(My grandmother would have been 115 today, January 24, 2020, if she had not passed away a month before my first child was born in 1994. I love to imagine her laughing in heaven--at her jokes and everyone else's!)
“Where're we going?” Grandmama, buckled in tight, sat in the passenger’s seat of her ancient sedan.
“How long’s it going to take us?” Grandmama stared out her window; her bright eyes seeming to take in the scenery. Mother knew better. Dementia clouded all of Grandmama’s experiences these days.
“Well, it’s about 15 miles,” she told her mother, “ It'll take us about 20 minutes.”
“Oh.” Grandmama nodded and slipped back into the mystery of her musings.
It was hard for Mother. Time was when she and her mother could talk without pause about anything. Once a vibrant, feisty, confident woman, Grandmama had been slowly slipping away for years. This meek soul who now inhabited her body often seemed like a stranger to her beloved daughter, my mother.
In a moment, though, Grandmama perked up again.
“Where’re we going?” she asked, looking over at the one person she always remembered.
“We’re going to Loris, Mother, to the Doctor’s office.”
“Hmm. How long you think it’s going to take us?” Grandmama asked, clueless.
“Well,” Mother said, “It’s about 15 miles. It should take us about 20 minutes.”
“Oh.” Grandmama nodded and turned back towards the passenger window.
The silence didn’t last long.
“Where’re we going?” Grandmama, smiling innocently, looked at Mother, waiting for her to answer.
Mother took a deep breath. “Actually,” she said, “We’re, uh, going to the Doctor’s office. It’s in, ya know, Loris.”
Grandmama nodded, but wanted to know more. “So, how long’s it going to take us to get there?”
Mother unfazed replied again, “It should take us about 20 minutes. It’s about 15 miles.”
“Oh,” Grandmama said. “Well. I guess I ought to know by now. I've asked you three times.”
On June 10, 1925, before God and the witnesses present, Mabel Louise Cobb, 20, and Jesse D. Martin, 23, promised to love and cherish each other as long as they both should live. And that’s what they did. For better, for worse, from Georgia to Cuba to Brazil and back to Georgia again; in sickness and in health and through the darkness of dementia. They loved (three boys and two girls; 11 grandchildren) and they lost (their oldest daughter in 1961: she was only 33 years old. . .).
By 1989, when Granddaddy’s death parted them, my grandparents had been married for 64 years. Oh, how they loved each other! Ten years earlier, reflecting on 54 years of marriage, Grandmama (then 74) wrote to my parents who had been married for 19 years at the time, and had three children of their own. She thanks them for the anniversary card they had sent and proceeds to describe what marriage in the golden years was like for them. Here is what she said.
We do feel most blessed to be as well as we are at our age. And to be as thoughtful and considerate of each other, but as the years go by, one learns that there’s much more to love than meets the eye when we start out our marriages. True love calls for lots of giving and taking. We have to learn to realize we aren’t always right. Even after as many years as you two have been married, there’s still things you probably don’t realize will draw you closer as years continue to pass until finally you become so close you can’t imagine life without one another. It’s a glorious feeling to know that there’s one who loves you and wants never to have to give you up, yet we have to realize any time after we get our age that God could call either of us any day. So, you must live each day for each other and thank Him so much for another day together.
My Grandmama wrote that in 1979, back when people worried about gas prices and the cost of long distance phone calls, and when computers were housed in large buildings rather than back pockets. But the wisdom she shares is truly timeless. When Mother uncovered this letter recently, she said to me, “It’s amazing how her letter perfectly describes how your daddy and I feel about our marriage.” (Mother and Daddy got married in 1960 and just celebrated their 57th anniversary.) Every morning, my parents have breakfast together and share a time of prayer. Every prayer begins like this, “Thank you God for the gift of a new day.”
Today is the 113th anniversary of Grandmama’s birth. There are lots of things about Grandmama that I could celebrate—her love of the color purple (my favorite too); her delicious homemade biscuits; her hearty, full-body laugh. But today I think I will celebrate by trying to apply Grandmama’s words, not just to my 30-year marriage, but to all my relationships. I will try to be thoughtful and considerate, to remember I’m not always right, and to thank God for the gift of a new day. I hope you’ll celebrate with me!
