I’ve begun to ask myself why I feel more inclined to tell the story of one grandmother versus the other. Where emotion and humor are concerned, I probably have more in common with the one I’m less inclined to story about.
So why does one story draw me more than the other?
They competed for our affections. Not openly, but every now and then it would slip out.
You like her chicken-n-dumplings better than mine.
Y’all spend more time at her house.
You always go there first.
Both were Mama grandmas, but pronounced differently: Mama Nick (MAH-mah Nick) and Mama Wilson (MAW-Maw Wilson). Mama Wilson was average height —maybe a little tall for her generation— and stout; Mama Nick was short and, by her 60s, hunched.
Both were excellent cooks. One favored gardening. The other sewing and crafts.
Mom learned her domestic skills (cooking and gardening) from her mother-in-law. Arguably, this is because mom was the red-headed middle child and neither parents’ favorite, and she married fresh out of high school, living the first few months of marriage in a trailer next to her in-laws’ house. Whatever the reasons, mom’s chicken-n-dumplings are more like her mother-in-law’s than her own mom’s, and, while mom can sew if she puts her mind to it, she prefers the dirt, like her mother-in-law.
I prefer the dirt, too. So, why do I feel more inclined to write about my maternal grandmother?
Mama Wilson wasn’t the “sweet” grandmother. She was wonderful, we loved her; but she was strung between sweet and stern, between doting and “don’t-do-that!” She had a bush just outside her back door that we, the grandchildren, called the stick bush. If she became cross with one of us, in an instant, she had reached through the back door without looking, snap!, and was swishing the switch that would blister our bottoms.
I remember hiding under one of the cupboards she used for storing cloth, needles, patterns, and thread. From there she might just scold us, the switch becoming more of an exclamation point on the reprimands.
Thankfully, those switch moments didn’t define our relationships with her. Even as children, we joked about the switch bush.
August 20, 1956, my four grandparents and my parents, at their nuptials. Mom is wearing the wedding gown Mama Wilson made for her.
What I remember more about mawmaw are her amazing skills. For fun, she made wall-hangings and things like mantel clocks, using molds, plaster, and paint. To supplement their income, she sewed dresses, vests, pants, pajamas, and wedding gowns for friends and neighbors. Of course, on-the-house garments for family.
She probably didn’t realize she had extraordinary skills and creativity. I remember the year we were in town, and she found out we would be shopping for clothing. I was at the grow-an-inch-each-month age. She looked at me, head to toe, toe to head, pulled out a bolt of cloth and a pattern from the cupboard. After spreading the cloth on the floor, she opened the pattern.
In my mind, she tossed the light tissue pattern in the air and let it fall perfectly on the cloth, but that would be an exaggeration. She smoothed the used pattern on the material, then went to the kitchen and came out with a fist full of butter knives and threw them (not exaggerating here) along the edges of the pattern before cutting the material. That afternoon, I had a McCall’s skirt, knickers, and vest that would fit me for more than a mere month.
My mom and I can sew okay, but we didn’t inherit those skills. Maybe that’s one reason I’m drawn to her story.
The oak tree roots
I think mostly, though, it’s the tree incident. I wasn’t witness but heard more than one first-hand account about her fall on the roots of the oak tree. That year, I began writing about her: a short story “Divinity” and a novel. The oak-tree story inspired the opening scene of the novel, and later, of my first screenplay. The oak tree probably marks when I first really started paying attention to what was happening to my grandmothers.
Did I mention that both of my grandmothers had Alzheimer’s?
The first signs of it began in their mid to late 60s. By 80, the disease had ravaged their minds. I would come to Louisiana for disheartening holidays, stories about the meek, sweet grandmother, now in a nursing home because she was too difficult to care for, swearing like a sailor, starting two kitchen fires, and running off two caretakers; the stern grandmother, now meek, fumbling with safety pins on her sweater where she’d lost buttons she could no longer sew back on, clinging to my grandfather’s every move, and painfully pleasant to everyone around her.
The stern-to-meek grandmother had developed a tendency to wander at night. On one of her wee-hour excursions, the roots of the old oak tree tripped her up, an incident that prompted the installation of door alarms.
That oak tree and the timing draw me to Mama Wilson’s story. Mama Nick died before I moved back to Louisiana. My visits with her were brief and heart-breaking, often spent trying to figure out where her dentures were and what happened to that new slip mom had brought her last time. I knew less about the day-to-day of her relationship with the disease. She had fallen while I was away.
I was around enough to watch some of Mama Wilson’s fall. Her fall wasn’t any less heart-breaking, but I was able to catch glimpses of the grandmother I remembered. We helped her with her safety pins, she fussed with my daughters’ hair, and we answered when she asked “Where’s Norman?” Before she slipped away, she held all three of my babies. She didn’t always realize they were her great-grandchildren, but that she held them was a blessing.
As Mama Wilson declined, mom wasn’t always patient. She watched her with dismay and started to say things like, “I hope you can be more patient than me . . . ” and “If I get like that . . . ” Then, mom got like that.
This time, I’m here for the whole fall. We’re blessed that mom’s fall started much later, in her late 70s, and that mom is an exemplary and compliant patient.
I started this essay years ago, before mom stumbled across the rough roots of Alzheimer’s. Some of the beginning of the essay is no longer accurate in the present tense. Mom cooked her last pot of chicken-n-dumplings on her own two or three years ago, she’s no longer able to put her mind to complex tasks like sewing, and her gardening is limited to weed-pulling now. She can’t hoe a row or organize the planting of it. This year, she wasn’t able to make any of the Christmas cookies on her own.
I never finished writing about Mama Wilson’s fall before mom tripped on her own diseased roots. I haven’t even begun the forensic work to write about Mama Nick’s fall into the disease. I’m drawn to Mama Wilson’s story first because it was the first time I witnessed alertness spilling from the eyes, awareness and stories slowly draining until finally the gaze is vacant.
All three stories —Mama Wilson’s, Mama Nicks, and mom’s— inform my own as I stare down the triple-barreled Alzheimer’s rifle. All three stories challenge me. Like stubborn weeds, they break above the root and require more than the casual tug to be released.
My intention this year is to dig a bit deeper, to finish Mama Wilson’s story, explore Mama Nick’s, and continue to be part of mom’s. Turning over their stories with my words, my heart will break a little more, but I’ll learn more about these women I cherish, the disease I dread, and myself.
©Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved. 2020