My great-grandmother enriched my life in ways that are still evolving. That’s my great-grandmother standing in her Sunday best (how they kept their clothes so white in such a dusty farm is evidence of the miracles of lye soap and lots of elbow grease) in the photo above, her arm protectively learning on the carriage in which my grandmother lies. They had a hard, hard life but you would never know it. Both of my great-grandparents lived until I was 12, and lived only 30 minutes from my house, so I got to visit often.
I don’t recall ever even speaking to my great-grandfather… he was ancient in my eyes and his worn, wrinkled skin seemed to be shrunken on his tall, thin, brittle frame. He had a permanent look of sternness that assured I’d never voluntarily go up to him for a hug. Not only do I not recall him speaking to me, I don’t recall him speaking at all, though I’m sure he must have at some point. He was usually found napping in the back bedroom when we’d come to visit, a silent, mysterious man who seemed to have no connection to child that was me. But my Mama Fling was another matter altogether. Her kind, loving, gracious, generous soul shown through and I’d sink into her soft belly with a big hug when she turned around from the stove to greet me. She was almost always at the stove, somehow managing to stretch what little they had into a Sunday dinner big enough to feed anyone that decided to show up, and everyone usually did.
After dinner (as we called lunch) I’d put on her old, old-fashioned, cotton bonnet that always hung by the back door and pretend I was Laura in Little House on the Prairie while I wandered through the backyard hunting for eggs the chickens had left, or catching a ride on a horse if one of the uncles happened to bring one by.
I’d always find a way to visit the old wooden shed out in the front yard that served as the area’s gas/convenience store, stocked with a big tin cooler of ice and soda water bottles, with candy bars and dry goods crammed on the shelves. It also had an old-fashioned gas pump, the kind with a glass ball on top that you really had to actually pump for gas to come out, though I never saw anyone actually stop for gas (this was the 60s and technology had already passed them by, but no one bothered to remove the old pump and for all I know it remains there to this day, stuck in the hard red dirt that symbolizes Turney, Texas to me).
Everyone in the small town called my great-grandmother Mama Fling, even if not actually related to her, because she made everyone feel like family. And she loved the Lord, talking to God in prayer whenever she had a worry on her mind or a word of thanksgiving, whether over the stove as she cooked or pushing a broom around the kitchen. Jesus was her best friend, and she called on him daily. She spent all Sunday at the Corinth Baptist Church across the street from her house, having the preacher over to the house for lunch every week. God was an integral part of her life every day. She had no judgmental or hypocritical bone in her body, just a life lived with joy and love and grace. She had no material wealth, but an abundance of love, the memory of which continues to live on. Her children continued to talk about how blessed they were to have her as their Mother even as they were in their 80s and 90s, and how rich they felt for having been in her life.
I tried to model being a mother after her, and didn’t even come close, but I know my life is richer for having known her and I am inspired by her example to get closer to God, to focus on what’s important in life, and to remember than even if life is tough, and feel unappreciated, or worn out by work and stress and multi-tasking, and even if I never do anything to leave a mark on this earth that is remembered after I’m gone and that shows I lived life fully while I was here, I just have to remember that she didn’t write a book or create art or new technology or receive any award, many years after her death her legacy still lives on, in the hearts of all who knew her. She was loved, and the world was a better place because she lived in it, and she enriched my life in layers I’m still unwrapping as I uncover the “wise old woman” that’s been buried inside me for too many years. I feel that part of her lives on in me, and my desire to honor that heritage helps make me try harder to focus more on simple things, and the most complex thing one could ever hope to master, the ability to truly love.