Thursday, September 17, 2015


At 3 a.m. in the morning, everyone was sleeping soundly.  My Grandmama and Pa were visiting, sleeping in the middle room of my parents' house, the guest room.  Obviously not everyone was sleeping soundly.  Without even a whisper but a blood curdling scream saved only for life-threatening moments, Grandmama sat up in bed in the pitch dark night, screaming, "GUNTER, WHERE'S MY PURSE???"  All the lights flew on, the commotion putting the rest of the house in "danger" mode, sending everyone else scurrying to a fallout shelter.  It is funny now but to live it was another matter.  Grandmama could be kind and gentle but she could also flip a switch that brought every other activity to a halt or sleeping neighborhoods to attention.  The purse was found.  She always had a thing about her beautiful bags.  Somehow, I may have inherited both of these qualities.

Sometimes I think my lot in life is unpacking boxes.  Boxes from remodeling or boxes moved to the garage for temporary safe keeping.  Ah, the garage.  The glorious repository of all things without quick solutions.  Easy out.  Just open the kitchen door and pitch.  Maybe a professional organizer is in my future.

But good things do come in forgotten boxes.  I recently found the box holding souvenirs I have collected from my grandmother's life.  This is not a huge collection because she was the sort of person who had just what she needed and little excess except for dinnerware and family correspondence.  The original place for everything.

NRE (1909-2003) started out with a holler, on a hot, summer day in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, after the doctor had asked her father whose life to save, the mother's or the baby's.  The delivery left small scars on her little head.  She was quickly wrapped and placed on a table, unattended, while the doctor and his helper labored to save her mother.  Cassie was spared but would never have any more babies.  At some point, as the story has been told for years, the neglected baby made herself known with a big cry.  And thus, she continued for her ninety-three years, feisty and much loved from day one.

We shared a close relationship and could talk about almost anything.   Others insisted I was her favorite but I had no control in being the first grandchild born and sharing her middle name.  When I was fifteen, she shocked me for the first time.  We were walking in a dwindling downtown area.  One store offered nothing but bare mannequins posed for the empty streets.  Grandmama whispered to me, "Somebody really told her where to stick it."  I never saw her in the same way again.

Before I left for college, I drove to visit my grandparents.  She loved to shop but always with a purpose in mind.  Always the best and always her brand.  Going out required her to go upstairs to put on her rings, grab her purse and get her credit card (which she paid in full each month).  We went to the local boutique where my mother had bought her wedding dress years earlier.  Grandmama said yes to three dresses for my college wardrobe.   Her generosity was famous.

She also shared a story about her first few days in college.  Her beauty was well-known and preceded her to school.  Upon her arrival, the captain of the football team made her acquaintance and offered her any and everything on campus, with one proposition.  Again, I was shocked.  But this was her warning to me about the dangers lurking in college.

Family genealogy was a natural talent.  Every introduction included "your people" and her ability to know the chain of relations of dozens of people and families.  She would have loved computers for genealogy.  Her family was precious to her and she always cherished the life she had had with her parents.   

To the penny and with a sharp pencil, she kept up with all of my grandparents' business, from running a hotel to tracking the stock market.  My grandparents' love story began in college.  Once they married, they were equals in life and work.  Her business acumen was well advanced for a woman of her time.  Almost every visit, a large ledger was offered to family members for viewing stock fluctuations, dividends and net worth.  In another era, she could have climbed the corporate ladder.

Division among the ranks as to her cooking.  I remember being a child and wondering if my Grandmama cooked.  Didn't they all?  When she was young, her mother cooked.  When newly married, the deli cooked.  Running hotels and raising small children, the kitchen cooked.  And my Pa cooked.  But she cooked potato salad.  Pot roast.  Meatloaf.  Vegetable soup.  Angelfood cake.  Applesauce salad.  Divinity and fruitcake cookies.  Squash casserole.  Turnips.  Mrs. Smith's Apple Pie.  Popcorn.  Fritos.  Dr. Pepper.  Nobody starved.
Every morning of her life, she ate a banana, half a grapefruit, a bowl of Grape Nuts, orange juice and coffee.  Must have been the right combination.  She saw her doctors when necessary or for check-ups.  The only time she was hospitalized was when her two children were born.  When she died, she had never had any surgery or broken bones and was taking one or two prescriptions.  

You can be feisty and independent all of your life.  The same will that got you off the table on day one can carry you almost to the end.   With good health, luck and care, you can grow old and wise.   But being feisty or stubborn will not prevent the spider webs of dementia from running through your mind.

Stubbornness will make you say you don’t need help.   You don’t care if you lay at the bottom of the stairs dead for days.   You don’t need any medicine at all.  You can’t turn the dining room into a downstairs bedroom.   You can lie in your gown tail in bed all week.  You will fight desperately, verbally, physically, and emotionally to not go to a nursing home.

Dementia makes you call the police if your caregiver aggravates you.  You throw books at people you care about.   You scream and cry to get attention.  You lose the battle and enter a nursing home.  You tell strangers you don’t have on underwear.   You call your daughter Mama.   You don’t remember being married.   You think your parents are still living.   You deny your ninety-three years.

The last years of a very old person’s life are often not the true picture of that person.  The wonderful people who took care of her didn't know who she really was.  They did not see the beautiful face that broke hearts, or the fun loving, young mother and wife.  They did not see the countless hours she spent serving at the Red Cross in WWII.  Or the years running a hotel or helping at church.  Her sturdy shoes and turtlenecks belied the once stunning figure, impeccably dressed.  They did not know she helped her father and mother-in-law when they were sick and dying.  Or that Grandmama was sitting next to her mother when she died suddenly, unexpectedly.

She was the oldest person I have ever known.  I always wanted to ask her what it was like to be so close to heaven.  Burt's grandfather had just died and I needed to pack.  But before leaving, I felt like making the trip to see Grandmama.  The difference in a week was dramatic.  She had never been this way before.  She was leaning over in her wheelchair.  It was hard for her to talk so I did all the talking.  We held hands the whole time.  She would squeeze my hands and look at me.  I know she knew me.  I poured my heart out to her about how much she was loved,  my admiration of her.  What a wonderful life she had lived.  I talked about all of her family waiting in heaven.  As much as I would miss her, I gave her permission to let go.  Four days later, I rushed from a funeral in another state to be by her side but she left before I could get there.  

When she was born, her father had smallpox and was quarantined in a shed.  He was allowed to come to the glass window and peer in at his new baby.   Love at first sight.  Grandmama always had a wealth of love and attention.   And she returned the same.


  1. What a wonderful tribute to a great lady. It is so true what you say that we don't appreciate the real person behind the confused elderly one we see.

  2. What a wonderful tribute to a great lady. It is so true what you say that we don't appreciate the real person behind the confused elderly one we see.

    1. I wish everyone had had such a neat grandmother. Thanks for your comment!

    2. I wish everyone had had such a neat grandmother. Thanks for your comment!