I'm taking a break from my regularly scheduled book blog programming to honor the memory of my great-grandmother, Eunice DeFoor Rea. Keep your tissues in the box, and prepare yourself for some funny and poignant anecdotes.
Ask any horoscope-wielding, astrology-believing hippie and he'll tell you that people with the same birthday are a lot alike. While I'm not inclined to mythology and superstition, in the case of me and my great-grandmother, it's actually true. Born on October 17th, 1918, she had all the fire of life of one who greeted the end of World War I and saw herself through the Great Depression. I came along on her 72nd birthday, and she never let me forget that a woman should be feisty if she expects to get by in the world. I like to think she taught me well.
A native of Phil Campell, Alabama--where few have heard of and fewer have been--my great-grandmother spoke with a variety of phrases that transcended Southernness and went straight to country. She called me "purts," a rather bastardized derivative of "pretty." I called her "Nona" (pronounced Nonna), which, I guess, is its own derivative of Nana. She never minded, and said we were cut out for each other.
When I was born, she lived in an old house off Pratt Highway in Birmingham that was across the street from a Methodist Church. I loved spending the entire weekend at her house because we'd get up on Saturday mornings and drink her sugar-syrupy sweet tea on the screened in back porch, clothes drying on the criss-crossing lines strung overhead, and watch newlywed couples descend the church's steps to enter the world as spouses. After that, we'd watch The Lawrence Welk Show on TV and she'd sing along to all the Big Band tunes. Even in her eighties, when she sang, anyone who listened could tell she must have had quite a voice when she was younger. Sometimes, when the mood struck her, she'd pick a slow tune on her guitar and complain of stiff fingers. At night, she'd turn on the AM radio station that played Cajun music and we'd tear up the living room floor with our doing the twist and the polka. She'd even try to sing along with the songs in French, despite not knowing the language. She didn't care whether she got the words right, she just relished in hearing her own singing.
Nona always seemed to understand me without me having to explain anything to her. She would let me sit at her house for hours, undisturbed, while I wrote in a journal or read a book. She never once asked what I was writing or if she could read it. And of my voracious reading habits, she would say, "Well, my grandmother died in her rocking chair reading a Western when she was just shy of 100 years old. You come by it honestly." Her grandmother, my great-great-great-grandmother was said to read a Western nearly every other day, and in her old age, when asked if she needed anything from the dime store, she'd respond, "No, baby, just bring me a Western." Although I don't read Westerns, it seems I do, indeed, come by the reading bit quite honestly.
On any given day, Nona could be found sitting in her recliner, one eye on the TV and the other on the glass front door. No one who had ever visited her house questioned why she chose to sit in the recliner exclusively and completely ignored the multitude of other seating in the house. The couch seemed to be half as old as she was, at the least, and whenever anyone sat on it, the back of the cushion slowly gave way until your knees lifted and your chest was thrust forward to meet them. Essentially, you felt as though the couch was folding you in half with the intention of sucking you into its depths.
As Nona sat in the recliner, she awaited the mailman's arrival like a child awaits the circus. She would spend hours flipping through the catalogs of clothing, though she never bought a thing--she was, after all, a woman of the Depression. Any time I was over at her house--which was often since my mother and I lived only a mile away--she would send me out to fetch the mail. I imagine she did this because she felt the only thing better than getting mail was having your great-granddaughter bring it to you.
And, sometimes, when I got the mail, the neighbor's lab would chase me. Once, I ran several laps around her house in attempt to outrun the dog and only lost him when I made a flying leap onto her porch. When I dashed inside and slammed the door, clutching the mail to my chest to still my punching heart, she said, "Why'd you let that damn dog chase you like that? Next time he gets after you, you stomp your feet, clap your hands, and yell 'GIT!' like you mean business. That'll send him off with his tail between his legs." To this day I've been known to yell "GIT" at a too-curious dog and I have yet to be chased again.
In addition to her knowledge of ways to frighten off dogs, Nona was full of quippy life advice. She was quick to let me know little tidbits like, "Men come around like busses. If you don't see one you like, just wait 15 minutes." For Nona, this happened to be true, and, in fact, it was the same bus that came by, and nearly every 15 minutes. Growing up, Nona had a best friend named Velma Rea whose little brother fell in love with Nona the first time he saw her. For him, there was no other woman worth having. Unfortunately for him, Nona didn't reciprocate those feelings for a long time. By age 17, A.D. Rea (and, no, the letters didn't stand for anything) was intent on marrying my Nona, but she ran off to Florida to escape--not just him, but also her mother telling her she had no business getting a job and that she should get married instead. "I ran off to Florida and I worked as a cashier in a Greek rest'rant for four years. The owner said from day one that I had an honest face, so he put me on the reg'ster. I worked there four years and had myself a ball," she'd tell me. I didn't appreciate the story fully until I got older because at the time she had begun to work, most women her age opted to be housewives.
