Dear Grandmother T.
I have thought of you often since your death thirty years ago. I never knew you just as a person with a variety of experiences, you were just my grandmother. You were always loving, gentle, tenderhearted, sensitive and affectionate with us kids. You couldn’t stand to see suffering; if we got a spanking while you were there, you came to comfort us. I have to admit I thought of you as being syrupy sweet and frail. Little did I know or understand you. As an older woman with my own life experiences I understand you better than ever before.
From what I was told by my parents and Aunt Helen, all of whom have since joined you, you were actually quite an extraordinary woman. Knowing that you were born in 1901, I knew you grew up in difficult times. I loved the pictures of you and your mother, my great grandmother: Big Mama. Since people didn’t smile in photos back then, I was delighted to see you and Big Mama’s smiles in this picture. She was obviously a strong, confident and happy woman.
During your childhood I know that Big Mama helped feed “hobos” and those who were in need. So you learned kindness and compassion. I can believe that Big Mama taught you confidence by her example. I heard that your biological father read to you when you were little so you loved books and instilled that love into your children.
Judging from pictures of you as a child, you appeared very happy and confident. That confidence in some ways may have been a curse when coupled with youthful passions and willfulness. That may explain the beginning of how your life changed drastically when you were 14 or 15. You met a young Greek immigrant who was 24 years old. He was pretty impressive, having come from Greece when he was 14 in 1907. And in thirteen years worked his way up from a grocery delivery boy on a bicycle to the wealthy owner of the first bus line in South Carolina. He was going places in the business world and evidently was impressed by you too.
Although Big Mama strongly discouraged it, you at 15 and Henry, age 24, were married. Two years later you had my father, James and later three other children. Perhaps your mother knew the potential dangers of a marriage between your youth and his extremely different cultural ways.
Being ejected straight into adulthood, being a wife and soon after a mother, you never really got to be a teenager. You spoke about how you never spanked your kids but chose non physical means of discipline to train them. Growing up as a child who was disciplined by spankings I thought that rather unusual.
You were always so proud of your grown children: James (my daddy), Aunt Helen and Uncle Billy. I saw how they were very protective of you. In fact Aunt Helen never married and chose to take care of you in your old age after Grandpapa died. As the years passed, your husband probably spent a lot of time at work, running his business. But he had a beautiful stone house built on thirty acres or more for himself and his family when Daddy was in his thirties. I remember that building and thought it must be a mansion, it was magnificent!
I know that you and Grandpapa had some pretty rocky times in your marriage. You were deeply hurt by some of his cultural and religious differences and the hours he spent working to be successful instead of staying home. With the specter of his childhood poverty always in his mind, escaping it must have been a driving force.
Another sorrow in your life may have been losing your confidence and independence. Henry, by being older and the husband, by right took charge of everything in your life, which was not unusual in that day and age. Before the 1920’s women had no rights and could be abused or mistreated at their husband’s wishes, with few or no legal rights. Their existence was more or less for the husband and upkeep of his home and bearing of his children. But you had seen the love your parents had and probably wanted that too.
So when my father was still a boy and the youngest little girl, Ruby, (who died at five), was still young, you informed Grandpapa that you were leaving him. You had had enough emotional pain and sadness. Although you wanted to take all four kids with you, Grandpapa said that you could only take the two girls and he would keep the boys. How your heart must have been torn in two! With a grief stricken heart you left with your two daughters for Texas to stay with some relatives there.
It wasn’t long before you missed your two sons so terribly that you came back to Grandpapa. You were obviously a strong woman to leave your husband in a time when women were often treated as possessions; but how much stronger you were to return for the sake of your children, knowing the life ahead of you would be difficult at times. You had to have been a very strong lady to stand up to the man who could make your life miserable if he chose.
But Grandpapa was not without compassion. Your youngest daughter, Ruby died at five years of age, probably soon after the attached picture, from an upper respiratory infection that shut off the upper airways. You were so grief stricken you wouldn’t eat or drink but lay in your bed crying. Grandpapa hired nurses around the clock to care for you for one month. Then he told you that you had three other children who needed their mother. I am sure he was grief stricken too because Ruby (Seen in Grandpapa’s lap in the family photo) was the baby of the family. I still remember that he was very tender with us grandkids.
For the rest of your life you accepted your destiny and made the best of your situation. You made your children’s lives the best that you could. I remember one of my parents mentioning that you could be stubborn about things so you must have gotten your bearings and taken charge of your wifely responsibilities: the kitchen, the household, the children, and to some degree your own life. I heard that you kept the house immaculate and was an talented cook.
Though Grandpapa was very controlling and could be difficult with his old country customs and his drive to be successful, your life was full of plenty and you seemed happy to me when I knew you. You were given an allowance each month and bought lots of nice clothes, jewelry, house goods, food and whatever you needed for yourself. You always bought us kids presents and clothes to help Moma and Daddy out. My two sisters, brother and I were your only grandchildren.
But you, like me, learned to keep your pain private, not wanting to upset our family’s equilibrium or reputation. We both tried to keep things peaceful when we could. We chose our battles and rode the currents of our lives the best we knew how. Oddly enough my husband’s name was also Henry. Grandpapa had a nervous breakdown and was actually hospitalized when James, my father, was in his thirties. So he likely exhibited more personality changes as he grew older; my husband did too but his changes were from mini-strokes and poorly controlled diabetes.
Yes, I know you better now, Grandmother. We both turned our lives over to our husbands since they were so obviously intelligent, knowledgeable, and experienced. We both became dependent, shy and timid for a while. Eventually we learned who we were and that we were strong in our own right with our own talents and gifts to develop. We made our lives center around our children because we knew they loved us and we wanted to protect them as much as we could. But we fulfilled our responsibilities of caring for our homes and husbands.
I understand now your sensitivity, gentleness, affection and more. Those were signs of our lives having been torn upside down. But we came out on the other side. Grandpapa died at 71, my husband died at 59. I missed the man I married, as you may have too. We both had/have good lives because to a large degree what they left for us. We both made good lives for ourselves and helped our children out when we were needed. I love you more than ever now Grandmother. I understand more what an amazingly, strong and loving woman you were and I am too.
Love, as always, Elaine