Warning – this post is sad and sweet and was a tough one to write, but it is from my heart.
After my mama’s divorce, she moved all of us in with her parents – back into the house she had grown up in. The asbestos siding covered structure sat on a corner lot and had been built in 1929. It was pretty run down, unlike the other homes in our upper-middle-class neighborhood, and it stood out as not quite being what you’d expect to see there. The yard was unkempt and wild, and on the Inside the house seemed crowded with memories and pain and joy and ghosts of former lives. My grandmother was the uncontested boss of that house, and she was a force to be reckoned with.
Her name was Lillian, but everyone called her Tid for some reason that remains a mystery to me. She was smart, and funny, and sometimes sweet, but she had a serious mean streak that you did NOT want to find out about first hand. She couldn’t stand to see people treated badly, and there were stories of her drawing a gun on the husband of a maid who worked for our family in the 1940’s, warning him that if he ever hit our Janie again, he’d be sorry!
I truly believed when I was little that my grandmama was the smartest person in the world. She taught me to read when I was three, and instilled in me a love of knowledge. I was her first grandchild, so she insisted that I was brilliant. She pushed me to think, and she taught me to value good conversation and all things intellectual. Our Pastor would come over to visit and he and Grandmama would sit for hours, debating and arguing and laughing…and not just about ‘church matters’. They were friends who enjoyed deep discussions about things I didn’t understand, and I couldn’t get enough of it.
She drank her coffee with carnation evaporated milk and loved to play games. Somewhere there exists a picture of her kneeling on the floor, laughing and full of life, her skirt hitched up above her knees, her arm poised and ready to shoot craps on someone’s kitchen floor. At home she played cribbage. I didn’t like games as a rule, but I’d sit and watch, never really figuring out the scoring, but loving the rhythm of her speech as she counted out her hand, “Fifteen two…fifteen four…and five is six” and so on. I eventually learned to play (sort of) with her, and it was as if I’d graduated into some wonderfully grown up lady club.
Once she made a huge bowl of banana pudding (my favorite) and we took it to a friend’s house. We visited for a while, and I ate so much of it that I felt queasy. Granddaddy was taking us to the golf course with him that day (a rare treat), so my sister and I were piled into the back seat of his navy blue Comet, with Grandmama in the front. At the golf course I drank my first Yoohoo (totally unaware that ‘nana puddin’ and Yoohoo are like liquid dynamite when you mix them together) and ended up throwing up all over myself on the way home. I was about 9, and there was NO WAY, I wailed, that I was riding the rest of the way home without a shirt on! “What if someone SEES ME!?” I squealed. I still can’t believe it to this day, but my grandmother actually took off her shirt and gave it to me. In an obviously blind moment of love for me (or because I pitched such a fit), she rode home the rest of the way in her bra, with her arms crossed over her chest!
Granddaddy just made her mad most of the time…usually because he wouldn’t argue with her! He’d just smile and do what he wanted to, in spite of the sharp, “John!!!” she’d fling at him, using his name like a weapon. He liked to tell the story of them driving to a wedding many years before, happily cruising down the road when, out of nowhere, his wife screamed out, “JOHN!!! What have you done?” He screeched to a stop and turned to her, thinking that something truly horrible had happened…, only to see that she was pointing to his feet, appalled at the white sock glare filling the space between his black dress shoes and the hem of his black pants. Yep…she made him drive home to get black socks. Such was the power of Tid.
Now, my grandfather was Irish Catholic and usually went to 6:00 mass on Saturday evening, but my grandmother was German, so the rest of us were Lutheran and we went to church on Sunday mornings. (There was a definite Irish-German rift in our house, and because Mama was divorced, we kids ended up being defined as ‘non-Catholic equals German’ most of the time.) I liked to sit next to Grandmama, and she’d let me dig in her pocket-book. She almost always had butter rum Lifesavers or some gum, and she didn’t mind if I drew on the program while we listened to the sermon. Sometimes the Pastor would throw a little barb her way that no one else caught…some reference to a conversation they’d had…and I felt like I was with some sort of church lady rock star.
I didn’t always, however, live up to her expectations for me. She hated that I was afraid of things, and reprimanded me harshly when I screamed about lizards or ran from palmetto bugs or spiders…or birds… or moths… or crickets…or…well, I guess I was pretty much afraid of everything. Much later in life I realized that she just wanted me to be strong, but I had been carrying a lot of anger and sadness around for many years, knowing that I had disappointed her. Thankfully, I also figured out that I wasn’t alone in that capacity. I think that in many ways her life itself had been a letdown to her. She never got the cute little nice new home she’d thought she’d have, her husband never worked hard enough and played golf too much, she couldn’t fix everyone’s problems…I don’t know what else she felt she had missed out on, but there was a certain sadness in her that haunts me from time to time.
Having had rheumatic fever as a child, Tid’s heart was forever weak and damaged. As feisty as she was, she was fragile, and she ended up having surgery in the 1960’s to get one of the first artificial aortas ever implanted. After that, she was supposed to take care of herself, which included giving up smoking, eating right and taking medication daily. She responded by continuing to smoke, and I remember her living for days on Reese’s peanut butter cups, or ‘pear salad’ (canned pears, topped with cream cheese and pecans). She took her meds when it suited her, and by the time I was a preteen, her lack of love for herself had caught up with her, resulting in a series of strokes. Her body remained for a few years, but the spirit inside was bound and gagged. From time to time there would be a spark…a brief glimpse of the woman we had known, but it was always fleeting. Even in her debilitated state, she continued to smoke and she was angry, frequently yelling at my grandfather (probably for things he had done decades before). I didn’t like God very much during that time, but I allowed myself to pray, asking that my real grandmother, the soul trapped inside that shell, was buried deeply enough that she wasn’t afraid or sad.
The day of my grandmother’s funeral was bittersweet. We’d lost her long before that, but guilt has a funny way of twisting things on you and making you feel bad about being relieved. My strongest memory of that day is looking around and seeing the beautiful face of Janie, the woman who had helped to raise my Mama so long ago, and whose husband had suffered the wrath of Tid…gun and all. I knew that she was still grateful to have had someone who was brave enough to stand up for her and to call her friend. I loved my grandmother’s memory more than life itself at that moment. I hope she knows now that I’m not afraid any more, and that I think she’d like the Tammy I’ve become.