I was raised by my Grandparents. I am proud to say that. I learned about hard work and honesty from them. I learned that every person has a story to tell and every stranger met is a new friend in the making. I learned about the joy music brings, that learning is a life long process. Mostly I learned about loyalty and unconditional love.
We lived in “the country.” Back then my “neighborhood” was a rural community dotted with farms, a few tract home developments, lots of open areas and one small corner store with a lone gas pump. We were only 6 miles from our small town but it seemed like an eternity to get there. Saturday trips to town were an all day excursion. Sundays were for family dinners and an “open house” atmosphere where anyone was welcome.
Life changed dramatically when my Grandfather died just before my 13th birthday. He took care of things. How would we live and get by? Who would take care of us? I was frightened and I can’t imagine what my Grandmother felt…… My Grandma…..Flossie to her friends, Mae to her brothers and Grandma Flossie to my friends. She was Gram to me and called herself Grams. She was also my life teacher and anchor.
Flossie Mae had to quit school in the 6th grade to help her mother raise her siblings. She was the oldest and there were ten kids in the house, plus some cousins needing a home. Eight of her siblings lived to adulthood and the various cousins came and went. Life was hard then, harder still for poor families and often their children were sent to the mines or farms as day laborers. The older boys began their working lives as teens in the coal mines, and then enlisted in the Army and Navy. The younger girls went to school and the older ones worked in the garden or were sent to farms to help during “the season.” My Grandmother helped with the laundry and ironing, cleaned the house and wrangled the young ones to and from school. She really had no life as a young girl. She didn’t really get a childhood. When she was sixteen my Grandfather swooped in and decided he would marry her. She went from being the mistress of her mother’s home to being the mistress of her own. She was well equipped to handle the chores and duties of running a household. She’d been doing it for years.
She never said, but I imagine getting married and having a house of her own was actually a blessing. She no longer had to wrangle all her siblings. It wasn’t work and chores from sun up to sun down. My Grandfather took her dancing. To movies. He doted on her. They had friends and she finally had a life. She had my mother, born before most girls my grandmother’s age were even out of high school. A second girl, born a year later lived only a few days, and even though Grams had no more children, there were always kids around, nephews, nieces and the odd child seemingly belonging to no one. My grandparents shared a love of music and performed at county fairs, schools and prisons throughout the state. Their early practice sessions took place in a neighbor’s barn…. the audience….. cows and chickens. Siblings and their spouses were frequent visitors, there were rousing card games and seeming endless Yatzee and Parcheesi competitions. And always music and laughter.
Her greatest shame was her lack of education. But she never stopped learning. As long as I can remember she had a pile of books on a small table by her rocker, a dictionary always on the top of that pile. She’d learn a new word or two every week and practice using whatever the “word of the week was.” Of course her brothers made fun of her. My Great Uncles were cruel (and became the bane of my existence). But my Grams just laughed them off and continued her self teaching. She learned her words, knitted and crocheted and read. She was an avid reader. And passed her love of reading down to me.
If reading was education, music was joy. The old Victrola saw heavy use, later it was an 8 track player and finally a battery operated cassette player. Television was an avenue to musicals and variety shows. I still remember lyrics from the songs of Singing in the Rain, The King and I, Oklahoma, South Pacific and Westside Story. I would sing those songs to my cats as I carried them around the yard in the evenings. (The tradition of singing to livestock was apparently an inherited thing.)
She was a big fan of musical variety shows. I grew up to the sounds of Your Hit Parade, The Perry Como show, The Andy Williams Show, Lawrence Welk, Glenn Campbell and of course, Hee Haw…. Bing Crosby movies and Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers rounded out my musical education. My Grandmother’s love of music is the reason I impress Mr B with my mental “musical library.” He used to be surprised when I could sing along with obscure songs, or was familiar with the latest song for his Barbershop chorus. My music library today holds everything from Adele to ZZ Top with a sprinkling of show tunes, Rachmaninoff, and Puccini. He’s no longer surprised by what I remember. He now says he’s surprised only if I DON’T know. Thanks to my Grams.
Grandma Flossie had an immense sense of humor. She laughed. A lot. Her laugh was infectious. My friends were made to feel instantly at home. When I started dating, I was mortified that my Grandma was at the door to greet my dates and saw nothing wrong with involving them in conversations while I stood, tapping my foot with impatience, ready to bolt out the door as soon as humanly possible.
After high school, a young man I dated always brought a pizza and a six pack of Coke over for “Grandma Flossie.” He would laugh at her jokes, invite her to play a vigorous game of checkers and leave me sitting on the sofa for hours. We were late for everything. I came to the conclusion he would rather spend time with Grams than take me to a movie. I dumped him. Grams complained for months and compared every boyfriend after that to that one boy. There was always some fatal flaw with the “new ones.”
