This post was originally an email that I sent out to my family so that they would know that my distance from the ancestral stomping grounds wasn’t to be interpreted as distance from them. Don’t flood my inbox; I’m not looking for sympathy.
Let me tell you about my grandmother.
My grandmother’s name was Dora Mae Brown, then Dora Mae Cunningham, Dora Mae Hall, and finally Dora Mae Wolfe; but in fine old Southern tradition, I called her Big Mama. She was less than five feet tall, and skinny as a reed, so the title of respect made some people giggle, but it fit because big is a synonym for grand. Three men loved Big Mama, and my grandfather was only the first. Even as exes, they respected her. She was sassy, had a winning sense of humor, was gullible enough to buy things “as seen on TV,” treasured family including the cousin who stole her Social Security checks to buy his marijuana, had an enormous capacity for loving, fed every wild thing that showed up at her doorstep. Big Mama never spanked any of her grandchildren, because she mellowed a lot once her kids grew too old to be told to “go cut me a switch.”
She was born late in 1931, during the thick of the Great Depression, when racism was king throughout the US, and yet Big Mama would never invite anyone back to her home if they uttered the word ‘nigger’. The one time she ever raised her hand to a child, to my knowledge, was when he brought home a “joke” and told it. No one heard it but Big Mama and I, and I was in diapers on her knee, but I remember listening to that child cackling over his nasty racist humor, and then I remember Big Mama putting me down on the ground, picking up that boy, and giving him a swat on the tochas. She told him, “And if you want, you go ahead and tell your daddy what I just did, and then tell him the joke you just told me. If he DOESN’T have a problem with that joke, you send him over here, and I’ll paddle his behind.” Damn if she didn’t, too. I remember hearing the lecture she read him, then a slap on the face, and sending him off feeling ashamed and telling him, “Now you go pray for forgiveness for insulting one of God’s children!” And he did, too, I’m pretty sure.
Once when I was little, Big Mama raised her voice to me, though. I’d been pretty much a rotten toddler all day, yelling and sassing and refusing to “mind” (obey) her. She picked me up and told me that she would spank me if I kept on like that. Then she put me down and gave me a chance to come correct. I immediately marched over to my step-grandfather at the time, Daddy Paul, and told him that I was madder than a whole ant hill. I must’ve been about two and a half or three at most by then. Daddy Paul was very serious about it, being a good listener, so he told her, “All right. I tell you what we’ll do. Let’s go take a nap, so we have all our energy up, and then after that we’ll go get her.” I agreed, took my nap, and apparently never followed through on my murderous intentions. Good thing, too. I’m sure she’d have given me a run for my money.
The family matriarch wore pants, not dresses, for most of my life. I remember, too, that she always smelled of biscuits or cornbread when she was at home, though she would douse herself liberally with what I thought of as Old Lady Perfume (it turned out to be Estee Lauder) just before we went to go Out, meaning to the huge (to my eyes) place that she simply called Town, for any reason. I hated the smell because it made my eyes water (though no worse than the cigarettes she was always smoking), but because I associated it with her, I sort of liked it, too. It was hers. To this day, any time I smell that scent, I look around to see if she’s come to visit and surprise me.
Big Mama, if she heard one of her babies (her daughters, grandchildren, or anybody else that happened to wander within a 1-mile radius of her trailer) being mean to someone or blaspheming, would throw whatever she was holding, with deadly accuracy. If a potholder could cause serious injury, I’m sure I’d have (more) permanent brain damage, because I was a bad kid, but she was just as quick to forgive as she was to get upset. She was very emotional, my grandmother, and could get angry, offended, hurt, or afraid at the drop of a hat. She could also love instantly when introduced to someone new, and it would take an awful lot to earn actual disrespect from her once she’d placed you in a soft, warm place within her heart. She never ran out of those soft, warm places, either.
Big Mama was extremely conservative, but I would never have begrudged her the joy and pride she took in voting. “Don’t you EVER let me find out that you’re not voting,” she said to me more than once. “If we don’t vote all the time, they’ll take away our right to do it, and then where will we be?”
She never insisted that I would get married, have children, and become a grandmother. She insisted that instead I was going to be in the news someday, and would laughingly shake her head, knowing that it would be because of trouble just as likely as it was going to be because I’d become President or found a cure for cancer.
She was very flexible, with excellent joints. She could sit in Lotus position, do the splits, and even a back bend well into her late 50s and early 60s. Big Mama was always stick thin, but for years kept a garden where most of her vegetables grew. She’d grub around on her knees, planting or de-rock-ifying the dirt, or picking the ripe things for dinner. That is, until about 10 years ago when she started having trouble with her breathing and her back, and lost flexibility in her spine and soon in the rest of her as well.
Turned out, it was osteoporosis that put an end to her Lotus position, her gardening, and at approximately 8:00 AM on Friday, 9 September 2010, her life. On the Jewish calendar, this was 2 Tishrei 5771, the second day of Rosh Hashanah. It stiffed her spine in an ever-increasing curve, so that she couldn’t get a full breath of air, ever. The last time we spoke, she’d been told by her doctor that she was only drawing in about 20% of a full breath. She had an oxygen machine in her room at the home, plus twice-daily oxygen treatments. That last morning, they took her in for a breathing treatment, then to breakfast. Half an hour later, housekeeping came in and found her in bed, one shoe on, head propped on her side table. She smelled of Estee Lauder. Apparently she was getting ready to go Out.
Today was finally the time. I went to my bathroom and pulled out the bottle of Estee Lauder that I’d taken from her things when we all went to clean out her hospital room and her tiny shack on its double-parcel of land. I opened it up and smelled it, and realized I was ready to tell people that she was gone. Again, I don’t want a host of “Sorry for your loss” emails or comments. I just want to be sure that I haven’t been silent about the woman who taught her daughters, and thus me and my cousins and everyone we manage to touch, how to love.