Four years later, long-suffering A.D. awaited, and when Nona wrote her mother to say she was coming home, her mother made sure A.D. was waiting on the porch when she arrived. Nona and my great-grandfather, whom I never had the pleasure of meeting, married and raised three children together, the eldest of which being my grandmother. Nona always seemed to have a sort of feminist guilt about marrying. She was forever telling me, "I worked, y'hear? I didn't let no man take care of me. Even after I married I trained as a nurse, and when A.D. got tired of me working them odd hours, I got a job at the lunch counter at Woolworth's downtown. He didn't like me to work, but I wasn't about to sit at home while he was out all day." She never tired of reiterating her status as a working woman because it was her badge of honor. She chose not to take the easy way out. Her way of imparting this to me was to tell me to wait until I got an education and a good job before I got too involved with any man. I think she'd be proud to know how stringently I obeyed her advice.
Nona's car was taken away when she was in her eighties. The day it happened was to become family lore she wouldn't soon live down. After all, she did drive the car into the house. I was too young to remember that day, but she never stopped swearing that the car lurched into the house of its own accord because she had certainly shifted the gear to reverse before hitting the gas. Whenever anyone brought it up, she'd say, "The damned car jumped gears, I tell you!" and that was the end of the story. From then on, various family members would take turns driving her where she needed to go. I remember my mother and grandmother calling her on the phone before coming over, telling her to "Get on the mailbox," because we'd be over to pick her up shortly. A part of my childhood self hoped that one day she would be sitting on the mailbox when we pulled into the driveway, but, more often than not, she stood on the porch, one pant leg hiked up, twisting her foot back and forth in mock pantomime of hitchhiking.
Her hitchhiking pantomimes continued even after she'd broken her hip and was instructed to use a walking stick for the rest of her days. As a staunchly independent woman, she resented having to use the walking stick and, on our outings, would conveniently leave it behind in the grocery store, in the drug store, in the church dining hall where she and my grandmother played bunco (Nona often won at bunco and would buy bags of mini Mounds candy bars with her winnings). Often this resulted in my grandmother sending me forth to find Nona's cane. It was almost always tucked into a display of boxed casserole mix or behind a magazine rack. If we took her shopping at a store that had clothes, it was not uncommon to find the cane tucked into the rack, barely indistinguishable from the dresses that camouflaged it.
Even before Nona was diagnosed with dementia, her verbal filter had long disintegrated, if she ever had a verbal filter at all. She was known to shake her fist at a particular aunt whom no one in the family particularly liked, as well as the television when Judge Maybeline of "Divorce Court" didn't hand down a harsh enough sentence on a trifling husband. However, she suspended her fist-shaking for Jerry Springer because she tended to agree with everything he said. From the moment of his off-color inception on public TV, she hardly missed an episode and could often be heard several rooms over commenting, "Looky here! He's got them lesb'ans fightin' again." At times, when she could think of no witty response, she'd just shake her head and say, "Shit," being sure to drag it out several syllables to show her frustration. Nona was fluent in a language I came to think of as "Sailor" and she didn't mind expanding my vocabulary so long as I promised not to tell my mother or grandmother.
I like to claim that, in some ways, I came by my story-telling abilities and sense of humor thanks to Nona. For example, as a result of growing up in the Depression, Nona kept several full curio cabinets of cheap trinkets and figurines from Dollar Tree and souvenir shops nationwide. Yet, if you were to comment on the curio, it wasn't uncommon to hear something like this: "I got that new curio from Sticks & Stuff, but it ain't worth a damn. 'Far as I'm concerned they can take their sticks and stuff 'em up their ass." She would also, in the same breath, tell me that it's a good thing I look like my mother because my father was so ugly he "could stagger lightning."
