Recently, my maternal grandmother has been on my mind a lot. As I mentioned in the previous post, I made contact with a cousin who has sent me some wonderful photographs (see photo at top and names under Resources below) and quite a few letters from my grandmother to her youngest sister from 1959 through the early 1960s. This was a difficult time for my grandmother. She was having a lot of health problems and both her older brothers, twins William and Allen, died and the family had to sell her parent’s large land holdings in northern Okaloosa County and divide up the materials of their parents’ lives. That did not always go smoothly, as sometimes happens with families.
And then in March, I was putting a picture at the back of the fireplace mantle in my office and gently moved my Grandmother’s mantle clock forward and it started ticking and struck the half hour a few minutes later. We were dumbstruck (it is a bit over a hundred years old and hasn’t worked in years) and motivated to get it cleaned and purchase a key to keep it wound and striking. I heard that clock strike thousands of times in my childhood. I suspect it is the reason I love old mechanical striking clocks. They bring back that sense of warmth, safety and peace I always felt when I was with my grandparents. So, she’s been speaking to me lately and I decided to share her with everyone else. Her parents were highlighted in the 24 October 2016 blog, one set of her maternal great-grandparents were highlighted in the 10 October 2016 blog and her children were highlighted in the 7 November 2016 blog. Grandmama was descended from two sets of Florida pioneers Reuben and Nancy Ann Rigdon Hart and Wright Harrel and Mary Sweat Gaskin. But this story is about her.
My grandfather loved to tell the story of his time at Madison Normal College and how he pined for Alma King and worried about her being spirited away by some other man while he was off getting his teaching certification. He always described her as “the prettiest girl in Okaloosa County” with long, coal-black hair and blue eyes. After one term, he had worried long enough and hitched a ride back home riding on the back of a truck, asked her to marry him and they eloped. That was because her parents didn’t approve of my Grandfather. They settled back in Oak Grove and started their family. As hard as things were from 1914 until I met her in 1955, she managed to raise eight children to adulthood even through the Depression with its hunger and constant bouts of malaria that afflicted several of her children. And through it all she kept her grace, her soft voice, and her sense of humor.
I first met Grandmama in 1955 after we had lived in Ohio for a couple of years. I’m not sure why I was so excited to meet her but I’m told I popped up and down in the back of the car asking if we were there yet all the way across Highway 2. As the years went by I learned how much further to my Grandparents’ by the houses and the bridge over Yellow River but in 1955 it was all new to me and I was ready to be there. We drove up the steep incline to the front of their house and parked the old Packard. I still remember seeing her jogging toward the car with her ever present apron waving up and down in her hands. I knew that was my Grandmama without anyone telling me. On that same trip, a few days later, she took me out to the chicken yard with her to gather eggs. She showed me how to reach under the hen and pull out the egg and then encouraged me to do the same with the next hen. Out came egg in hand. I was so excited I threw it into her apron where there were already a number of eggs. Nearly all broke. She just laughed, cleaned off her apron, gathered the rest of the eggs and once back in the house shared the story, smiling at me the whole time. I didn’t understand why the smiling and laughing but I knew I loved her face when she smiled.
I usually spent some part of every summer with both sets of Grandparents but in the early 60s, I spent most of a summer with my mother’s parents. My Dad was traveling a lot and mother worked the evening shift so it was thought it would be better for me to spend the entire summer away. I remember staying with my Grandparents and two of my aunts during most of that summer. I had spent several days with Aunt Marie and Grandmama had walked down to get me and bring me back home. At the time Aunt Marie and Uncle James lived on the east side of the river in a large house with a porch on all four sides. We were walking back and had just started over the bridge when Grandmama put her hand on my shoulder and told me to stop. She instructed me to stand perfectly still and she moved forward with her ever-present cane out in front of her and approached what I found out later was a large rattlesnake. She got up to him and as fast as lightening she pushed her cane under him and flipped him off the bridge. Later I found out she could smell rattlesnakes and though she tried to explain to me what they smelled like, the skill was obviously not in my wheelhouse.
