Sunday, June 2, 2013


My granny passed away yesterday. She was 91 years old, and died in the home she had shared with my popaw since before I was born. Every single one of her children, children-in-law, grandchildren, grandchildren-in-law, and great-grandchildren got to visit her at home and say good-bye. Many of her surviving siblings, nieces, and nephews who live farther away -- South Carolina, Hawaii -- did so by phone. None of us actually said "good-bye," but we all made sure to have one last conversation (or two or three) with her, made sure to let her know that we loved her.

Each time someone called, one of us would bring the clunky old landline phone (my granny and popaw's wood-paneled house was incorrigibly stuck in a serene time warp, frozen circa 1983) over from its perch in the kitchen and plop it down on her bed. The calls seemed to cheer her up, seemed to make her feel important and popular, valued, after several years of worrying that she was a stooped-over, hard-of-hearing burden to her three kids who took turns having her come visit after my popaw died at the end of 2011. She took each call graciously, and would often then drift off to sleep, dazed by the morphine that the doctor had given her to ease the pain of her inoperable gallbladder cancer.

My granny -- Frances, "Francie" to my popaw, "Sis" to her many brothers and sisters -- grew up in Appalachia, roughly in the area of Saltville, Virginia (the closest town to there that anyone's heard of is Bristol, Tennessee). Her folks were super religious and didn't believe in using birth control; therefore, it's not surprising that her mom gave birth to 17 (not a typo there) babies, 14 of whom survived into adulthood. 

She was the oldest girl in a big farming family, so she was the de facto mom to her siblings while her mom kept on having babies. My granny used to tell my family (straight-faced, without a hint of self-pity) stories of dragging a chair to the stove so she could cook as a little kid. She was shy and smart and mischievous, liked school, especially geography, and was even skipped forward a grade at some point, but such was her hectic and burgeoning family situation that she had to leave school in the sixth grade. Her grandmother had just gotten very sick, and there were just too many babies and too many farming men (and not enough of my granny) there in the little house -- too many breakfasts to cook, too many clothes to wash, too many things to clean, brothers stumbling home drunk after spending some of their hard-earned paycheck on booze, "young'ins" to take care of. My granny said she often fantasized about having a twin sister to help her.

I don't remember her ever talking too much about school, but I do remember her saying how mad it made her whenever she heard anyone -- children or adults -- make fun of or judge someone for being dirty or smelling bad. Growing up poor (but not as poor as some families in that part of the world, at that time in history), my granny knew that sometimes you can't help being dirty or smelling bad. Sometimes you have no choice. I don't think that she personally ever got picked on for anything like this, but she would vehemently defend anyone who did. 

My granny believed that a clairvoyant streak ran through our family -- it seemed especially to affect the women -- and would tell me how her mom, my Granny Holmes, frequently had dreams that would come true in precise, chilling, impossible-to-predict detail. I remember this one dream my great-grandmother had about the funeral of a foreign man, Turkish maybe, or from someplace in the Middle East. That part of Appalachia is not exactly overrun with foreigners, not now and certainly not then. Granny Holmes described the deceased man's costume, this funny little hat he wore, lots of details, and said the funeral procession took some different-than-usual route to the cemetery. Sure enough, I'm told, a man of that description did have a funeral soon after my great-grandmother had this dream -- and it rained a lot, and there was flooding on the hillsides near the graveyard, so the procession had to take a rare alternative route to his grave.   

Before and during World War II, my granny worked in a factory. She seemed to have enjoyed the camaraderie among the girls who worked there. The factory at one time manufactured and packaged pantyhose -- my granny told us how there'd be two rows of the same exact pantyhose coming down the assembly line, one going to the fancy department stores with a high price tag, and one going to the drugstores with a low price tag. Later, during wartime, the factory was converted to one that produced ammunition.  

When my granny was 14 years old, her baby brother died. As was the custom in the mountains back in those days when someone died, the family "sat up with" the baby all day and night, greeting visitors who had come to share their sympathies. At some point my granny went off to take a much-needed nap. When she returned, she saw that two local young men had come to tend the fire and watch over the baby while the family got some rest. One of those men was my popaw. He was 17. He said he fell in love with her at first sight.

Her family tried to discourage him from coming around to see her, not just because my granny was so young, but because my popaw came from a family of alcoholics. My granny's mom liked him, but said: "Claude, I don't mind you coming around, but if you're coming to see Sis, you better stop coming here." My popaw eventually won them over, and asked my granny to marry him. This was before he went to Europe for the war -- he would go on to take part in the Normandy Invasion and survive the Battle of the Bulge -- and my granny said no; she said she didn't want to "have a husband and then not have a husband." He carried her picture with him when he want off to war; the photo still has a dent in it from a snap in his wallet. 

