I lost my grandma last month. I saw her not quite two weeks before and I knew that she had given up. I haven’t even accepted it, but I can see her sisters, my great aunts, sobbing over her beautiful coffin and my heart twists. A beautiful coffin, but such an ugly life.
I don’t know much about my grandma, but I know how she lived during my lifetime. The reason I didn’t know much about Grandma – her given name was Nancy Jane Bailey – is because the woman rarely talked. Mostly, she joined in conversations by repeating the last few words of the person who just spoke. She had to have lived under that ‘women and kids don’t speak unless spoken to” rule, although my mom says grandma’s dad was a very nice man. Occasionally, she would spout off a gem. One of my favorites was “I think my ass is paralyzed”.
Her kitchen was the only office she had ever known. That’s where she actually spoke up from time to time and gave her opinion on certain topics. She would talk back to whoever was annoying her under her breath. For instance, if she was making a sandwich for grandpa and he told her to hurry up, she would almost whisper, “I’ll hurry up when I shove this where the sun don’t shine.” She would have never harmed a hair on anyone’s head, but I’m sure she thought about it from time to time.
The last 51 years of her life, she lived in a four-room house. There, she raised three children and waited hand and foot on her husband, Ralph, who she married when she was 18. The house is more of a shack. No, there’s no getting around it, it’s a shack. It has no running water – there is no plumbing anyway. With no running water, there is no toilet, so she used an outhouse. The water well was behind the house, on a steep hill that she would walk up and down several times a day to get water for everyone. Bath days were no fun at all; there is a lot of water to haul, heat, and dump for four people. She did what was expected of her and rarely got thanks. About ten years ago, they finally got a pump outside the back door, making her life much easier. Until three years ago or so, she raised chickens. I still cannot get used to the eggs at the supermarket.
I didn’t know much about her, but I remember little things about her. Every summer when my brother and I were young, my parents would drop us off for a week at Grandma’s. Mom had sent some soup with us once for lunches and grandma had never made condensed tomato soup before. She didn’t add any water, so I had a warm, thick, tomato-flavored goo. I ate it because I couldn’t bear to hurt her feelings (and also because I inherited part of her shyness).
She may not have known how to make condensed tomato soup, but that woman was a genius when it came to biscuits and gravy. She would make her biscuits with only flour and water and they were the best biscuits in the world. I still don’t know what kind of magic she used when making her gravy, but if I ever asked for it, she could whip it right up. She always wore slip-on canvas shoes in the summer with sleeveless shirts and capris – it was her uniform. She was always on the tall side and so thin I was afraid I’d break her if I hugged her too hard. With her black hair in a bun and her pretty, green eyes, I always secretly thought of her as a kind witch. She had the only green eyes in the family until my youngest son was born. She was so proud to have passed some of her genes on.
Grandma was a caretaker. I mentioned she waited on her husband, until he died in 1995. She also waited on her two youngest children who never left home. They would sit and ask her, demand her, to do the smallest tasks. I can’t tell you how many times I bristled when I heard the words, “Mommy, go make me a cup of coffee” Imagine, a hundred-pound woman waiting on two grown children in their 40s and 50s! She did everything, every day, and never expected a thing from anybody. The only time she ever rested was after grandpa died and the kids were at work.
No, she didn’t have a good life, but she was a good woman. She lived her life and never complained. I never heard that woman raise her voice and she never touched a drop of alcohol. Her only vice was her chewing tobacco – gross, I know. There was always a big, metal coffee can on the floor near where she sat at all times for her to spit into – no brass spittoons for her. She raised her children, took care of the house, made food stretch when there was no money (or food for that matter), and somehow did not lose her mind. She was, at the same time, the toughest and softest woman in my life. I may not have agreed with her silence, for I could not live in such conditions and I would make it known, but I respected her quiet resolve.
My life, and many other lives, will never be the same without Grandma/Nancy. I will always have so much love for her. I don’t know what, if anything, is beyond this world. If there is a nice, perfect place, my grandma deserves to be there. She has earned it many times over.