I typically write these on Wednesdays, but I didn’t get around to it yesterday, so here we go today. I know my grandmother isn’t a thing, but rather a person. But If I’m writing about favorites, I’d be remiss not to mention her.
Tomorrow, my grandmother turns 95 years old. That’s really kind of amazing when you think about it, especially considering the fact that a little over three years ago when I originally posted that photo, she had just been diagnosed with cancer. Before the cancer diagnosis, it was nearly impossible to tell her age; she was so very robust and busy, but over the past few years, it’s finally caught up with her. She’s a woman in her 90s and she’s slowed down a lot. She’s cancer-free now, but she’s faced some other challenges, and there have been times over the past few years when it wasn’t clear if she was going to make it or not, yet she perseveres. One of the main things I love about my grandmother is that she’s a tough old bird.
My parents split when I was 2 years old, so I don’t even remember a time when they were together, and when I was a kid I spent a lot of time with my grandparents while my mom was at work. When I try to remember what those times were like, staying with both of them (my grandfather died almost 23 years ago), I can’t quite do it. I remember details — what my grandfather’s voice sounded like, how it felt like he took forever sometimes to explain things (my mother does this too), how he read a lot and spent his afternoons studying, how my grandmother was so busy all the time and it always seemed to be really easy to annoy her — but never a coherent image of, say, what a day was like in their house. It seems like a mostly peaceful time, because the trouble didn’t start until after my grandfather died. After that, and the initial mourning period, it seemed like we were at each other a lot. Maybe part of this was the grief still playing itself out in each of us, because that was a hard loss, but looking back at it now, I can see the ways I picked and picked and picked at the surface of things until everything underneath burst through the skin. In short, I was kind of a jerk.
Even so, there’s no one else in the world who can drive me from zero to crippling rage in under a minute quite like she can. It’s nothing that she does on purpose, it’s just that we are so much the same that we’re bound to drive each other crazy. I fought very hard against this for a very long time, until eventually realizing that you know, there are a lot worse people in the world to be like. We’re cool now, even if there are still times we make each other angry. (Being a lot alike means we have many of the same triggers.)
Born in 1914 on a homestead in Arkansas, my grandmother was the fourth of eight children.
Of those eight children, only two of her younger sisters remain. The baby in that photo, Esther, passed away earlier this summer. My grandmother got married when she was 18 and had five children (my mother is her youngest), and those five children went on to give her a combined total of 13 grandchildren (I am the youngest). By now, of course, there are great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren — it’s a big family. She lived in Arkansas until the mid 1940s, and the family sharecropped cotton. Sometimes she’ll talk about how she’d carry a cotton sack that had to be nearly as big as she was and how fast she could pick, how hard the work was. She explains so vividly, and yet I can never quite picture it. She’s so tiny. She’s so… my grandma. I don’t know. And then when she talks about carrying a hoe (har har) with her when she walked in the fields so she could lop the heads off of snakes, I can’t picture that either. I guess part of it is that she talks about these things like they’re nothing, but at the same time, the strength and fearlessness in these things, combined with the fact that she mentions them like “Eh, no big deal,” always surprises me. They shouldn’t surprise me, but… well.
I guess the thing is, by the time I got to know my grandmother, she seemed like a different woman. Soft-spoken, Southern-accented, endlessly concerned with propriety and turning me into a lady. She taught me how to embroider, so maybe that’s it. Embroidery and snake-slaying don’t exactly fit together in my mind. Whatever. I learned a lot from my grandmother, not just how to embroider (and I’ve mostly forgotten that anyway because it never really caught my fancy). Between her and my mother, I learned how to sew (I still suck at sewing). She taught me how to make biscuits, how to make a pie. How to clean a house. She taught me how to hang wallpaper, presumably under the auspices of giving me a handy skill for catching a man (direct quotation: “No man will want to marry a woman who can’t hang wallpaper”) but I think it had more to do with the fact that she needed some help wallpapering the bathroom. Despite everything, she still hasn’t quite gotten the fact that becoming more marriageable hasn’t ever really been a selling point with me. But even though I make a lot of fun of her for the things she says to me about how I should get married already, I know her intentions are good. I know that she just wants me to be happy, to be okay. Despite the fact that we don’t really agree on what will make me happy, I love her for the thought behind the constant nagging, even though I sometimes have to remind myself of that when it gets annoying.
Tomorrow she’s 95. The family is coming from all over the country to celebrate her this weekend. I’m sure there’s obligation in that, at least to a degree, but obligation only carries things so far, and love has to take it the rest of the way. Being loved by that many people, that’s the key. That’s the sign of a life well-lived.