He asked her again when he came home, and she said yes -- but not until he had a job. So he went to the big plant that employed just about everyone in that region (my dad's dad worked there, too, and so did my mom's two brothers later on). Family lore has it that my popaw was so chatty and friendly that they offered him a job -- more to get rid of him than anything else. (A hitchhiker in his younger days -- apparently this was not an abnormal mode of commuting to work back then -- and the life of any party, my popaw was one of those people who "never met a stranger.") He was so excited to marry my granny that he put on his suit and showed up at her house a day early. She turned him away, and they got married on the day they'd planned, but I've heard this story many times as just one more anecdote that shows how smitten my popaw was, and remained to be, with my granny. 

My popaw and granny lived in a white house in Glade Spring, just one town over from Saltville, and had three kids, my mom and her two older brothers. They were everyone's favorite parents, my mom has said, fun to be around, the house warm and full of laughter. There were the normal little sibling rivalries and tiny, usually inadvertent hurts, but I have no reason to believe that they were anything but a happy family. My granny, lying on her deathbed, said: "Claude never once raised his voice at me." This fact, to her, seemed proof of his respect and love for her. In a video I saw the last time I visited her, an interview conducted by someone at their church about the secret to their long marriage, my popaw said his advice was to "treat your wife like she's the only thing in the world." He did that, for 66 years of marriage. 

At some point when my parents were in college, the Saltville branch of the plant that had employed everyone's dad and brother and son shut down, and sent everyone scattering. While my dad's dad was a slightly higher-up manager and got a transfer to the Augusta, Georgia branch, my mom's side of the family -- her parents, her two brothers -- ended up finding work and banding together in the Richmond suburbs. For this reason, my popaw and granny won't be buried in Saltville with the rest of our family tree, but in Hopewell, Virginia, where they good-naturedly made their home and went to church for more than 35 years. 

Hopewell never seemed, to me, to have much besides the factory smokestacks you saw just before the exit on 295 and the train tracks that ran beyond a small margin of woods behind my popaw and granny's house (passing trains rattled the house, and we used to place pennies on the rails in hopes that the coins would get all smashed and abstract and Abraham-Lincoln-face-less). But for my popaw and granny, their children and grandchildren were close by (until my parents got married in 1974 and moved up near DC), and I never heard them complain or say anything bitter about having to leave the ancestral bluegrass-mountain homeland. For them, home was family, so home could be anywhere.

For more than 35 years, the little wood-paneled, Jesus-bedecked house in Hopewell was where my granny and popaw called home, and was where we all gathered for no-fuss Thanksgivings and Easter-egg hunts. These weren't shindigs that would have made it into Martha Stewart Living -- no decorations or dress code, come-as-you-are, a tried-and-true buffet of country foods such as fried chicken and dumplings and biscuits with sausage gravy or apple butter and sickly-sweet iced tea. I always left these get-togethers daydreaming about all of us chipping in to buy a big house that we could all live in.

In their later years, especially after their kids were grown, my granny and popaw's life centered around their Pentecostal church -- they went to a "Church of God of Prophecy," which I'm told is one step more conservative and zealous than the regular old Church of God. I saw someone speaking in tongues every time I ever went to their church, and once saw my popaw doing it in a quiet, humble, un-show-offy way. After my popaw retired, he would spend hours on the road delivering food and other goods to poor and housebound people through a church volunteer program. (My granny and popaw always had these bags of Aziza cosmetics plastered with "Not for Resale" stickers around their house -- my cousin Aimee, who's my age, and I had compacts of diner-waitress-blue eye shadow and tubes of porn-star-pink lip gloss in our Caboodles in junior high, all of it branded with those "Not for Resale" stickers, given to us by our non-makeup-wearing granny for free from among the grocery-store castoff haul that they gave out to the lower-income people on my popaw's rounds. We called it our "expired makeup," but I think it might have been surplus or maybe just the garish colors that nobody else wanted.)

Their religion was strict -- one time my mom was talking about buying my granny and popaw some board games, to help keep their minds sharp, and I suggested Monopoly, and my mom said, "Oh honey, they don't believe in dice," something to do with dice being too closely associated with gambling. My granny once kindly suggested that Aimee and I rip the horoscope pages out of our 'Teen magazines because astrology was "of the devil." 

And their religion was intense -- I remember once when Aimee and I were around 7 or 8, and we attended a night of the church's weeklong "Revival." The preacher was sweating and shouting about how everyone was born full of sin. Aimee and I crouched beneath the pew and held each other and cried, terrified of going to hell. 

