Sunday, March 28, 2010

Hats off to Grandmothers

  Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about stories-- beginnings, middles and ends-- and my grandmother. Maybe it’s because this week would have been her 110th birthday. Maybe it’s that I’m beginning to be a grandmother myself. Then again, I really think it’s about all the things she taught me, and the stories she shared, that I still carry around.

Marrying a beloved only child of a very young mother is not a particularly auspicious way to begin a life together, but that was what my mother was handed. Given this vexing situation, Mama accepted her lot and mostly sallied forth. Not even when my grandmother built a little house close enough to ours that she could peer inside our bedroom windows should we not draw the blinds at night did my mother complain to my siblings and me. Grandmother loved to eavesdrop, listen in, give advice, needed or not.

But thankfully, most of my memories are from long before I became a teen who didn’t want anybody, much less a grandmother, to know if my lights stayed on past midnight. My best memories are of her reading to a much younger me, telling me stories, pouring over the aging reference books lined up child-high on the living room shelf right next to her glass bowl of Hershey’s kisses. To a curious child, the Book of Knowledge was vastly more interesting that my own mother’s stacks of decorating magazines.

Not only did she share her encyclopedias, she read to me from a fascinating picture book I still own, Children of the Presidents, claiming we were descended from William Henry Harrison. Never mind that he was possibly the least distinguished president ever to serve, or that he attempted little to change that, Grandmother was delighted to claim kin to anyone who showed up inside the covers of a book.

Like so many of the Southerners in my family, she was a storyteller, a singer of lullabies, a talker at bridge games, an exaggerator. She gobbled up series mysteries, Harlequin romances, and every best seller she could get her hands on, which inspired her and a group of women in our little Mississippi town to found the public library.  She taught Sunday school most of her life, forgetting more Bible stories than I’ll ever know. She worked side-by-side with my grandfather, mostly bossing him around and ruling the roost, often looking the other way at his shenanigans.

I once heard a social historian comment that my generation has more in common with our grandmothers’ generation than we do with our mothers’. While most of my friends’ mothers were what we now call stay-at-home moms, many of our grandmothers weren’t. Our grandmothers enabled future generations to vote, and my generation gave our daughters opportunities to choose.

Although my grandmother may never have carried a sign, she told me stories of women who did amazing things. Late at night, she’d whisper the saga of her own grandmother who had left a gentile Virginia life to follow her young husband to the wild Mississippi territory.

Some days Grandmother pulled out her “strong box” for me. She’d open the letter written by her grandfather from a Civil War battlefield. She’d carefully unfold his pardon for fighting in the “War Between the States,” a treasure passed down to her, now to me, soon to my own daughter. To her, no document, no book, no memory was without its story.

So hats off to Southern grandmothers who inspire grandchildren to make up their own tales. Happy birthday and thanks for all the stories.

Augusta Scattergood grew up in Cleveland, Mississippi, where her paternal grandmother Carrie Byrd Russel read Bible stories, fairy tales, and Uncle Remus stories late into the nights and never once rationed the Hershey kisses.


Susan Cushman said...

I enjoyed this so much. I'm from Jackson, Mississippi, and my grandmothers were from Jackson and Meridian. Now I'm a grandmother, but living in Memphis:-)

Augusta Scattergood said...

Thanks for your comment- and for your wise thoughts about the book The Help over at my own blog. That book has raised more conversation amongst my southern and northern friends than any I recall! I'm now reviewing another, darker book about the same era/events, by a fellow Mississippian, due late this month: The Queen of Palmyra. Would love to know what you think of it also.

Augusta Scattergood said...

Correction- Queen of Palmyra is due at the end of APRIL. I'm wishing March away!