My grandmother, born in Atlanta in 1899, was a classic Southern woman of the era, with the singular ambition of rearing a family. She had no checking account, and managed the house on a cash allowance from her husband. She tried driving once, and after steering the car into a ditch never attempted it again.
I picture Carrie Ware, my grandmother, as I knew her in my childhood: a short woman with graying hair and a pale complexion, slightly bow-legged, her knuckles swollen from arthritis and ruddy from washing clothes and dishes by hand. Yet every time I looked at her, she smiled, and everything I did seemed to please her. I would sit on the tile floor of the kitchen, a domain she ruled like a queen, and soak in her unreserved goodwill.
Every meal at Grandmother’s house felt like a birthday meal. She served two meats with each meal, and years later I realized she did that just for us, knowing how poor we were. On holidays she soared to new heights, spreading a banquet of collard greens, yellow squash, cracklin’ cornbread, creamed corn, fried okra, and a sweet potato casserole covered with tiny marshmallows. Besides the turkey and dressing and cranberry sauce, she served roast beef or country ham with a sugary crust. We took away enough leftovers to eat like royalty for a week.
As Grandmother aged, her arthritic fingers grew even more twisted, the knuckles swollen and hard like the knots on a tree. Then came the time when she sorrowfully told us she could no longer cook.
She used to sit in her deep-cushioned chair and flip through the pages of magazines. For her, reading involved more parts of the body than just the eyes. I liked watching her move her lips as she read, slowly sliding her index finger across the page. If I listened closely I could hear her pronounce each word in a whisper. She would study the enticing ads and smile at the promises of herbal-essence hair, a better time in the Bahamas, a more shapely figure, and a sexy tan. After reading a few articles, she would struggle out of her chair and turn down the thermostat. In a nightly ritual, my grandfather, pretending to watch TV but snoring audibly, would awake in a few minutes, stand up, and turn the thermostat even higher than it had been before.
After her husband (my grandfather) died, and the family home got demolished to make way for a new highway, my grandmother’s life took a downturn. Although the city bought her another house, noise from the apartment building next door kept her from sleeping. Two years later she traded that house for yet another one. The following year she was diagnosed with cancer and moved one last time, into a home run by Catholic sisters for people with incurable cancer.
Grandmother spent two years in the nursing home. Unlike many, this one was cheery and well-maintained, with parquet floors and a flower garden outside. The Dominican Sisters of Hawthorne – an order founded by the daughter of the author Nathaniel Hawthorne – gave loving care. They brought in fresh flowers from the garden, monitored pain medications, and organized group activities for the residents.
Watching her those last two years, I learned that aging can be a blessing as well as a curse. For sixty years she had worried about her role, how well she was fulfilling the duties of wife, mother, and grandmother. Now she seemed content, and happily cared for. No longer needing to prove herself, she let go her own concerns and concentrated on loving us, her family.
When my brother rebelled and we heard wild reports of him doing drugs and living in a commune, she reacted with concern, yes, but without the tense anxiety felt by others in the family. She loved him however he was, and always would. So she prayed for him daily and kept sending him birthday presents and Christmas cards, though he never acknowledged them or answered her letters.
When her own son, my uncle, became convinced that America was turning socialist and fled to Australia, I’m sure she felt great pain. He wrote her strident sermons about how she needed to leave her church and come to a true church, like his. Yet I never heard her say a condemning word. She would read his letters over and over, clinging to bits of news, fondling the few pictures he sent of his children. She did not judge him, or try to defend her beliefs that he attacked. She simply loved him.
Apparently, my grandmother had given up the long, futile effort of trying to change people. Perhaps that kind of love only comes with the fatigue and wisdom of old age.
Life slowed down, her interests narrowed, and she mostly appreciated small things: acts of kindness, a spark of beauty. When family members visited her, conversation would drift between topics such as gas prices, a faraway war, the elections, a recent earthquake, newfangled inventions. Grandmother would sit peacefully, not quite taking it all in, then suddenly say something like, “Isn’t that a lovely daisy?” No one else had noticed the splash of color on her bureau.
Often we view old age with a spirit of fear and denial. I’m grateful for the chance to have watched my grandmother grow old, for I saw glimpses of God in her those last few years. She had time, all the time a person could want, and she filled it by praying and reading spiritual books. She was free, truly free, of worry about possessions and beauty and competition. Ready to leave life, she died without fear.
After her death I read through her journals, which revealed some of the secrets of her life. A preacher’s daughter from northern Georgia, she lost her fiancé to World War I and then fell in love with a divorced man eleven years her senior. When her father, a Methodist circuit-rider, heard the news, he traveled from Tennessee to Atlanta, a hundred and fifty miles on horseback, in an attempt to dissuade her from marrying Karl Yancey. She ignored his advice and entered a marriage that quickly soured. And though Carrie Yancey contemplated divorce many times, and prepared her children for that possibility, she felt obliged to live out the consequences of her mistake.
Sometimes I thumb through photo books I’ve inherited from her. There’s the brick house we loved to visit, with the stone columns Grandfather kept backing his car into, and the feathery mimosa tree out front. I used to climb that huge tree and sit in its branches, knowing my father had planted it as a tiny sapling. What was it like for her to lose her firstborn son—my father—to polio, before he reached the age of 24? And here’s my grandmother as a flirty teenager, her arm draped over a young man standing next to a water wheel. Is this the fiancé she lost to war? And there are my cousins who sailed away to Australia, never to see her again.
A pang of realization strikes me that I never really knew Carrie Yancey. I mainly saw her with a dustpan in her hand, or humming to the biscuits as she measured out dough on a baking sheet. To me she was a role, grandmother, not a person with loves both lost and unrequited, and life dreams unrealized.
She left me the gift of grace, which I can never repay. Because it was grace, she never made me feel I had to.
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