Saturday, March 5, 2011

Put your shoes on, you look like a bunch of hillbillies!

My paternal grandmother was Jeanette (Willie) McCarty.  Her married names were Abbott (when married to my biological grandfather), and Wilkins (when married to my Dad's step-father).  And, it is sad to say that it took me many years to learn to like her.

The title of this entry is a quote from her, in truth, my earliest memory of anything she said.  My Dad enjoyed 'going barefoot' around the house (and sometimes outside the house).  And, like most small boys, my brother and I followed his example...only we were pretty likely to go barefoot outside the house as well.  And, to be scolded for doing as we had always done seemed really "mean" (to a child probably around the age of six).

"Memaw" as she was known to my east coast cousins had left school after the third grade.  She was married at the age of 12, and had endured six pregnancies by the age of 21.  The first three children were stillborn or miscarried.  The last three were born healthy, and (obviously) include my Dad.  Family lore holds that she divorced her first husband for adultery shortly after the youngest son was born.  So, around 1936 ,she was a single mother, in the middle of the 'great depression', before 'single mother' was really part of the American vocabulary.

She worked in a factory making commercial ovens.  This required regular heavy lifting, and although she was very slender, she was also very strong.  But, as a single mother, she couldn't afford very much for her children.  I remember once, going with my Dad to visit the "old neighborhood".  He had contacted a friend from school, and we drove to their home for a visit.  I was probably around 10, but the visit made a huge impression on me.  As best I could tell, Dad's school-friend lived in the only building on the entire street that was still inhabited.  There were no cars, bicycles, or children in front of any of the row-houses on the street.  In Dad's youth, it must surely have been different, but in my mind, it was right out of the "Twilight Zone".  I remember thinking we should be gone before nightfall...and seem to have had some thoughts about zombies.

Before too long, she married Alec (Alexander?) Wilkins.  As a child, I thought of him as a very kind, gentle, and friendly person.  At the time, I was oblivious of the fact that he had suffered a significant stroke and had a drinking-problem.  Sure, he took me into the local bar/pub with him, but what did I care what he was drinking, I got a soda and a grilled-cheese sandwich!

Dad's step-dad readily admitted to having had a bad temper in his younger days (something my Dad confirmed with some of his personal experiences as a child), but he was always kind to me and seemed to REALLY regret his behavior.  But together, he and my grandmother had raised three very solid members of society.

Living some 1400 miles apart, it was not unusual for several years to elapse between visits "back east".  And, each time, I found my attitude toward my grandmother softening.  Her tone was still harsh, but I began to notice subtle things that gave-her-away.  She never stopped criticizing our shoe-less-ness, but I remember noticing that when she said it, there was a slight smirk on her face as she turned-away.  And I slowly came to realize that what I had interpreted as disgust at us being uncivilized, was more like a special game that she played with our family only.

Sometime in my teens, our arrival for one of our visits happened just a matter of days after a major altercation between Dad's parents.  As I understood the story, Alec had returned home late, very intoxicated, and tracked mud or dirt into the house that had just been vacuumed.  My grandmother used the metal tube of the vacuum-cleaner (some call this the "wand) as a club, and bludgeoned him up the stairs to his bedroom.  The following morning, he had come downstairs while she was cooking, with no memory of the beating, and commenting that he must have fallen sometime in the previous evening.  Her angry heart melted, and she remembered how much she loved him. 

Upon hearing my grandmother relate the story of the vacuum-cleaner beating, I began to realize just how deeply she cared for people.  It was rarely evident in her words, but was shown in what she did.  Her life had made her emotionally hard and mentally strong.  I suspect I've never met a tougher woman.  She was a survivor who was highly focused on assuring that her family survived.  Within the framework of Maslow's hierarchy, her life was completely focused on the "deficiency needs", especially physical and security needs.

Dad always said she was a "special lady".  I wish it hadn't taken me so long to see that he was right.

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