grandmother was an old lady when I was born. I’m sure we all believe
our grandmothers are ancient and always have been. Mine was in her
seventies by the time I entered the world.
Like the grandmother in Confessions
of April Grace, Grandma wore handmade, floral-print, cotton
dresses. Every morning after she was dressed, she put on an overall
apron, a soft cardigan, and she never failed to tuck a colorful, cotton
hankie into the sleeve. She kept her thick, flesh-colored cotton
stockings rolled just above her knees with garters that looked like big
rubber bands. Her shoes were the ugliest things ever. Square-toed,
black and clunky, with heavy square heels, they laced up the front
nearly to her ankles.
My grandma never cut her hair,
and she wore it in a tight, neat bun on the back of her head. Unbound,
it reached far below her hips. Around her head the hair was gray, but
as she unwound that bun, her dark hair became visible. The more she
allowed it to fall, the darker it got until, at the very ends, it was
nearly black. As I watched her groom her hair, I was looking at the
dark hair she wore as a young mother, and I could observe the passing
marks of the years as it gradually faded into gray. She sat in her
rocker and brushed hair. Then, without aid of a mirror, she twisted it
up in that bun, precisely in the center of the back of her head,
fastened it deftly with a few hairpins, and she was ready, neat and
fresh for the day.
Grandma could read shape-notes.
Each shape represented a different note of the music scale, and by
knowing what shape stood for which note, she could sing anything
written with shape-notes. She had a stack of soft-covered, battered old
songbooks that she kept on a table beside her rocking chair. She’d pick
up Heavenly Highways or some other songbook, open
to any song, sing a do-re-mi to find the right key, then begin to sing.
I loved to sit on a little footstool next to her chair and listen to
her sweet, high voice pour out those lovely old gospel tunes.
couldn’t hear very well. In fact, if you wanted to talk with her, you
had to yell into her hearing aid. Unlike the tiny little nubs used
today, her hearing aid was an unwieldy gadget about the size of a deck
of cards. It had a long cord attached to a large hearing piece that she
wore in one ear. The hearing aid itself fit into a chest pocket sewn
inside every petticoat she had. If she didn’t hear you, or understand
what you said after you repeated yourself once, she’d just smile and
nod, not wanting to be an annoyance by making you say the same thing
three or four times.
Grandma also wore thin, gold,
wire-framed glasses. More than once she’d settle those glasses on her
nose and off she’d go, searching for something, looking under doilies,
behind cushions, on top of books, on the sink in the bathroom, on her
I’d say, finally,
“what is it you’re looking for?”
“Why, my glasses! I plumb
forgot where I laid them.”
I always kept a straight face
when I’d say, “Grandma, you’re wearing your glasses.”
She put her hands to her face,
feel the frames, sort of cross her eyes to see them. She’d wear the
most astonished expression for a moment, then burst out laughing.
“Well, law! I shore am,” she’d
say, still chuckling.
From my grandmother I learned
the proper way to make a bed, how to raise African violets so they
bloom all year. She taught me that cats love cream gravy as much as
people do, that it’s good to stay busy, and that there is always
something funny to be found in almost every situation.
Grandma died in 1973, at the age
of ninety-two. To this day, I can never hear the song “Unclouded Day”
without the echo of her voice joining in.