Everyone Called her Nell

It’s only when we’ve survived the trials of life ourselves that we learn to appreciate the difficulties faced by others.

My grandmother’s name was Ellen, but everyone called her Nell.

A young Nell in the 1940s.
A young Nell in the 1940s.

Nell and her 5 siblings grew up in poverty in England between World Wars. She was 16 at the start of World War II.

Nell was determined to find a well-off husband like her older sister did. So she borrowed her sister’s clothes and went to a dance for the American GIs where she met Alvin, a farmer. Nell pictured Alvin as a plantation owner, and was soon over the moon with her catch.

Alvin, the soldier boy who stole her heart.
Alvin, the soldier boy who stole her heart.

After the war, Alvin returned home with his unit, while Nell and her baby girl (my mom) made their way to America alone by boat. What that must have been like for her to be the mother of an infant sailing to a new home she knew nothing about, then to reach that home and find out that her farmer husband was a poor dirt farmer in rural Alabama!

But my grandma was a scrapper, and she and her husband worked. They bought a local general store and my grandmother manned the store while my grandfather went to watch repair school.

After my grandfather finished school and got a job, my grandmother went to cosmetology school and got her license. She worked as a hairdresser (what they called stylists back in the day), and eventually she and another woman opened their own shop.

The young family. That little girl is my mom.
The young family. That little girl is my mom.

Appearances were important to Nell. My grandparents built a home in an area where the well-off folks lived. Nell made sure the yard always looked good and the inside was clean and comfortably furnished. And she always looked good too. Nell was forever buying clothes, and shoes. And costume jewelry. Nell’s ears weren’t pierced, but she had a drawer filled with clip-on earrings.

Then Alvin died, and Nell was lost. Overnight she went from confident business owner to fearful and clingy. But that scrappy part of her remained, and Nell always found a way to survive.

Nell was never a demonstrative woman. Her hugs were short and more of a touch. She preferred a soft kiss to the cheek that left you with a red stain for several hours (what did they put in that stuff anyway?). I don’t remember her saying I love you often, though I’m sure she did. Nell preferred to show her love through giving things. If you visited her home, she would try to give you something when you left. A jar of pickles she’d canned. A cake she’d baked. A trinket she’d bought then decided she didn’t need.

Nell was a firm believer in always looking one's best.
Nell was a firm believer in always looking one’s best.

And she gifted me with clothes. Nell sewed dresses for me when I was a young child. I hated them because they were made of polyester. I used to think she only made dresses because she didn’t believe girls should wear pants, but I now wonder if it was really because dresses were easier to sew? Eventually she began buying my clothes. She was forever trying to tell me how to dress for success. Of course I didn’t want to hear that. I wanted to wear blue jeans, and that horrified her. At her funeral the preacher told a story of my grandmother buying his child clothes once. I wonder if he realized that, to her, that was an act of love.

In her lifetime, Nell went from extreme poverty to a comfortable middle class life. Did that give her the sense of success she craved?

Happy Birthday, Mammas. I hope that, wherever you are, there’s lots of glitz and glamour, and I hope it’s all you ever wanted.

16 thoughts on “Everyone Called her Nell

    1. My family told me that while manning the store my grandmother gained a lot of weight by eating the merchandise. But I’m guessing plentiful food was something she’d never been used to.

  1. That is truly lovely. As someone who works with older people, I often see the sense of who a person truly is diminish over time, through illness, frailty, and being ‘moved’ to the outside edge of ‘usefulness’
    Your tribute to your grandmother captured a sense of who she was and what made her unique. Thank you for sharing 😊

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