My grandmother was born January 24, 1905; it's hard to say when the dementia began, but by the mid 80's it was full blown. I always said that as the dementia advanced Grandmama got sweeter and sweeter to the point that she was just pure sugar by the time she passed away in 1994. For the last five years of her life, Grandmama lived with her youngest daughter, my mother. In this post from 2009, I recall some snippets from those last few years.
“I know someone who will take care of me,” my grandmother told us from the shelter of my mother’s arms. We’d been picking on her—trying to awaken the feisty grandmama we used to have before dementia kidnapped her. She had had about enough of our shenanigans when my mother walked through the room. Grandmama pushed herself up from her chair, walked straight to Mother, tucked her head into Mother’s shoulder, and looked back at us, triumphant.
She was right. My mother, her daughter, took care of her, loving her through the fog of memory loss. Mother loved Grandmama enough to keep her busy, despite the obvious limitations. She kept a jar of coins handy and would pour it out on the kitchen table for Grandmama. “Could you count these for me, Mother,” my mother would say to hers, “It would sure be a big help to me.” And Grandmama would set about sorting and stacking, making sure her towers of coinage were just so. Mother had Grandmama count those coins, water plants, or fold clothes because everyone needs to feel needed. Everyone needs something to do.
Mother loved Grandmama enough to bless her with beauty. On the screened-in porch where Grandmama loved to sit in her rocking chair, Mother kept flowering plants in Grandmama’s favorite colors. “Look Grandmama! Isn’t that beautiful?” we’d say, pointing to a plant she had already seen a dozen times. She would turn to look, her eyes brightening at the sight that was brand new to her. “Ewwweee! What a pretty flower! Look at those purple blooms. You know, I’ve always loved purple.” We knew.
Mother loved Grandmama enough to keep telling her story to her. “Mother, how many children did you and Daddy have?” Mother would prompt her. “Well, now, let me see. . .” Grandmama would begin, searching the faces in her memory. She loved thinking about her children, even though she didn’t really recognize their adult versions any more.
Watching Mother care for Grandmama back then, I wanted to put into words somehow my appreciation for the sacrifices she was making. (Grandmama and Granddaddy had moved in with my parents shortly before my Granddaddy died in 1989.) I wrote this poem in the early 90’s in honor of Mother, in memory of Grandmama.
TO MY GRANDMOTHER’S KEEPER
In the darkness of her mind,
children blend with siblings;
reality slips into the forgotten past.
to mouth, tumble out in jumbled speech.
Alone, but not,
She searches her audience
for a sign
her foggy eyes
find your focus;
her life-worn frame
folds into your
the gray cloud of her mind releases showers of tears.
With firm assurance
call her in
from her private storm.
Knowing it is her greatest fear, you tell her,
(again):“You will never be alone. Never.”
And fleeting comfort shelters her.
And that is all you need.
Happy Birthday Grandmama!
(Published in Georgia Magazine, 1999, written from the perspective of my 12 year old self.)
In August, Brinson, Georgia is the hottest place on earth. The heat hangs visible outside the windows of our brand new 1972 Chrysler Town and Country wagon; the streets bubble with melted tar. We hate the heat, but the bugs revel in it. Swarming gnats lend nervous motion to the quiet countryside. They enjoy this time of day when they are even more irritating than the local mosquitoes.
Brinson: it’s hardly a plush vacation spot.
Yet we vacation here every summer; to us, there is no place more magical than this town because this is where our grandmama lives. From our car windows, we spy endless fields laid out with a buffet of giant jelly rolls. Black crows swoop down in an attempt to make a dent in the feast before them. As the station wagon bumps its way over Brinson’s railroad tracks, trees, bewitched by a past field fire and left unproductive, beckon us down the road to Grandmama’s house. In daylight, these witchy trees are harmless. But when night falls, they will taunt us with their sharp, unnatural forms and earn their nickname.
The short dirt path that is Grandmama’s driveway leads us to the back of her white clapboard farmhouse. We run toward the house, our flip-flops squishing rotten figs fallen from Grandmama’s trees. Grandmama is waiting for us at the door when we bound up the brick steps. The screen door, speckled with holes repaired with criss-crossed fishing twine, squeaks a welcome. Its spring, having lost its spring decades earlier, leaves the door clinging to the side of the house.
Quickly wiping our figgy feet on the rubber door mat provided for that purpose, we spill into the dining room. The wood paneled room, made bright both by the wall of open windows on one side and the gallery of family photos on another, welcomes us with a flood of the familiar. The table dominates the room. An enormous oak construction, it is thick and sturdy enough to withstand armies of excited grandchildren. An oscillating fan keeps a summer breeze moving through the room. We make silly sounds in front of the fan, just to hear how it contorts our voices. We take turns; we laugh; we are at Grandmama’s house.
