Saturday I drove out to my grandmother’s house. She’s 88, her name is Nanny, and she’s the most amazing human on the planet. She only lives 20 minutes away from me. Life stupidly gets in the way of regular visits. But this weekend was a great reminder of why I have to make those visits happen before I do anything else. Nanny is lonely. Her husband died 15 years ago and it’s been just her ever since. She’s had a good life. She has a great family. One of us sees her nearly every day; we take her food sometimes, or flowers, or clean her house, or take our kids to visit, or help her with her medicine.
Nanny has been a wonderful grandmother my whole life. My parents were relatively young when they had my sisters and me, so we spent a lot of time at her house, staying the night, going there after school, swimming in the summer (they put in a pool just for the grandkids). I can remember hanging on her leg crying, begging to stay there, when my mom would pick me up. And i didn’t have a hard home life! It’s just that Nanny’s house was magical. She got me. Like, really got me.
She’d do needlework while we read the funny papers on the sofa. She’d work the most difficult crosswords with ease and we’d “help” her. She’d break out a notepad and show us her artistic sketching skills, drawing us profiles of ladies’ faces all evening long if we asked her to. There was always popcorn because Nanny loved popcorn. There was a jar full of candy and a breadbox of treats. If we wanted, we could go down to the basement and get ice cream out of the deep freeze and make sundaes. On Sunday mornings we’d wake up to the sound of gospel music playing on the fuzzy AM radio and the smell of bacon cooking. And my god, the biscuits. Nowhere on earth, in any corner of it, is there a homemade biscuit like Nanny’s. She’s got the magic in her hands. Most all of us in the family have had her teach us how but we can never recreate them. It’s truly a mystery.
My grandmother came from a dirt poor southern family of 9 children. She was raised during the depression, her dad was a miner who hunted for their food (squirrels and possums) in the backwoods of Alabama, she shared a bed with 4 or 5 siblings until she was a teenager, and there was no running water or bathroom. Everyone walked several miles every day to go anywhere.
Nanny’s stories rival some of the best stories I’ve ever heard, and it seems every time I talk to her a new one is unearthed. I’m amazed at her memory of the details, and my heart breaks in sadness and happiness even more while watching her tell them. These are her treasures. She has family and friends and a legacy and her hobbies, but her stories are uniquely hers, and she graciously shares them with me every time I visit. I ask for them. They’ve become treasures to me, but in a different way.
There’s the story about how she fell in love with my Papa, a Danish boy from Omaha, who came to Bama with a friend to visit during WWII (he was a pilot). Then the one about how she took a 2 hour bus commute every night from the country to the Birmingham Airport to work on planes because all the men had been drafted for war. Sometimes she tells me about living in New Orleans when she was first married, with tales of low country boils with the locals down on the Mississippi River. There’s the one about how she clearly remembers the day she heard about the bombing of Pearl Harbor from her mother, who walked to find Nanny and her two sisters to tell them the news. They’d been walking down a dirt road, somewhere in the country, innocently laughing and singing together. Her mother said “your smiles are about to turn to tears when you hear what I’m about to tell you.” There are stories about each of her siblings, all unique characters of their own; and she sets the stage just like a true storyteller, giving back-stories on all of them and everyone else involved in each one. There are tragic tales and glorious tales. There are dark secrets, deaths, illegitimate children, crazy relatives, friendships and rivalries. She tells me about crazy drunks and aristocrats, loudmouths and braggarts, bigots and beauty queens. It’s all told in such vivid detail; I’m captivated every time.
This past Saturday, we talked about politics and racism in the south. I was telling her how I’d seen in the news that a Ku Klux Klan festival was planned for sometime in October, about 5 minutes from her home. This is always one of my favorite topics to discuss with Nanny because she so vehemently opposes racism in any form and has spent most of her life defending her beliefs to her extended family and acquaintances, some of whom are still narrow-minded racists. We talk about how we can’t understand them. We talk about how lucky we are that our immediate family (her, my Papa, and their three kids and offspring) are all mostly on the same page about politics, ethics, and religion.
Then she told me a story. She remembered, back in the late 1940s, seeing a cross-burning at a house on the next street over from where she lived. She was newly married then, and she said that Papa, who was even more liberal than she, got in the car and drove down to see the spectacle. He rolled down the windows declaring it a “hate party” to any passersby. At this point in the story, she went over to her cabinet and pulled out an old Bible. Inside it was a couple yellowed papers that she unfolded for me to read. She said she keeps it in case someone “steps out of line” with hate talk in her home. She’ll make them read it. She told me she copied it down a long time ago, and that she really believed if someone reads the information, they couldn’t argue against it.
Nanny isn’t what I’d call devoutly religious in the traditional sense. She doesn’t go to church anymore because she’s “already heard everything the pastor at her church has to say.” She doesn’t read her Bible every day. She cusses sometimes and gets hot-headed when she hears of racial injustices. She’s also a realist and doesn’t pretend to be perfect. But to me, she is perfectly beautiful in every way. She’s kind and thoughtful. Her gentle mannerisms are sweet but also poignantly southern. She’s a moderate. She has a head full of common sense like nobody else I know and can set you straight on any path if you’re ever in a situation.
After I read the papers, we talked about how we should go to the KKK event. She told me to go in with my face to the cameras (since it will surely be a gawking media event), holding two big thumbs down, any chance I could. We smiled at the thought of that, in spite of the wretched topic. It is astonishing that this still goes on in our world today, right here so close to all of us. It makes me want to lose faith in everything, and yet.. I still somehow find the will to move forward even if the only thing I can do is speak my mind against the deep rooted hatred still existing in so many hearts.
We lightened the mood by looking through old photo albums, then taking a look at her porch plants and her steadily growing collection of wind chimes. She asked me to help her change her bedsheets before I left. We discussed how she only slept with a sheet on top – no heavy blanket except for the coldest nights. I had a couple of those delicious little orange slice candies out of the candy jar. I hugged her and she followed me out to my car, still chatting away. I didn’t want to leave and she didn’t want me to. I promised to come back soon, and I will.