Finishing up my posts on Women in the Florida panhandle for Women’s History Month, I would like to introduce you to my paternal grandmother. My Florida panhandle ancestors go back to around 1820, but that is on my Mom’s side of the family. My Dad’s Florida lines began moving into Florida around 1848 and that slow migration continued into the Depression and the WWII period. My paternal grandmother, Lois Brett, was born in Holmes County, Florida on 29 March 1906. Her great-grandfather, Martin W. BRETT, arrived in Holmes County around 1845 from Randolph Co, GA. Now, when my grandmother was alive, her age was a well guarded secret; the year, not the day and month. If asked her age, her favorite response was “39 plus tax”. I think I was about 10 before my math skills kicked in enough for me to realize she had been 39 ever since I could remember. Nana, as I called her because she thought she was too young to be a grandmother when I came along, was a short woman with an olive complexion, dark hair and dark brown eyes. It would be years later when I began to uncover the Native roots of her ancestry. If she ever gave the possibility any thought, she didn’t share it with me.
Nana is without a doubt one of the more colorful characters in my ancestry. She could be astoundingly honest one moment and secretive and evasive the next. My fondest memories of her are the funny moments we shared. She could be quite bawdy at times and like her last husband, and the only paternal grandfather that I knew, she could deliver a funny comment with a deadpan look that would leave you wondering if she meant to be serious or funny. At the same time she could be excessively concerned with what others would think about something and when mad you would swear she was NEVER going to move on.
She smoked cigarettes most of her life. Not a chain smoker but they were never far from her hands. She was also an expert gardener with beautiful flowers always well cared for throughout her yard. The combination of cigarettes and gardening outdoors left her skin leathery and significantly wrinkled. Deeply wrinkled, especially on her face. Which brings me to one of my earliest memories of Nana. When I was five I developed a staph infection in my teeth that created an arthritis-like response in my left hip. I was hospitalized and after tapping my hip with the world’s longest needle (from a five-year-old perspective), I was sedated to cope with the pain and the experience. Nana, by this point in time, was a licensed practical nurse and being Nana, she arrived with 6 months of clothes and announced that she would be staying in the room with me. The doctors had the same response to Nana that most of the family did. It just wasn’t worth arguing with her.
I was coming out of the sedation and stirring in the bed and she immediately got up and stood by me, patting my right hand with hers. I guess the movement got my drugged brain’s attention and I stared at her hand moving up and down. “Nana’s old hands are wrinkled, aren’t they?” Before I tell you my response that has lived in family lore since then, I will say that I’ve always been known for speaking my mind. I’m actually a little more reserved in my old age. No mouth-monitors at five. I looked up and said, “Yeah, and your face is too.” She took it well – sort of – but she didn’t much care for the story being repeated in her presence. She would get a pained half-smile and change the subject.
That Which Does Not Kill You…
Nana was a survivor. She married young and then her husband was killed in a traumatic accident a few months after my Dad was born. She and Dad lived briefly with her in-laws; they were in their household in the 1930 census. Sometime during the next few years, they moved to Columbus, GA and stayed there until my Dad left home to attend school, first in Atlanta, then in Springfield, MO. I have found newspaper clippings announcing his visits home and postcards he left me with their address at the time. She worked doing laundry and as a seamstress with the WPA while in GA. She later rolled cigars in Florida and worked as a licensed practical nurse before finally becoming a housewife in the 1960s. In 1945, she married William Herbert Sims. There were two very brief marriages in-between the first and last that she would never discuss with me, other than telling me they didn’t last long and that they were a mistake. I’ve possibly identified one but have had no luck on the other. I have a photo left to me by my Dad with a man’s name on the back that I don’t recognize (face or name). He may be one of the two but no marriage record yet.
