My Mama Nick’s birthday was this week: Monday July 10. She would have been 118 and downright miserable had her dash stretched from 1905 to 2023.

Her dash stretched 83 years and 20 days: July 10, 1905 – July 30, 1988, and every July, the month of her birth and death, I remember her with a fond heart because she was my grandmother and because we shared a birthday month.grandparent's graves

The dashes we memorize from history books and carve into tombstones satisfy the OCD tic but make dull reading.

You have to crack open the dash, tease out the stories and memories for the good stuff.

Inside the Dash

Bevie left school after about four years to work. She married young.

What she lacked in education, she made up for in know-how on the farm, in the garden, and in the kitchen.

Bevie Mizell Nichols grew up to become a sweet woman, even if prone to fuss about “those biddies” at the Sunday meeting.

Next to her tall husband in photos, her diminutive stature was exaggerated.

She buried her husband in an above-ground grave to guarantee her own spot above the worms.

She kept chickens, pigs, and cows. When she’d call the cows from pasture, she called her favorite by name, Ooooo, Besse.

I have memories of her sitting on a dark front porch with a coffee cup in her hand and a bucket between her knees, waiting without patience for the sun to rise.

I often sampled the raw peas as she shelled them.

The smell of her coffee would waft through the farm house, disrupting afternoon naps.

I thought the hunch in her back developed from years bent over vegetable rows until my parents began fussing about my posture.

She had a habit of stuffing books with dollar bills that were still tucked neatly in bank envelopes.

The middle bedroom smelled of the rose powder she dusted on her skin before dressing for church.

She favored a sip of Morgan David wine in the evening, which she kept in her gold-colored refrigerator, close to the rolls of oatmeal cookie dough.

Her last birthday was 35 years ago. I was in Texas. She sat in a dreadful nursing home room in Louisiana. Dreadful, because it was dark. Because she was wearing someone else’s dentures and often soiled diapers. Because she was not in a modern memory care unit designed for victims of the disease that had diminished her.

The Last Birthday

If she had been well, what kind of cake would she have favored for her last birthday? The coconut cake with 7-minute frosting she would make for my dad? Or would she want that rich 5-ingredient pound cake, a staple on her kitchen counter?

I doubt she enjoyed cake on her last birthday, much less a party. My mom was a regular visitor, bearing treats and new gowns, slips, and underwear that would disappear within a week. But on July 10, 1988, mom was nose deep in my wedding preparations. Did she visit her MIL on her last birthday? I’m not sure.

Even the Diminutive Dash

I mention Mama Nick’s nursing home experience for a couple of reasons.

  • This chapter is sad, yes, and part of what we tease out of the dash if we tell the story of Bevie Mizell Nichols.
  • My grandmother’s miserable last months in that nursing home impacted my own mom’s last days and will shape my dad’s last.

In that nursing home, my grandmother chewed with someone else’s dentures because they lost hers; she wore ragged lingerie because the new ones disappeared; she lingered in a dark room, air dense with urine and body odors because her family was unable to care for her at home. I didn’t have the means or know-how to rescue my grandmother, but I knew I wouldn’t let this happen to my parents.

Thank you

Even though her last days were dark, her memory is not.

Bevie Mizell Nichols: thank you for the light you continue to bring to the world, even 35 years gone. Thank you for being a loving teacher to my mom, for showing her how to make gravy instead of bricks, for teaching her to debone the chicken before dumping in the dumplings, for modeling patience in the garden and eagerness at harvest, for passing on recipes for oatmeal cookies, pound cake, and pickles, for pulling the bank envelopes from your books to buy us candy and soda, for cleaning and frying the fish my brother caught in your pond, for scratching my back as I fell asleep next to you on heavy, striped cotton pillows.

We conflate worthiness and impact with celebrity and history, as if only big dashes matter, only the stories inside the big dashes impact lives. My Mama Nick is proof of the power of the small dash, a modest life. Even a small country woman living a simple rural life can change lives. Her tiny n-dash (–) shaped mine.

We’ll all have an n-dash between dates sooner or later. What are you putting in yours?

©Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved. 2023.