The kitchen hints that Grandmama has spent her day laboring in love over her famous Southern fare. The sweet smell of just-baked peach cobbler directs us to the bubbling desserts anxiously waiting for us to finish our supper. Black-eyed peas, seasoned with a meaty ham bone, simmer in one corner of the stove; green beans from the garden are cooking on low on another eye. Fresh corn, shucked and silked, is piled pyramid style in a pan on the counter. And judging from the potato peelings heaped in a bucket by the door, supper will include real mashed potatoes, not the boxed kind we always have at home. The biscuits aren't ready yet. But the fresh baked aroma floating from the oven lets us know they are coming.
Later, we'll go out and rock on the front porch and tell stories about the abandoned school across the street. We will walk to the country store on the corner or go to visit our cousin up the road. Maybe we'll even search the garden for a ripe watermelon. But for now, we'll just stay right here in Grandmama’s dining room and wait for supper.
Published September 2009
Grandmama Mitchell didn’t play.
She gave birth to eight children. Seven of them grew to be adults; she buried her oldest daughter when little Annie was just eight years old. A couple of decades after that funeral, her husband, my grandfather, died in an automobile accident that very literally shook their town. She sent a son or two off to Vietnam; buried a daughter-in-law who left two of her young grandchildren motherless; and watched her children suffer divorce, abuse, and countless other frustrations.
So, Grandmama didn’t play. Her life was just too hard.
Grandmama had . . . well, let’s see . . . at least 21 grandchildren, and I have no idea how many great-grands. Most of her kids and their families lived within Georgia’s state lines. But not us. Daddy, Grandmama’s middle boy, wound up staying in North Carolina after completing his seminary degree. (He and Mother married after her college graduation and before Daddy started grad school.) So, to the Mitchells, my brother, sister, and I were the cousins-from-far-away.
Every summer, we piled into our station wagon du jour, and drove the long, hot hours to visit Grandmama. She lived in an old farm-like house that made no pretenses. Springs had long since been sprung—in the screen doors and in the mattresses. Flies buzzed in unafraid of Grandmama’s lethal swat; mice, unaware of the loaded traps waiting for them, just came right on in. Box fans propped in the windows dispelled any hope visitors might have of really cooling off. (During South Georgia summers, a fan just doesn’t do the job—no matter how hard it tries.)
The front porch, though, offered those same guests their choice of seats—plenty of rockers to go around. Grandmama’s doors were always unlocked, and she could always squeeze one more around the table. So it was to that hot, old, creaky house that my family rushed with annual urgency. Because it was Grandmama’s house, that’s why, and it was the most wonderful place in the world.
Grandmama welcomed us with hot baked peach cobbler, homemade biscuits, and a watermelon fresh from the garden. She would have been shelling peas before we arrived—her efforts bubbled on the stove in anticipation of a family supper. Everybody knew we were on the way; Grandmama was expecting all the kids in time for the blessing.
It always baffled me. How could my no-nonsense Grandmama make such a big deal out of us when she had so many other grandchildren to love? I mean, the three of us together made up only a little over ten percent of the total. Yet she always worked so hard to make things special just for us. Amazing.
Grandmama seemed to enjoy our visits so much:
I remember her laughing at the stories told round the table.
I remember her—a bright twinkle in her eyes—fussing at the men who would always be her boys.
I remember her, hands in the front pockets on her house dress, coming in before we went to sleep that first night and asking my mother if we had everything we needed: “There’s plenty of clean towels and bath cloths there for you.”
A week later, when our last day popped up out of nowhere, I remember Grandmama fretting over us as we prepared to go. It seemed she didn’t want the week to be over any more than we did.
Back in the station wagon, we’d wave good-bye to Grandmama who stood outside the back door, watching us go. She’d wave for a minute, then fold her arms at her chest, then wave again. The tears she had kept in submission throughout the day, always got the better of her before we were out of the driveway. I don’t know when she went back inside after she’d seen us off. As far as I know, she stood right there until we got back the next year.
No, Grandmama Mitchell didn’t play. But Grandmama Mitchell loved. She loved well.
It’s Grandparent’s Day (no matter what the calendar says). Call your grandparents. Tell them you love them.