She had to learn to drive after my Grandfather died. She had to learn how to fire up the temperamental oil heater in the winter in order to keep the house warm. She was in her 50’s and had to make a living without a formal education, learn to make do with even less than we had when Grandpa was with us. She made an income babysitting and doing laundry for others. Her early skills taking care of her siblings once again came into play. She was “good with kids,” and her “families” loved her. They invited her on their vacations, took her out to dinner, invited her to birthday parties and graduations long after the kids stopped needing a sitter. One of the families bought her new kitchen appliances for her birthday. A Coppertone refrigerator, gas range with the oven on top! A new toaster and wonder of wonders, an electric skillet! I neither understood, nor appreciated how hard she worked to keep that roof over our heads. How frightened she must have been. How determined she became.
Her best friends were her sisters. Especially my Aunts, Vi and Ruby. They’d pile into the car and head out to find yard sale bargains amid laughter and sibling banter. I learned the joys of thrifting and junking from my Grams. Many of my birthday gifts were those scored at yard sales. And every Friday night the “girls” got together for manicures and doing each other’s hair. I lurked in the background listening to the stories of the old days, gossip and talk of life. I learned about men, marriage, making a dirty martini and how to attach flowers to a hat…. all the important life skills.
Besides music, she loved plants and gardens. Our yard was filled with flowers; Peonies, Heirloom Roses, Lilac bushes, Tiger Lilies, Lily of the Valley, and Sweet Pea vine. Containers filled with Moss Ross, Hens and Chicks and buckets of Ivy were placed on the patio. Daisies grew with abandon. Daffodils and Tulips. Caladiums and Ferns. If it could be grown in our area, my Grams had it. House plants filled our sunlit living room. She was as good at raising plants as she was raising kids. I’m guessing along with all my other loves, I also got my love of plants and gardening from her.
She was a great cook in spite of her experiments with Campbells Soup. She was the Queen of Casseroles…..I ate some very strange concoctions involving pasta or potatoes and “mystery meat” smothered in various creamy soups for years. Some of my fondest memories revolve around weekend mornings, my Grams at the stove wearing one of her “total body aprons” cooking breakfasts of bacon and eggs, always fried in a cast iron skillet with bacon grease. A container of bacon grease sat on the back of the stove and the cast iron skillet was always on one of the burners, ready to go in the event of a hungry guest. She made mint chocolate cake for my birthday because it was my favorite. I may not have had big themed birthday parties, nor was I showered with expensive gifts…..but I had cake.
I didn’t realize then what an incredible woman she was. How strong she was. That realization came much later. She had to learn to be self sufficient in middle age, to teach herself the skills needed to be an adult woman in the 1960’s and 70’s. She had to learn to be watchful, become a bit on guard to ward off advances from men who wanted my Grandfather’s property. She learned to drive, to manage finances, to lock the doors, to survive during a time when widows could become easy prey. And raise a girl two generations removed during a time of social upheaval. I never heard her complain, but she did often say to me, after a particularly hard conversation with a smart alec teenager….. “Crystal, I hope you get one just like you!” (I did. My son was just like me and I heard myself quoting her words to him more than once.) She was wise, with the wisdom coming from a life of hardships and happiness, hard work and fun…. a life well lived.
Of course I never listened to her wisdom back then. I was a typical teenager. But I hear her voice in my mind now. As I go through life, I often think of her and remember things she would say. To this day I use her words; when something is wrecked beyond repair, it’s “rammycacked.” (Mr B particularly likes that one and has adopted it as a description of the way I open packages.) When I’m annoyed with my Grands, I tell them, “If you don’t stop, I’m gonna knock you hell western crooked!” I never knew where hell western was, but was pretty sure I didn’t want to be crooked.
When she died, I lost my anchor. I lost the one person I could depend upon to guide me, the one person who had, if not all….. at least most of the answers. The one who believed in me and gave me unconditional love. I never really recovered from her loss and I mourn her still today. I often wish I could go back in time to tell her how much she meant to me, to let her know that I loved her and appreciated her…. to give her an easier life. I still hear her voice in my head. I think she’s still around, maybe in Hell Western with Aunt Vi and Aunt Ruby. Someplace where there are flowers, books, and music and she’s sitting with that dictionary in her hand….. trying to figure out LOL and OMG.
When one of my Grands says, “My friend, so and so wants to meet you.” And when those friends begin calling me, “Grandma,” or “Grams,” or friend me on Facebook, I know I’m doing something right. Thank you Gram, for every little…. and large thing you taught me….. gave to me. Happy Mothers Day.