There were times, however, when her dementia made itself known. I remember helping her carry a chocolate pie she'd made for a family dinner only to have the chocolatey soup spill down the front of my clothes because she'd forgotten to cook it into a solid mass. For the most part, her retrograde memory remained intact, but that occasionally resulted in her thinking I was my mother. She'd ask me, "Remember me taking you to the bowling alley with your Aunt Velma and our friends Olamay and Rena? Them was good times, weren't they, Eva?" The only thing I knew of Nona's bowling was that she had a bedroom full of trophies where her team had played in the '60s and '70s. Still more times, Nona would forget who I was entirely. Once, just a few years ago, she picked up a framed photo of my 3rd grade school picture and handed it to me, asking, "Who's this little girl?" She wasn't joking as I had hoped she'd been.
Nona seemed to defy nearly every stereotype one would think to place on her. From her being a working girl and to her use of profanity into her old age, right down to her politics. She's the one who first taught me that there was another way to think and that traditional, conservative Alabama politics wasn't the best thing. She was proud to tell everyone in the family that for every election cycle since she was old enough to vote, she marked her ballot "straight ticket Democrat, by God." And, as a teenager, when I confessed to her that my best friend was gay and that he was afraid to tell his family, she said, "What kind of sense would it make for 'em to get mad? He was born gay and that's that." For her, matters of equality hardly merited discussion because she believed everyone deserved respect and that people, especially those intent on hatefulness, should "just mind their own damned business."
Nona was quick to tell me that, having been born on her birthday, I was the best present she'd ever received. And she never tired of telling the tale of how, on the day I was born, she had a sprained ankle the size of a football and had to call my Uncle Gene to take her to the hospital since she couldn't walk or drive. Despite having several other grandchildren and great-grandchildren, she always treated me like I belonged to her--an intentional gift from the universe--and the others just happened by default. While I don't necessarily think her unabashed favoritism toward me was right, no one who benefits from nepotism complains of it.
As a result, she was fiercely protective of me. Once, when my stepdad told her he spanked me for the first time, she threatened that if he ever spanked me again ("hit," as she said) that she'd knock his teeth down his throat and they'd "have a real problem." I don't know if it was Nona's threat or the fact that it broke my stepdad's heart to spank me, but the incident was never repeated and the switches in our yard continued to thrive undisturbed in their ecosystem.
I know that not everyone has the privilege of knowing a great-grandparent and that even those who do may have a hard time imagining being close to their great-grandparents. But I'm one of the lucky ones. Growing up, Nona lived a mile away, so I spent many afternoons after school at her house, and sometimes I faked sick from school so I could spend the day with her. She enjoyed spending time with me, so she would always tell my mother I had a terrible fever that broke just before she arrived to take me home and that she saw no need for me to see a doctor because she'd fixed me right up. Being a lover of learning even at a young age, I was hard-pressed to miss a day of school, but sometimes the allure of a day at Nona's house was just too much.
Likewise, on the days I was truly sick, she took care of me. She could always tell whether I was really sick or faking sick the minute I came into the house. On the days I was really sick, she'd ask, "Well, Purts, what's got you all fouled up?" And when I told her my ailments, she'd reply, "Well, we'll just have to get you un-fouled, then." If I was truly sick, she'd mix up a concoction of lemon and honey. On the days I just wanted to see her, she'd let me line a plastic bowl with thickly spread peanut butter, tuck Hershey's Kisses into the spread, and microwave it until it blended into creamy goodness.
I knew from a young age that I wouldn't have Nona forever. She would occasionally remind me of her mortality by taking me to one of her back bedrooms and digging through boxes of jewelry, saying, "Now, I want you to have this when I die. YOU, y'hear? Remember what it looks like because I don't want your crazy aunt (insert name of aunt at whom Nona frequently shook her fist) getting this." Although I always knew that Nona wouldn't be around to see me well into adulthood, I had always operated under the assumption that because her grandmother lived to be 99 and her mother lived to be 100, that she would live to be at least that old. So when she got sick just two and a half weeks ago, I didn't take it seriously at first because I still thought she had at least another four years ahead of her.
When I first learned that Nona had been put on hospice care, I was heartbroken that she wouldn't have those four years I'd envisioned she would. But then I realized it would be cruel of me to wish for her to suffer for four more years just because I wasn't ready to give her up. Birthdays won't be the same without her, but I'm thankful for the 23 and 11/12ths years I got to spend with her. I don't claim to know where a spirit goes after death, but I know her feistiness, her open-mindedness, and her sailor's tongue will stay with me.