November 5th is my maternal grandmother’s birthday.
While writing about her, I started thinking about the other amazing women in my family. So while I continue to think and write about my grandma, I’ll tell you a bit about these other women.
My paternal grandmother was what we today call a foster parent. Granny took in many children, often on short notice, and ensured they were fed and clothed and cared for. One child she adopted; the rest came and went. I guess, in a way, I’m carrying on a family tradition she started. She was a caregiver her entire life. Before she married, Granny used to “sit with” older people who required a caregiver either at the nursing home or their own home. We’re both rough around the edges, but inside is a caring heart.
Granny had to be tough. She and her husband were farmers, sharecroppers and field hands. My grandfather was an invalid and unable to do much hard work, then he died before I was born, so Granny worked to support the family, as did her children. I remember my daddy telling me about picking cotton as a kid with his mom and siblings, and how as an adult he vowed to never pick cotton again. He also told me about her making sauerkraut, and I remember her apple jelly. Granny sewed, and I still have her sewing machine and my dad still has one of her quilts. Granny used to like to go “visiting” on Sunday afternoon after church. Sometimes she went to other folks’ homes to visit with them. Other times they came to her home to visit with her.
My maternal great-grandmother we called Willie Mae. That was her given name, and that’s what she wanted us to call her, so we all did. Willie Mae was a feisty woman who received carpenter tools as gifts and helped build the home she and her husband raised their kids in. She helped work the fields. I remember spending summers at her home digging potatoes, picking beans, shelling peas, husking and silking corn, and whatever else was needed to put up food. Willie Mae was big on canning and freezing food, and kept three chest freezers full of food she and her family ate from.
A visit to Willie Mae’s house on Sunday meant a meal consisting of either chicken she slaughtered herself or beef or pork from an animal they’d raised then had slaughtered along with vegetables we’d all helped raise and put up. When I spent the night, breakfast would consist of eggs gathered that morning and fried in bacon grease.
Willie Mae raised two daughters.
Ruth and her husband lived next door to Willie Mae and Papa. Ruth worked for years for Napa Auto Parts. Yes, she was a woman working in a business that is still mostly a boys’ club. She went to work every day and did her job. She also raised two kids with her husband. I never remember Aunt Ruth saying an unkind word about anybody.
Elease was not only the first woman in the family to go to college, but probably the first person to do it. After college and a few years teaching away from home, she returned to the family homestead where she and her husband built a home across the road from Willie Mae. Elease taught third grade for years at the same school. In the summer she helped out the working mothers in the family by watching their kids while school was out. Elease went back to school and got her Masters’ degree to help her career while caring for aging parents and a husband dying of COPD. She’s still a worker, and is often found out in her yard doing something or other. She gets her hair done every week and has it looking good for church services.
These are women who were raised up hard, but giving up was never an option. They had a strong work ethic that stuck with them throughout their lives. And while I didn’t catch on right away to what they were trying to impart to me, I can say that I got a lot more from them than they will ever know.
I am what I am today thanks to these strong women.