I called her last husband “Uncle” Herbert (again, Nana’s dictate because he wasn’t really my grandfather) but he was the only paternal grandfather I ever knew. He was taciturn, humble, and patient. He taught me to fish and appreciate roses. Some of my fondest memories of him is sitting in a Jon boat on a river outside Tallahassee and fishing from before sunrise until about 9 a.m; generally, neither of us speaking a word. He used to tell folks I was the only child he knew that would get up before the crack of dawn without complaining, sit for hours in a boat without whining about needing the bathroom, and not talk unless it was important. And I would bait my own hook; he was really impressed by that. He rolled with Nana’s ups and downs with humor and the patience of Job. His wit was a bit dry and Nana could get her back up when it was aimed at her but they remained together until her death in 1987.
Quirky and Colorful
Nana had some interesting quirks that remain foremost in my memories. She always had a small piece of luggage that was FULL of prescription medications. Nana was the consummate hypochondriac. No matter what you might have wrong with you, she had a drug for that. She collected drugs and diseases. If Doctor Welby, MD covered a new, mostly unknown disease or some rare form of cancer; Nana would have it within the month. The other enduring quality was loving short-cuts that would turn into long, lost drives. I remember one trip with her driving from the Wiregrass area of Georgia back to Alabama and she swore she had a good shortcut. I knew better, and I was driving, but it was hard to argue with her. So off we went into the wilds. The road went from two-lane paved to two-lane dirt, to one-lane dirt, to wagon trail with 2 x 12 planks over a stream before she finally admitted I must have made a wrong turn. The fact that I was following her directions was beside the point. We did finally come out in Alabama on a road we found on the map; about an hour and a half later than if we had stayed on the main roads. Glory Be, I was a happy camper to see civilization again!
She and Uncle Herbert moved around a lot, maybe a factor of his time in the Army making no place permanent. They lived in central Florida, Tallahassee, Bainbridge, GA and Ozark, AL that I remember. The longest was in Tallahassee. Which was convenient. My summers were generally set each year. Nana would come pick me up and I would stay with them in Tallahassee then she would drive me to my grandparents’ house in Oak Grove in Okaloosa County where I would stay until one or both parents would come get me, or occasionally I would take the bus, the train or Nana would come back to get me and take me home. This routine allowed me a lot of time with both sets of grandparents. I learned to fish, bait my hook, clean fish, harvest wigglers from the ground with a 2 x 4 and a shovel, pick peas and beans, shell peas and beans, “putter” in the garden, fix stuff, sit quietly on the porch and enjoy the sunset, drive a stick shift on hills without crashing into the car behind me and listen to stories about the family.
Learning From Your Ancestors’ Challenges
We are all products of our ancestors and our own experiences. In my experience, I have found studying history and doing genealogy has helped me understand the challenges my ancestors’ faced; and whether they succeeded or failed at overcoming them has helped me to understand, and forgive in some cases, both them and myself. For me, it has also helped me to learn to understand versus judge and vilify people who do or say things I don’t agree with. Understanding isn’t approval but it is learning to be tolerant of differences. These days, I’m beginning to think everyone needs to take up genealogy! I hope this blog encourages you to sit down and write out what you remember about your ancestors; their personalities and their challenges. There will come a time that others may find pearls of genealogy, and wisdom, in the words.
Nana had a heart attack and passed away in July 1987. When I heard, the first thing I thought about was the headstone in the cemetery in Key West where the woman had put on her crypt marker, “I told you I was sick!”. Nana had a big heart in her little body. She told me when I was about 8 that I would be grown when I was as tall as she was. Too bad my parents didn’t think I was grown at 12. She was an enabler at the same time she could get angry with you and not speak for months. A woman of many nuances. But that’s okay. She was Nana and unique in my family is… well, normal.
Until Next Time
- The Hidden Half of the Family, Christina Kassabian Schaefer
- A Genealogist’s Guide to Discovering Your Female Ancestors: Special Strategies for Uncovering Hard-to-Find Information About Your Female Lineage, Sharon Debartolo Carmack
- Bringing Your Family History to Life Through Social History, Katherine Scott Sturdevant