My maternal grandmother–and grandfather to some degree–was always a source of wisdom for me over the years. For various reasons that don’t necessarily need disclosing at this point, I spent a vast amount of time with my mother’s parents growing up, and as a result, they had a large hand in raising me. I am and will forever be grateful to them for all of the things that they provided me with over the years and for all of the care they gave to my sisters and me.
My grandmother, Viola, was born in 1933 in rural, small-town middle Tennessee. Having three brothers, one sister, and a sharecropping father with only one arm–he lost the other in a farming accident–she had to grow up relatively quickly. She never finished her formal education, leaving school in the 8th grade, and didn’t even own a toothbrush until she was a teenager. Alcoholism ran through her family. Her brother tried to kill her father. Her parents were dirt poor. Yet, somehow, she was able to emerge from her childhood with a silent poise, a wisdom about life that can only be learned by living it the hard way.
In the 1950s, Viola married the man that would become my grandfather, John, a toothpick-skinny farm boy six years her senior who courted her with letters and visits to her home during many of which he had to dodge bricks thrown at his head by my great-grandfather. The story goes that grandmother’s father would chuck bricks at my granddad, holding one under his nub while hurling another with his “good arm” at the suitor approaching the house along the driveway. I’ve always thought that if my grandfather was willing to undergo such treatment just for the chance to spend time with my grandmother, their connection must have been something from the storybooks and she must have been quite a special lady.
After multiple miscarriages and a newborn baby boy who died thirteen months after birth from complications stemming from underdeveloped lungs, John and Viola finally gave birth to my mother in 1963. She would be their one and only child whom they would raise with more love and care than one could ever quantify.
My mother went on to marry at 18, have two kids, and divorce at 25. The subsequent years of single-motherdom caused her to rely on the assistance of her parents, hence why I spent so much time with Viola and John, or as I call them, Nanny and Pop.
(Sadly, my grandmother passed away when I was a freshman in college, but more on that later…)
Nanny was the most caring, nonjudgmental, peaceful, genuine person that I have ever met. Of course, most people would say that about their grandmothers, but that doesn’t in any way discredit my description of her. This woman of minimal education taught my sisters and me how to read, each by the age of 4, and she spent countless hours teaching us basic math and critical thinking skills. To be honest, I am not even sure if she was aware of the fact that she was constantly “teaching” us, but she most definitely was. As a result of what my family has come to refer to as “Nanny’s preschool,” my sisters and I have all excelled greatly in school. All of us were at or near the top of our respective classes, developing positive relationships with our teachers and peers. And, the truth is that I take very little credit for this success. My mother and grandmother deserve virtually all of the credit. The only thing that I did was stay away from drugs and other hooliganisms, which if you think about it, were unattractive to me because of the lessons learned from those two women. So, again, they get the credit.
As I grow older, my relationship with my grandmother provides me with clarity that I never knew I needed or wanted. Strangely, I think that a part of her–conscious or unconscious not sure–strove to provide that clarity to my sisters and me, knowing that the actual “ah-ha!” moment might be years down the road. She always spoke of honesty and respect and hard work and loyalty and trust. She had the nicest things to say about even the worst people, always explaining to us that everyone has good qualities and faults. She made sure that we understood that while some people’s faults are more apparent or have a greater impact on those around them that does not make them bad people or worse people than those who have less obvious shortcomings. Everyone that came in contact with my grandmother was mesmerized by her genuine concern for their well-being, having no choice but to succumb to her cloak of care while in her presence. She cared for people, that’s what she did. Family members, friends, strangers, if you were in her presence, she was worried about you, and genuinely so.
There are two conversations that I always think about when my grandmother comes to mind, the first involving her advice on relationships and the second, her advice on life in general:
At an age that I cannot recall, I was sitting with my grandmother at her kitchen table in her tiny north Nashville home that she and my grandfather rented from her brother for decades, the same home that my grandfather still occupies albeit by himself these days. At some point in our conversation, I remember asking her, (the quotations are, of course, not exact) “Nanny, how do you know when you are ready to marry someone? Everyone always says that you ‘just know’ that someone is ‘the one,’ but there are so many people in the world that there could be lots of ‘ones.’ You could think that someone is ‘the one’ for a few years and then realize one day that they aren’t, but what if you’ve already married them? How do you know if it’s right or not?” She looked at me with her usual calm and began to speak.
“You just know. Now, I know that that doesn’t make any sense to you, and it shouldn’t. You’re a child, and children aren’t supposed to think about things like that. One day, you will meet someone and you will understand what I mean. When I met your grandfather, I just knew that he was the one for me. There is something in your stomach that tells you. You may never understand it, but you will feel it. And, when you feel it, you will know.”
She went on to explain that she agreed with me that there probably isn’t a “one” and that any number of people could end up being “the one” if you meet them at the right time. It’s all about who you meet and when you meet them. But, the part of her explanation that has always stuck with me is how she seemed so at ease with this notion that some sort of inner recognition will take place in me through which I will just “know” whether or not someone is right for me. For years I have thought that it was kind of bogus, one of the few things that my grandmother shared with me that I didn’t really buy into. But, now it is all starting to become a bit more clear. As I grow older, I am understanding that sometimes the lack of explanation is an explanation in and of itself, that when you meet that person you will just know and until you do there is no way to make any more sense of it than that. The fear then lies in not knowing if your presence initiates that feeling inside the other person. What if it doesn’t? Then what? I never had the chance to have that conversation with Nanny.
One day before Nanny suffered a hemorrhage in her brain that would lead to her death, I was sitting on the couch with her discussing life. It was a day or two after Christmas, and I had gone down to Nashville to have a radio installed in my car. After dropping off my car, I was picked up by my grandfather who took me to my grandparents’ house to spend the afternoon with them. As I sat on the couch with Nanny, she started talking about the importance of being a good person, of leading a good life, and of knowing that when your time comes to leave the earth you know that you can leave your loved ones behind with a clear mind. She continued by explaining that she knew that she wasn’t perfect but that she had tried very hard to be a good person and to treat others with kindness and respect. She said that she was ready to die if she had to and that she wasn’t scared of the unknown that accompanies death. She encouraged me to live my life in such a way that when my time comes I will be a able to have that same feeling of comfort and calm. She said that I didn’t have to be perfect; I just had to try everyday to be kind and respectful to everyone I meet, no matter their shortcomings. She said a lot of things that day, a lot of things about life, death, faith, honesty, respect, and humility.
The next morning, my mother came into my room crying as she woke me up. Through her tears and sniffles, she explained that Nanny had to go to the hospital and that we were leaving in a few minutes to go figure out what was going on. Turns out, she had a cerebral hemorrhage that morning and slipped into a coma. She never woke up.
As the years go by, I think about my grandmother often and about those two conversations from time to time. Love and life, two of the most confusing ideas that our species has, for millennia, tried to tackle, and a small-town girl with an 8th grade education had’em all sorted out. Go figure.