Thursday, November 7, 2013

Remembering my Southern grandmama

The first thing I think of is lipstick. Until Alzheimer's had ravaged her brain, I never saw her without it. When my then-boyfriend, now husband, met her in the nursing home, I heard her talking to my aunt through the closed door as we approached, "Well get me my lipstick, I'm about to meet somebody."As a girl she wore bright red with her panty hose and house dresses and pumps; as the woman I knew, she changed to pink because "it looks better with grey hair."

She could be exacting in the old Southern style: "Head up, shoulders back!" "Pull your stomach in." "Get a move on you." She despaired of my poor posture and had me stand against the wall or walk around with a book on my head, a failed endeavor if ever there was one. But she was also kind, generous to a fault, a powerful thinker and a tower of strength. She loved the image of God as a rock. At her husband's funeral, she struggled to stand and was afraid she would faint. In her weakness, she heard the inner voice of God say "You will not faint; you are standing on a rock." She used to play Rock of Ages on the piano with vim and vigor, and when we found her Bible after she died, every reference to God as a rock was underlined.

She had an almost photographic memory, which made Alzheimer's an especially cruel joke. She held in her mind a life-like depiction of the family tree going back more than 200 years, complete with intricate details and hilarious stories. She could tell you exactly how we were related to other citizens in that county of Alabama where she lived most of her life. We kept saying "let's get a voice recording before we forget" and then it was too late. But we do have pictures of her dancing in her apron while my aunt played the harmonica....

She was the most truly generous person I've ever known. Wealthy benefactors use their surplus after spending on luxuries; she re-used tin foil and mended underwear so she could give to her charities, both personal and official, family and otherwise. We didn't realize the full extent of her giving until her death, even though we knew how freely she gave to us, her children and grandchildren. She gave the gifts of her time, her intellect, her leadership and wisdom. When my cousin was in college he called the local pastor for guidance, which made the minister feel quite proud. It was a bit of a downer when my cousin said "I wouldn't have troubled you but my grandmama isn't in town."

And the food. Oh my. I still feel the crispness of hoe cake, hear the rattling of the jigger on the pressure cooker, feel the warmth of hambone vegetable soup with okra and butterbeans, see her pouring a bottle of wine over her fruit cake. She came from a time when Southern women served "dinner" at noon with mint iced tea. At 9 a.m. she would start things going, and somehow every cooking pot in the house would get used, and the heat would fill up the kitchen until you escaped to the 95 degree heat outside for a breath of fresh air.

Such, in fact, was our tendency - to see her gifts instead of her. To see the things she provided instead of the rich crackling voice, the knobby hands, the deepness of a soul who lived a full but quiet life in an obscure small town. The tendency was to pour out my heart instead of opening to hers....

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