In celebration of Mother’s Day, I am sharing some excerpts from my upcoming memoir–sort of a memoir within a memoir about my paternal grandmother. You can read part one here:
If you’d told me we were going to move to an Island where daddy would chop down the alder and fir trees, scrape the moss off the ground and carve out path through the rhododendrons and until there was a big field of dirt, I would never have believed you. If you’d told me Daddy would lay down two long logs and build a platform on top of them for a floor and I would have to hold up the walls while he build a cabin for our new home, I would never have believed you.
If you had told me that we would have no heat except a wood cook stove and I would have to sleep on the porch next to the wood pile, I would never have believed you. If you had told me we would rely on gravity feed water for cooking and string a power line across the dirt field from Nana’s trailer so we could watch the Waltons on Thursday nights and I would now take only one shower at the state park every Friday night, I would never have believed you.
However if you had told me Nana would become one of my best friends while I was in fourth grade–now that I might have believed, because it was always a dream I had waiting to come true.
Every day when my sister and I got off the school bus, Nana was there to walk us the quarter mile home. Now a quarter mile might not seem very far to grow ups, but when it’s a gravel road through a mossy forest and there are only two buildings along the route, it’s much scarier that it appears. Especially when one of those buildings was so covered with so much moss it looked like it was fading back into the earth while the newer building was actually an abandoned bat cabin. We knew it was abandoned because no one lived there and if you walked by at dusk, you could see a steady stream of bats coming and going from the attic. Just the thought of it made me shudder.
Every October Mama explained why we didn’t celebrate witches and goblins because they were evil and creepy, but at least they were make-believe. Mama, who always, always had safety in mind, said bats were the stuff of nightmares because they bite people while they were sleeping and give them rabies. She said spiders could be poisonous too and they were the real villains. As far as she was concerned the only good spider, was a dead one. She said if we saw a spider, we needed to kill it before it got us. Which was sort of a creepy thing to say to a kid sleeping next to the woodpile, but maybe Mama forgot that she was sleeping inside the cabin, while I was sleeping on the lean to porch with the wood supply.
Thank goodness for Jesus. Every night when I crawled onto my bunk bed, I prayed the spiders and bats away and that’s how I got to sleep. I was pretty sure it was Jesus protecting me from the bats and spiders, but I wasn’t sure that coverage extended as far away as the bat cabin. That’s why Nana walking me home from the bus stop was so important.
Nana was tough. I never saw her swing a broom at a spider or bat. She was worried about bigger things like the fact that Grandpa was dying from leukemia and she needed to learn how to drive, but despite her own problems, Nana always took time to listen to mine.
Each day, after Nana bravely guided my nervous feet past the mossy house, past the bat cabin and up to our property, I dashed across the mud to say hello to Mama in the cabin and then ran back to Nana’s trailer to see what she wanted to do. I didn’t love Nana more than Mama, they were just different. Mama was busy clipping coupons and recipes and watching my younger siblings while she stoked the fire to keep the cabin warm, while Nana actually had the luxury of time to cut out paper dolls and design clothes for them. Both tasks required scissors, but one was far more interesting than the other.
Mama wasn’t very excited to have her mother in law next door. She didn’t think Nana was clean enough for her taste and told me to never eat anything Nana gave me. This made visits to Nana’s trailer complicated because Nana loved to offer us cookies. Mama taught me to pretend eat the cookie by putting it up to my mouth, then pretending to chew it and while I was pretending to chew it, I was to act like I had to go pee. Once I got to the bathroom, I could flush the “dirty” cookie down the toilet. I always marveled that this wouldn’t work if Nana had an outhouse like we did, but fortunately Nana lived like normal people with a flush toilet. It still gave me a guilty feeling whenever Nana joyfully baked cookies for us, because I was pretty sure she wouldn’t be so excited to do it if she knew we were just flushing them all down the toilet.
One day, I came home from school excited about the Heritage Singers concert. Some of the girls in my class were talking about it on the bus and I couldn’t wait to go. I saw Daddy carrying wood into the porch so I decided to tell him about it.
“Daddy? The Heritage Singers are coming to town! Can we go to the concert? All my friends at school are going and I want to go too.”
