It’s my grandmother’s birthday. She was born in 1904, so she would have been 112 today. She was the most amazing woman I know.
There were five daughters in her family and not a lot of money. When she finished sixth grade, because her father had no money for a winter coat for her, she quit school. She had endured teasing by her classmates that year over the too small coat she had to wear to school. She said she didn’t intend to suffer through it another year.
She may not have had the formal education that I went on to get, but she certainly was an educated woman. When I was first learning to read, she asked me one day “What’s that word?” when we were out together. I looked at the word on the wall and told her I didn’t know. We hadn’t learned that one yet. “What did I MEAN we hadn’t learned that one yet?” she asked. I told her we were learning new words daily and we hadn’t been taught that word yet. (This was the era of “look and say” reading approach.) She repeated her demand that I tell her what that word was ! Sound it out! I looked at the unknown word and I looked at her and told her that I didn’t know how to do that.
When we got home, she took off her sweater and put up her purse and told me to go sit down at the dining room table. She got a book out and sat down beside me. It was the first of many phonic lessons I received from my grandmother. She huffed and puffed (it sounded like to me) her way through unknown words in that book, and she taught me to do the same. Every now and then she’d stop to fuss about that school’s failure to educate me, but she continued her daily lessons until I could sound out words as well as she could.
She also was a professional seamstress. She sewed in Belks sewing room and she sewed for people in our home. She taught me and my sister to sew. She was like I am now . . . not always sure which one of us she had taught what to, as far as sewing went, so when she’d be doing something difficult, like putting in a zipper, she’d call one of us to come watch. She’d explain what she was about to do, then do it while we watched. She’d make us tell her back how it was done. It could be a boring task, especially if she’d already shown you before, and it was tiring to stand still watching her sew and explain, but today I appreciate her sewing lessons. I can sew anything I want to sew, thanks to her. Back then I wasn’t so appreciative and one day as she yelled from her sewing room, “Connie, come here! Have I shown you how to put in a zipper?”, I ran to the door and said “Yes, you have, but you haven’t shown Linda (my sister) yet”. So as I heard her yell out my sister’s name, I grinned at Linda and ran out of the house and away from the unwanted, already seen lesson. Linda had already seen it too, but that was not my problem.
My grandmother was also a wonderful artist. She could make something beautiful out of anything. We couldn’t afford a lot of Christmas decorations, but she could make them. We couldn’t afford a lot of new clothes for me and my sister, but Nanny could make them. One year in December she said she was making skirts for two little girls who were our size and she had us try them on a few times. My sister was old enough to guess they were really for us, but I wasn’t. I was so surprised to see the box full of skirts on Christmas Eve. That’s when we always opened presents. It was a custom she had and we’d turn off all the lights, except the tree lights and light some candles and sit around in the magical dark and open our gifts. Later, when I’d wait until Christmas morning like my husband’s family did, it was a magic lost for me.
But skirts she sewed were not the only things my grandmother created. She made pin cushions and she crocheted. She made Santa sleighs out of turkey bones. Then she would crochet Santa and make his reindeer to go with it. She made beautiful pictures out of aquarium gravel. Those pictures went on to win First Prize at both the county fair and the local Art Contest. She made many, many other things as well. She could look at some discarded object and envision it as something beautiful and new and then she’d sit down and create it.
On top of all the wonderful things she could do and did, she also suffered through watching polio turn and twist my mother’s right leg and foot. My mother was born a fine, beautiful baby girl, but at age three, she had polio and it left her with a severe limp. I can only imagine, after having my own children, the pain of the polio virus changing the way my mother’s body was forever. There were various operations that I heard of that took place because of the polio. There was school yard teasing and meanness that I heard about. But my grandmother stayed by her side and got her through it.
I remember when I graduated from college how my grandmother came to me and told me how proud she was of me. I could not afford college. My cousin, Joe, told me about financial aid and I applied, but still I didn’t get enough money for all my books or for all my meals. So I ate twice a day and went to class and took detailed notes and managed to learn and graduate. My grandmother told me she knew how hard it had been on me and she was so proud that I’d stuck to it and finished. I mentioned not having enough money to eat three times a day and she said, although I’d never complained to her about it, she’d known. On the weekends that I came home, I’d eaten five meals a day and she had sent me back with some food from her fridge. I’d been ashamed to tell her how poor I was, but she had known all along.
The world lost a wonderful, intelligent, talented person the day she died. She passed away in May, 1986. Spring was a sad time to lose her. She was an avid gardener as well. It was the time of year when she’d be getting her garden ready. I remember so many, many sunny days outside with her, helping her in the garden and learning about growing plants. Any time would have been a sad time to lose her, but when I thought about the joy she got from her garden, spring was an especially hard time to see her go.
We gave her a birthday party when she turned 80. I wish she were here today to have another one.
She lives on through the things she taught me, the way I do things and the knowledge I’ve passed on to my own children and to school children.
I wasn’t the amazing one, as she’d told me after my college graduation. She was.
Her name was Effie Inez Whitley Harris.