My granny wore skirts and dresses only, never pants -- due to something in the Bible about how women shouldn't wear men's clothes -- and my grandparents stopped wearing their wedding rings because of something in the Bible that implied that jewelry was ostentatious and vain. But they never said a word when any of their granddaughters wore jeans, when my mom showed up in big '80s jewelry -- their view seemed to be that they were holding themselves to admittedly strict standards they didn't expect everyone else to live by. Even on Halloween, a holiday that they privately viewed as "devilish," they would buy candy and give it out (but they never decorated for Halloween) because they liked to see the young'ins happy. They just barely got by on their fixed income but always gave each of the grandkids "a little somethin' " for Christmas, a twenty- or ten-dollar bill.

* * * 

I find that when I write about my granny and popaw, my tenor -- the cynicism, the bleakness, the nihilism -- softens a bit. It's simply not appropriate to write about them in that tone. They were good people, solid people, smart without being particularly educated (my popaw had to drop out of school young, too -- in the third or fourth grade, I'm sorry to say that I forget which -- in order to work and help his family), incredibly funny, warm people. I don't feel any degree of ambivalence toward them -- they were good, and I loved them. I do wish I had known them better, but doesn't everyone seem to say that about their grandparents? 

While I was sitting beside my granny recently, she talked about the hard old days, and she said: "You kids don't know what it's like to live through hard times." She said it with relief; she was glad that things have changed for the better since then. And I respectfully agreed, because come on -- like I'm going to argue with someone who came of age in Depression-era Appalachia. 

But part of me was thinking, "Well, we have hard times, just different hard times." Maybe not the same level of hard -- my popaw once told us that he would purposely step on cow pies on the way to the outhouse on cold winter nights because they were warm -- but not always easy either. When a certain degree of rigid social order is swept away, you get good things -- oh, you know, feminism and gay rights and religious tolerance and no more "Colored" and "White" drinking fountains and such -- but also some angst and confusion when it comes to what you should want, how you should be, now that so much has changed. 

A 34-year-old unmarried woman with no children (me) isn't enough to make anyone blink an eye anymore, but as I sat beside my granny on her deathbed I wished, stronger than just about anything else, that I'd had babies in time for her to meet them. I admit it; I was jealous of my cousins who had done this, who'd had kids in time for them to meet our granny. 

I could have done that. I was engaged when I was 20; I could've had 15 babies by now.

I don't wish that I'd married the hyper-conservative (i.e. bigot) engineer I was engaged to back then. If I'd done that, I would have pretty much marched down the path in life I was supposed to. I'd have popped out two or three babies in my early twenties, even though my then-fiancé actively despised small children and made jokes along the lines of, "I'll just let you raise them until they're 7 or so and I'm able to have an intelligent conversation with them." But my fiancé was nothing like my popaw; I would have been miserable and unfulfilled. I surely would have cheated on him. We would be divorced by now, probably with those two or three or 15 aforementioned, half-wanted (wholly wanted by me) children involved. I have no doubt about the certainty of any of these things. (Except maybe for the part about my having 15 babies.)

Instead I dumped him and started a relationship with his then- best friend, Tim. It was a perplexing and unpopular move in my family's eyes -- why would I break up with this stable guy with the master's degree in computer science and the respectable earning potential, the dude who had "put a [diamond] ring on it," to be with this unemployed, manic-depressive guy (who had long hair)? Tim was even an atheist, and he turned me into an atheist, too (by virtue of providing perfectly sensible, rational answers to my questions about this subject during our increasingly heated pre-relationship e-mail correspondence). Why would I do that? 

To be happy. I loved him, especially back when I saw him as a romantically depressed, poetic type à la Lord Byron. But it helped that I didn't feel as beholden to any kind of local community, family expectations, and church social dynamics as many of my other relatives have. It helped that I went to a culturally diverse and mostly politically liberal high school and had hippie white-Buddhist English teachers who encouraged me to shrug off the shackles of tradition and go in new directions. Or, you know, maybe my fiancé was just an asshole and I would have broken off the engagement even if I'd grown up all churchy in a small town.

Or maybe: I knew, because my granny and popaw had a happy marriage, and because my parents seem to have a happy marriage, that a better life situation was surely out there for me. 

Either way, the fact is: I dumped the graduate-degreed, soon-to-be-a-rich-engineer dude and started shacking up with a manic-depressive, unemployed-for-the-decade-long-duration-of-our-relationship dude. I lived with Tim -- in semi-secrecy, because my relatives on my mom's side believe it's a sin to co-habitate before marriage. Surprise surprise, I grew resentful of always being the supportive one; surprise surprise, I felt stifled by his jealous rages over things such as whether I was careless when getting out of a car while wearing a short skirt; surprise surprise, I cheated on him.

I felt guilty about this. I started drinking. 