Daddy cleared his throat.
“Well, I’m not sure the Heritage Singers are actually singing for God. Their music seems a little worldly to me. Don’t you think we should listen to good music so we can be ready for Jesus to come?”
“But they’re singing about Jesus—they even have a song about Jesus coming! Besides all the kids at school are going–even Cousin Randy and Aunt Margie are going. Can’t I go with them?”
“No, you’re not going. And that’s the final word.”
My shoulders slumped and my face fell. As a nine-year-old girl trying to fit in with my new classmates, Daddy’s decree felt like the end of my social life. A lump stuck in my throat and tears started to fill my eyes at the thought of all my friends going to the concert without me. All the popular kids would be talking about the concert and singing Heritage Singer songs on the bus while I was left out.
I tried to run out of the porch before Daddy saw me cry, but he caught my shoulder with his long arm and held me in place.
“Hey, if you’re that upset about not going to one concert, then I have to question if it’s good music, good music should help you act like a happy girl who obeys her parents.”
As soon as he let go, I stormed over to Nana’s house. We had been working on making a Barbie dress. Nana was teaching me to sew by hand. While we sewed, I told Nana about the concert, then I started to cry. When I was sad, Nana usually thought of something to cheer me up.
Nana looked at me with an empathetic, but mysterious face. “Well, if you can’t go to the concert, do you think it would help if you knew some of their songs?”
“Of course Nana, but how can I learn the songs when I can’t even go to the concert to buy an album?”
Nana got up to shuffle through her record cabinet and pulled out a vinyl album, she lifted the needle and gently placed it on the black disc on the turn table. I was thrilled to read the words “Heritage Singers” on the cover. I don’t know how she got it, but Nana filled her little trailer and my heart with the sound of happy songs. I knew Daddy didn’t care for the music, but Nana was his mother and I figured anything she said should overrule what Daddy said.
Nana was right, even though I couldn’t attend the concert, I could still learn the songs. That was the day I decided Nana was my new best friend. To celebrate our great idea, Nana offered me a cookie.
Nana was protective and cautious like Mama–only in different ways. One day I was carrying the scissors across the room when Nana gently took them out of my hand and turned them down to point at the floor.
“I don’t know if I ever told you this, but my own Mama only had one eye because she was running and accidentally fell on her scissors when she was a little girl. You must always make sure you hold the scissors pointing down toward the floor.”
“Nana, can you tell me a story about your Mama?”
Nana smiled in her melancholy way.
“Well, yes, my Mama had a hard life. Her mother died when she was young and her new mother didn’t like her very well, so when her father died, she was only fifteen and on her own. She decided to come West by train. There was one trestle that was so old and shaky the conductor wasn’t sure the train would make it across, so he told everyone to get off of the train in case it didn’t make it. Everyone got off but my Mama who refused to get off because she had paid for her ticket and didn’t think she should have to walk across the trestle.”
“So she got across safe?”
“Yes, but she was disgusted because she had to wait on the other side for all the people to walk across.”
I laughed. “I wish I had known her.”
Nana’s mouth smiled, but her green eyes looked sad. ”My father never hung around much and left her with five kids to raise on her own.”
I felt sad for Nana’s mother. “What did she do?”
“Oh she was a smart woman and a hard worker. She started her own business doing other people’s sewing and washing and that’s how she supported us.”
I looked at the doll dress I was sewing by hand. It was fun to make a doll dress, but the thought of mending someone’s old clothes with only one eye seemed sad and hard.
Nana smiled at the memory of her mother. “Even though your great grandma had hard times, she always hummed because she trusted Jesus, perhaps because of all her hard times. When bad things happen people either get stronger or they give up.”
I looked at Nana and decided since she was strong and her mama was strong, maybe I was strong too.
All week, Nana played the Heritage Singers album whenever I went to her house. It didn’t matter whether we sewed doll clothes or made paper dolls or played checkers, I kept humming along and pretty soon I knew all the words. The Monday after the concert, when the other kids on the bus sang, “I’m so glad I’m a part of the family of God,” I could sing along with them. By the end of the school year, people started calling me, “That girl who always sings Heritage Singer songs,” and no one ever remembered I missed the concert.