I sat with my Memaw the other night after promising to get over to my parent’s house before she left town. I kept meaning to get over there, to see her, to listen to her, to ask her about her life. To soak it all in, like her hands must have when she lathered up with the giant bottle of off-brand lotion. I remember her putting it on as I watched from her bedroom door as a child; there was a certain way her hands went around each other. She would walk out and smell like, I don’t know…lotion and Aqua Net hairspray. It sounds weird but if there was a candle with this smell, I would buy it in pallets. It would be called "Memaw" and it would sell to at least 20 people in my family. Could be huge.
The thing is, what I remember about Memaw is not the totality of her life; she had lived quite a bit of life before I entered the picture—but I never considered this. Not until I was much older. What was her life like and who was she before Grandpa? It’s things I ask her because I ask the same of myself lately. I find it's so easy to get lost in the labels of mother, wife, career title. So lost in fact, we don’t know who we have become when we stand in front of the mirror. The titles are all good and fine, but there was a person before all that, shaped by all that—not just THAT. And this is what I was after in our evening conversation in the cool of spring, as the clouds rolled in.
She was married very young, at 15. And so I wanted to know everything about that short 15 years. It was during the depression and so they were poor; no jobs to be found for the men, let alone women. She had a heart defect which made her a fearful child and her mother and brothers catered to her. She told me how she walked herself into the church across the street when she was 10 and sat by herself every Sunday and I was struck by how brave that was. Later that week, she prayed at the picture show in hopes God wouldn’t strike her dead over it—she was warned against this satanic act while sitting in the pew. We laughed.
I studied the wrinkles on her face and tried to think of her as a child. It was difficult to think of her this way, and I squint as if it forces my mind make a picture: did she have pigtails, was she blonde, what would she be wearing? I’m having such trouble imagining her as a little girl. I fail. I can only see my Memaw going to the pantry when we came for a visit and getting me cherry ice cream out of her giant freezer when I was a child.
She told me about how her father died early and she saw him when it happened, hunched over holding his stomach. And how her brothers went to war young and died young but that’s how they got through the depression, the boys sending money home. I ached, What intense grief to carry as a child. So then, It was just her and her mother. It becomes clear to me where she got her strength from—she always seemed comfortably independent at church and at family reunions and just around the house. She was humble and gentle, but something unwaveringly strong.
She told me her mother never told her exactly what to do. She would have to make up her own mind and do what she thought was best. So when she got married at almost 16 years old, her mother and his mother signed the papers in New Mexico at the courthouse—and they drove off to honeymoon leaving their mothers behind in the dust! And I should note, the honeymoon was a pallet in the back of a truck—because they had no money for a hotel.
I blushed a little, then giggled and asked her if that’s what she expected. She said, “Well, I didn’t know any differently, I guess?’ And maybe that’s the reason their marriage was so successful at 67 years together: no expectations of the other person and being OK with a truck honeymoon. I couldn’t help but think how their marriage was longer than some people’s lifetime. And when we got to this part, we had to acknowledge silently that Grandpa is no longer with us. It was tender. Her eyes winced. “When you start early, you stay late,” she said lightening the mood. He died a couple of years ago, and it is still so fresh for her, for all of us. He was a good man, a silent pillar steadying the home. She told me how she struggles to find her purpose now, and I felt that somewhere in my heart too. We all want to know what we’re on this earth to do and we want it to count—no matter how old we get.
She raised seven children and loved her husband well and lived in the same small town for most of her life. And now it’s time to make changes even at age 85. To sell the house. To pack it up. To have hard conversations, to step into something new, tearfully. But suddenly I can see it, what I was trying to make my mind create earlier and tears surprise me: The 6-year-old wondering if her heart can take another day of living. The fearful child working up the courage to go across the street into a new place. The little girl who knows that the world is harsh but still has to wake up in grief and live the day in hopes that better days are ahead.
She played with her wedding band and looked down, “Like I said, I will need to find a new purpose now.” And just by saying that, hope washes over me and I know that she will; she has done this before. She will do it again.