my grandmother Ma’s birthday was today
October 23, 1903 (d. May 28, 1983)
My paternal grandmother I called Ma is the beaming woman second from the left in the middle row. That smile was directed at one of her grandchildren who was misbehaving for the family photo. I’m guessing it was one of my Uncle Ray’s twin boys because they never were interested in following rules, and the little boy turned around toward her certainly looked like he was entertaining his grandmother. (I am the unsmiling little girl on the bottom row. I’m sure my mother had instructed me not to smile. Typical.)
This family photo taken in the mid 1950s speaks volumes about the woman Betha Day Robinson Morris who was my grandmother. Her family meant everything to her, and she ruled all of us with a firm hand. She dearly loved her actual DNA matches, her children and especially her grandchildren. Unfortunately, the in-laws, the spouses her children chose to marry to pass along her DNA never were what she hoped they would be – for different reasons – but all three equally unacceptable.
I have a few favorite pictures of Ma in my office – and this one is at the top of my most treasured. I’m guessing she was in her early 40s here which is how she must have looked when her first two grandchildren were born in 1946. Just imagine. Women of that era had grandchildren when they were so young because they married very young. Betha Robinson was fifteen years old when she married twenty-year-old George Morris. They had both grown up in Walker County, Texas on farms that weren’t far apart. Their marriage spanned 65 years. She outlived the grandson smiling at her in the picture, another grandson who died in infancy – as well as her youngest child Glenn (my father). Later letters I found revealed she was unable to fully recover from those tragedies.
I have written about my grandmother’s influence on me and my storytelling in great detail in many of my published books – particularly Deep in the Heart: A Memoir of Love and Longing. Ma’s kitchen table was the stage for her hysterically funny stories; her audience was usually my grandfather and me since I lived across a dirt road and down a little hill from them. Pa and I both thought she was the funniest person on earth. We waited every Sunday to hear her roast the preacher Brother Whoever at the First Baptist Church of Richards. We were never disappointed in her assessment of the worship service, her Sunday School class members, the special music which she hoped would be her granddaughter’s singing. At a very early age I learned Ma wanted me to do well.
Ma made my school and church clothes using a Singer sewing machine that aggravated her as often as I get aggravated with my slow outdated Windows 7 operating system. She bought patterns and material in Navasota, the bigger town in Grimes County where she carried the dry cleaning back and forth to the Lindley’s larger dry cleaners twice a week – once to deliver, once to pick up. Navasota was 20 miles from Richards, the little town that Pa had chosen to establish his single chair barber shop with dry cleaning on the side to make a little extra money.
Money that Ma controlled down to the last penny. I saw the weekly ritual of Pa handing all of his cash for the week to Ma who put most of it in the bank in Anderson that was 10 miles from Richards. Ma did front Pa an allowance that was sufficient to buy me an ice cream cone or Coke for a nickel at Mr. McAfee’s drug store across the street from his barbershop whenever I walked to town for a visit – I’m not sure what else he did with his allowance.
My maternal grandmother’s birthday was just three days ago on October 20th. I hope you had a chance to read my post about her. Yesterday and today I’ve been thinking about how very different these two grandmothers were. I’m not a Zodiac sign follower, but I was interested in my discovery that Libra changed to Scorpio today. My maternal grandmother I called Dude was definitely a Libra: charming, beautiful, well balanced, peacemaker.
My Ma wasn’t a Scorpio I would describe as a “queen of the underworld”but she had a cruel streak I observed in many forms against others – never me, however. I saw the Scorpio with the magnetic personality, an aura of mystery, definitely a disturber of the peace whenever she had a chance but she made me laugh with her about her high drama.
I think Ma and Dude had a race with their packages of homemade goodies to me in my college days at UT-Austin in the 60s. Ma alternated different flavors of her fried pies that I tried to hide from my friends in the dorm. She also sent chocolate chip cookies which were my only claim to fame in those days.
I loved both my grandmothers with a love I continue to feel today. They were pillars of strength in their own ways, women who had few years of formal education but wisdom born of pain. I wish I could celebrate with them today – even for a few minutes of conversation. I broke both of their hearts when I moved to Seattle in 1968. I was on a journey searching for authenticity, and I thought I had to travel 3,000 miles to shed the imposter, to become the real me. I was never home in Texas on either of their birthdays again. Shame on me for squandering those special days and most other holidays with my family.
For the past two years I’ve had an unbelievable, unexpected glimpse into the feelings my grandmothers had for me. Wow. I hope the thirteen years I lived with them in Richards brought them the joy our granddaughter brings to us every time we see her.
Every choice we make matters – to us and to others. Time is fleeting. Choose wisely. Celebrate your legacies.