her favorite.
In opening the bag, I realized there were no contents, or so I thought. I caught a glimpse of something thin that I believed would be an old receipt or tissue remnant. Instead, what I found in an otherwise empty, old, thrown-in-the-trash and sitting for years bag, was a picture- a picture of me.
On the same day I randomly and unexplainably decided to visit this old empty home, succeeding at using an unfamiliar key in a mismatched lock, digging through garbage only to find a treasure, there was this bag with my picture!
I believe it to be a sign. I never really believed in signs, but the feeling that came over me was more than coincidence. My great grandmother showed me love that day, years after she had left the Earth. None of that experience was coincidence. It was her leading me to something tangible that said, “I love you.”