Like most adolescents and teens, I thought my parents were mean because they wouldn’t let me do everything I wanted. Grandmama had such a gentle way of listening and then providing coaching. Some time in my early years I labeled our times on the porch as “yakkety-yakking” and she would suggest going outside to yakkety-yak when she thought I needed to talk and rearrange my thought process. She also used a Jedi-mind trick whenever you needed a splinter out of your hand or foot. She would tell you to think of something green and tell her about it and while you were busy describing it, out came the splinter and you were back to 100%. No pain, no fuss. Or at least that’s how I remember it.
On one of my summer vacations there, one of my cousins had a new B B gun and he and another cousin and I (we were the terrible trio, but that’s another set of stories) went out looking for anything to shoot at. We took turns shooting at both animate and inanimate things until I aimed at a bird that was way off in a tree and pulled the trigger. Down came the bird. We run to it and found it alive but badly injured. I picked it up and run back to the house, crying the whole way. I thought Grandmama would be really angry because she loved birds of all kinds, but I also figured she could heal it because she seemed to do that with our bumps, bruises and splinters. She looked at the little bird and told me there was nothing she could do. My punishment was to sit on the back steps and hold the bird until it died. I did, sobbing and asking the bird to just fly away. It didn’t, and I learned a good lesson. Don’t do something unless you are willing to suffer the consequences, whatever they might be. And thinking through the consequences before doing something allows you to back away before you get burned badly.
I grew up and after a brief period working, I went off to be in the Army during Vietnam. When I got out I immediately started college, first in Panama City and then after giving it a lot of thought, to the relatively new University of West Florida. I wanted to be near my Grandparents so I could spent more time with them. I spent nearly every weekend there, studying at the kitchen counter, sitting on the porch in the afternoons and yakkety-yakking with both of them. We discussed politics, farming, the environment, health and anything else that would come up. It was an extraordinary 18 months that I would not trade for anything because the year after I graduated Granddaddy died and Grandmama left this world for one that only existed in her head. She was younger, her kids were children and Granddaddy was away on a job and would be home soon. She could not bear to be without him after 64 years of marriage.
In the three years between their respective passings, Grandmama slowly failed in health. She fell again, re-fracturing the hip that she had broken a few years before. It was too fragile to re-pin and she was now permanently in bed. She reached the point that she refused to eat; she was ready to leave. For a while the hospital fed her intravenously. She no longer knew any of us. Mama was “that sweet red-haired lady”. On the morning she passed away, she seemed more alert than usual. She asked if she could wash her hair, “because Jesse was coming to get her”. Her daughters that were there helped her bathe and wash her hair then she laid back and announced she was going to rest. Mama and her sisters had already told the hospital not to respond but to let her go this time. The four sisters circled the bed and prayed and soon Granddaddy did come and get her and take her to a place where she could be at peace and with him forever more. Mama, who is not one much for hyperbole, says even though the window was closed there was a sudden feeling of a cool breeze just before Grandmama was gone. My guardian angel looks amazing like Grandmama and when I smell lavender (her favorite color and fragrance and mine as well) I am carried back in time to the porch swing and our talks.
I have so many memories of my grandparents, I could probably write a book of stories they told me or I experienced with them. Some are allegories, like the story of the bird above, and some are just fun memories like the time I was going to write down Grandmama’s recipe for biscuits. For any of you that didn’t have a biscuit-maker from this generation in your family; there was no recipe. The biscuits were made using hand memory and just knowing and were the best darn biscuits you could eat. My effort to turn her biscuits into a recipe was frustrating for me and humorous for her.
I am always saddened when I see young people who don’t have an opportunity to get to know their grandparents because they live so far away, or the family is fractured in some way, or they passed early. My Grandparents were an important part of my formative years. The life lessons, the laughter, and the tears. They were a blessing worth so much to me.
Until next time.
- Title Photograph – a recent addition from a newly found cousin. Woman sitting in the middle holding the baby is my Grandmama. From left to right in back row – Lucille Barrow (daughter of Alma), Ovella King (sister of Alma), Miles King (brother of Alma) and Estelle King (sister of Alma). From left to right in front – Marie Barrow (daughter of Alma), Alma with daughter Wylene, Roberta Barrow (daughter of Alma). Based on clothes and ages of the children this was likely taken in the Fall of 1924 or the Spring of 1925.
- Barrow-King Family History by Sharon D. Marsh, 2016.