Stories We Tell: Jeannie Puckett
(Installment 12 of 14)
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“As I remember it, and as he tells it, Ralph said I walked out to the screen porch where he was sitting after supper one day and said, ‘We have to make a change in our lifestyle. I want to move to Atlanta, where our two daughters are working and living.’ He did not put up any resistance. I think he knew that we were at the end of our ropes. We both agreed that Atlanta would be a good place for us to relocate. It was near enough to both our hometowns, but a bigger city. Of course, having our two daughters there was incentive enough.
Atlanta felt like home immediately. I am not sure why it felt that way, but it did. There were restaurants that served southern “soul food” and knew that, when you ordered “iced tea,” that meant sweet iced tea. We bought an older home built in the 1940s and settled into life in Atlanta quickly. Both of us felt a load come off from our shoulders. Having our daughters visit off and on was wonderful. Tommy was still at the University of Virginia at this time, but he came home for the holidays and summers.
Meanwhile, I was a happy camper once again! I had always had an interest in and a talent for decorating. I had managed to create a home each place we lived, using the same furniture each time we moved, trying to make it a constant, familiar place. I had also helped other military friends do the same thing for their homes.
As luck would have it, I had a first cousin who lived in Atlanta. From the moment we reconnected, I felt as if we were long lost sisters. She had a thriving decorating business in Atlanta, and when she learned of my interest in decorating, she made me an incredible offer: she would teach me the business from top to bottom and would tell me honestly if she thought I had the talent to be a designer on my own. I followed her around to all the design companies’ showrooms. I watched her put together each project. She would ask me to make the proper selection for a certain piece of furniture or for draperies. I quickly earned her confidence with my choices.
After about a year of doing this, she recommended me to a client that had come to her for a small job. The job was too small for her to take on, and the client agreed to work with me. I could not have been more excited. My cousin approved my choices, and the client accepted everything just as I had suggested. My first stamp of approval! I was ready to begin on my own.
The design business is competitive, and I quickly learned that having a Design degree did not necessarily mean that person was a good designer. There were many great designers in the Atlanta area, and some of the best were only blessed with an innate ability to create and design—not a Design degree. That bolstered my courage to feel confident in my own abilities. I also learned that my purpose was to create what the clients wanted their homes to look like—not to create a personal showcase or reflection of my talent. I tried very hard to listen to my clients and to incorporate their ideas into my design, so when I left, the work reflected their tastes, not mine. My business increased each year, and I received much self-satisfaction from the work. I was no longer wondering what I should be doing with my life. I felt I knew.
We lived in Atlanta for 11 years, and it was a very happy time for our family. I felt settled for the first time in a long time and was feeling fulfilled with my decorating business. Both girls were working in Atlanta, and when Thomas graduated from UVA, he moved immediately to New York City and entered the advertising business. During this time, both girls met the men that they would marry and started to have families of their own.
My mother was diagnosed with lung cancer, [and] . . . was given one year to live. I began to travel back and forth from Atlanta to Columbus. When in Atlanta, I felt I needed to be in Columbus, and when in Columbus, I felt I needed to be in Atlanta with Ralph. It was almost a year of being on what felt like autopilot. After my mother died, we sold the family home, as my father did not want to live there without my mother [and decided to move to Florida]. My father finally ended up living in an apartment back in Columbus, GA where he lived for five years until he developed pancreatic cancer and, shortly thereafter, died a peaceful death.
During this time period, I had my own battle with breast cancer. One night while watching TV, I discovered a small knot just under my collar bone. I was not very concerned at the time but did know I should have it checked out, which I did the next day. My doctor immediately expressed his concerns and prepared me for what was to come. I had all the necessary tests and was advised that I would only need a lumpectomy. This was performed about a week later. The doctor told Ralph not to worry—that all looked clear from tests performed at the time of surgery. When the other, more detailed test results came back from the lab, however, the news was not as hopeful. I had three lymph nodes involved, which meant I now needed to have a mastectomy. This time, Ralph was told that I had a 30 percent chance of survival. He did not share this news with me or the rest of the family. I followed up with six months of chemotherapy.
At the end of my chemotherapy, I begin to think about my future and Ralph’s future. I cannot remember when I learned about my chances of survival, but, once I knew, I began to think of Ralph’s future without me. I knew that he was not a city person and that I had loved living in Atlanta more than he did. I began to think of all the advantages for both of us if we moved to a smaller town. Columbus was the natural choice for us, as it was my hometown. I had family there and many childhood friends.
Ralph tells one story and I tell another about our decision to move. He said I just walked in one morning and announced we were moving to Columbus, and he decided he liked living with me, so he agreed! My recollection is that we had a shared conversation about the many advantages of a small town: help would be easier to find, [we had] close family [and] good friends [there], and Ralph [would be] nearer [to] a military post, which I knew he had missed since his retirement. Whatever it was that brought us to the decision, we did decide quickly to make the move. Columbus, here we come!”
Reflections from Amy:
“I felt I knew.” Jeanie says that it all made sense when she stepped into the interior design world. For me, it was endless rows of seats, a single lightbulb on an empty stage, heavy curtains. You can see the dust particles in the air when the light catches it just right. The theatre is my safe place, and, when I walked back into it after so many years away, I too felt like I knew. My heart beat slowed down, my breathing settled and my hands released all that they were holding—I was home. I had found my way back, back here and back to myself.
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