By 28, I had lived with a guy I wasn't married to, cheated on him, "lost my religion," had sex, and gotten drunk. One of my favorite things to do is go to a nightclub where people drink and dance, two things that my granny believed -- in a quiet, live-and-let-live, non-judgmental way -- are sins. (The last time I was at Spellbound, the Saturday-night goth club held inside a venue in DC called Recessions, a basement-like underground space, I looked around me and thought about this, how the scene might appear to someone religious as a bunch of demons cavorting in dark revelry, and the bar even has stained-glass-window tiles on the ceiling -- as if we have to look way up to see goodness.) She knew nothing of my less G-Rated fiction, of my posing nude for photographer friends. 

Is it any wonder then, sitting by my granny's bedside the other week, scrambling for something to say that would be situationally appropriate, that I felt depressingly distant from her? 

Yet in many ways I see myself as the continuation of a line -- going back from me to my mom to my granny, maybe farther back to my great-granny, maybe farther back than that. A line of shy, over-polite, self-deprecating, storytelling, writerly women. I hear my voice sometimes -- especially when I'm being polite to strangers -- and it's my mom's voice. Not the sound of it, but the cadence, the phrasing. And my mom's voice -- despite not having the sharp Appalachian accent that my granny has; my mom's would-be backwoods accent was mitigated by the emergence of mass media onto the scene that told her how the rest of the country sounded -- is my granny's voice sometimes, I can hear it. 

My writing voice, too, comes from them, even if my subject matter and language might shock them (coming from me especially). Last night at Spellbound my playwright friend (he's had a play of his performed at the Kennedy Center) told me that my narrative voice is very "grounded" and credible, that I could get away with fudging some facts if I wanted or needed to because the narrative voice lulls you into trusting it. If that's true at all, it's thanks to my granny and my mom, whose humble, modest, never-putting-on-airs voice is the base for my own, in my fiction at least. (That said, I can be incredibly wannabe-intellectual and wannabe-fancy, especially on this blog; for that I blame Joan Didion and her lengthy, elaborate, exquisitely tangled thoughts and sentences.) 

There are other ways in which, despite our massive generation gap, I feel a connection with my granny. I told a friend today that my granny was the kind of person I want to be when I'm older -- a woman so devoid of vanity, of taking herself too seriously, that she loved to pop out her fake teeth and make "scrunchkin" faces to make the grandkids laugh.

* * *

Last night after I got home from Spellbound, I had to type up my granny's obituary and e-mail it to my dad and my take-charge aunt, so they could give it to the funeral home to post on its site and share with local papers. As a template, they gave me the obituary I wrote for my popaw; my granny wanted everything about her funeral to be just like his. I dutifully typed in her full name (leaving off her real first name, Lottie, which she always hated and asked to be omitted), her date and place of birth, the nigh-Biblical listing of children, prodigiously fruitful grandchildren, and the great-grandchildren they begat. 

At first I despaired at the template-ness of it, the standard-ness of it. I wanted to write something special, something more personal than what a receptionist at the funeral home could easily have come up with given the right facts to plug in. 

I wanted to at least add the biographical facts that I knew to define her for many of my relatives -- the 14 kids in the farming family, the devotion in my grandparents' old age to their church, the practical jokes she played as a girl (tying together her brothers' and sisters' toes as they slept so they'd stumble around when they woke up). The love story between her and my popaw.

But at the risk of relying on a lazy, Panglossian-sounding excuse -- her family was her life. There are non-family-centric things I could tell you about her. She had a few jobs, and friends at those jobs. She was awesome at Scrabble. She was a fantastic cook of deceptively simple-seeming but takes-hard-work-to-make country food; her apple butter was the best in all the land. She hated her green eyes, which I always loved. She liked geography in school. One time when my mom was a baby, my granny nearly had a nervous breakdown because she was sure she had committed what she'd been told was "the unforgivable sin" (of doubting the existence of the Holy Spirit, i.e. speaking in tongues).

There are many things I could say about her as an individual, but her life -- what seemed to bring her the most joy, what she talked about the most -- was her family. 

Sitting with my granny by her bedside, quiet as I struggled to think of a right thing to say, peering into the dining room on the spectacle of aunts and uncles and cousins and their spouses and babies, everyone talking and laughing over chicken and dumplings and potato chips and sweet tea and pop, as if it were an arranged tableau, a scene in a play, I thought that I felt her satisfaction at what she'd done with her time on this earth. She hadn't been famous, hadn't created some masterpiece of art or written a book or won any fancy awards. She never even left the country, never even got on a plane.

Lying there in her hospital-style bed under a velvet snowflake quilt, she said things like, "Don't we have a perty family," and I knew she didn't mean we were photogenic; she meant that she and Popaw had done well, had begotten a bunch of interesting folks who lived and loved and succeeded and failed and chatted and gossiped, sinners and saints and those of us somewhere in between, some of us with her voice. 

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