Growing Up (part 4) by Christi Davis Somerville

The writer and her Mamaw 1976

My relationship with Mamaw was one of the best things about growing up next door to my grandparents.  It’s difficult to think of her now, since her passing has only been just recently.  My heart aches when I think about her and I miss her more than I thought I would.  In many ways, I was like the daughter she never had.  Mamaw was my security blanket.  She was my homemade quilt, frayed around the edges, but always comforting.  In many ways she was a complex woman.  Highly private and somewhat socially awkward, she was the matriarch of our entire family.  Being the eldest of seven, her job of caretaker followed her throughout her years.  She was a supreme worrier, and was able to conjure up bad happenings better than anyone I ever knew.  But where Papaw was inconsistent, Mamaw was consistent.  Always.

Not only was Mamaw my neighbor, she was also my elementary school cook.  I was fortunate enough to be with her at school every day at Loundendale Elementary.  School was another extension of home and I felt like we owned the place.  I was privy to places (like the kitchen) that other students weren’t allowed to go.  If I started feeling poorly and was sent to the clinic, I had instant sympathy beside me to make me feel better.  (Except when I was faking sick, and she’d sternly look at me and tell me to go back to class!)  In Kindergarten, my entire class called her “Mamaw.”  This upset me so much that I didn’t want to say her name out loud at school.  She was my Mamaw and I certainly did not want to share her with a bunch of other kids!  As I got older, I realized that having her at school was sometimes good and sometimes bad.  Good on days when we had mashed potatoes (an extra helping for me) and bad when I occasionally got in trouble (guess who took me to the principal).

Mamaw was well-known throughout the family and the neighborhood for her homemade hot rolls and cinnamon rolls.  There was no recipe, just lots of hard work and love put into everything she prepared.  Many times I watched her work her magic by turning a little Hudson Cream Flour, eggs, sugar, yeast, and condensed milk into a small piece of dough and roll it around on the kitchen countertop and, ta-dah!, the most perfect little roll of dough you could ever imagine would magically appear.  Twenty four of those little dough balls would go into the oven and a few minutes later, a smell would waft down the hall that would make anyone’s mouth water.  When the bread was done, she’d take it out of the oven and my job was to brush each roll with melted butter.  I can still remember the sound of the butter when it would sizzle on top of those rolls.

There are so many things I learned from Mamaw that I don’t think I would have learned had I not spent so much time with her.  She taught me how to tie a quilt (it is really the ugliest quilt you’ve ever seen—polyester stripes and patterns, brown flannel backing—it is referred to now as the “Tacky Quilt” but I made it!).  She taught me how to make lye soap, and what a science experiment that was.  Lye soap could take the paint off of a Buick!  She tried, really tried, to teach me how to make her famous homemade bread.  I failed miserably since I didn’t understand how to “feel the dough” to know when it was right.

Mamaw taught me other things too.  She taught me to always be prepared.  Whatever the situation, Mamaw could pull whatever we needed, from a wet washcloth to a cough drop, out her huge purse.  She taught me to save my money, but to spend it too on important things—not trinkets or toys.  She taught me to be compassionate, especially for children who had less than I did.  She taught me to always put my family first.  She taught all of this by example, not in words.

My grandmother and I developed quite a close relationship over the years.  We would sit at the kitchen table and talk for hours about nothing in particular, sometimes talking about several different things at once.  Every spring we would go to the farmers market and buy entirely too many flowers—marigolds, pansies, and impatiens–and wonder where in the world we would plant them all.  In the spring, we would count down the winter days to welcome spring at Watt Powell Park to be the first in line on opening day for baseball season.  Sometimes the cold spring air coming out of South Park hollow would make our teeth chatter, but Mamaw would fix a thermos of strong hot tea for us to sip on so we could cheer the Charleston Charlies, and later the Wheelers, and finally the Alley Cats, to victory.  We would read books, Anne of Green Gables, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Heidi, and talk about our favorite parts.  Sometimes she would tell stories about growing up just around the hill on Mt. Alpha.  She would tell me stories of how she met my grandfather and how he called her “chicken legs” when he saw her walking down the road one day.  We spent a lot of time together and I wouldn’t have had that opportunity had she not lived so close to me.

I’m sure my childhood would have been wonderful without living next to my grandparents.  I had, and still have, the best parents anyone could ever have.  I have a funny brother who saves lives for a living (a fireman—of which I am so proud).  I had a wonderful home, pets, good schools, vacations at the beach and camping.  But I really can’t imagine my life without having grown up beside Mamaw and Papaw.

Last April I received an urgent phone call from my brother.  Mamaw was in the hospital.  I heard the words “fatal” and “aneurism” as his voiced cracked to tell me the news.  I dropped everything and drove as fast as I could to the hospital to see her.  She had been having a hard time remembering things and getting around, but the thought of her dying just would not register in my brain, even though she was ninety one years old.

When I got to the hospital, I went directly into her room and knew in my heart that she was dying.  As I sat there with her alone listening to the beeping and humming of the machines, I held her hand and told her it was going to be okay, even though I knew it wasn’t.  She never opened her eyes, but I had to believe she could hear me.  I thanked her for all she had done for me, for all she had given me, for being there whenever I needed her.  I talked to her about our special times together and the memories we had…and then I watched her take her last breath.

It sounds so strange to say, but I’m glad it was just the two of us together when she passed.  I’m humbled that I was there to hopefully give her peace in her final moments on earth.  It was the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to do, but I will never regret being there for her one last time.

As I continue my online research into my family’s past, I see my parents, my grandparents, and all my family in a different light.

I see them now as children running through the creeks and hills.

I see them as young adults falling in love and building a home.

I see them as parents and grandparents wanting the best for their children and grandchildren and all generations to come.

And I see myself…….

Making a good life for my future generations and passing on the best of my childhood memories to them.

(This concludes Growing Up by Christi Davis Somerville.  See Parts 1, 2, and 3 of Growing Up in the previous posts.)

Growing Up (part 3) by Christi Davis Somerville

My brother and I spent many after school hours and summers with my grandparents.  We developed lifelong relationships with them that to this day continue to be a blessing.  Since Mamaw was also the head cook at Loudendale Elementary, she would get home before us on school days.  She would sometimes bring home leftover food for us for snacks, my favorite being the peanut butter sandwiches on homemade bread, and a few scraps of food for our dog Spike.  Mamaw hated dogs, so she said, but I think she liked the fact that Spike was always standing at the gate smiling at her with his tail when she got home from work.

Another thing I learned growing up with my grandmother was that she was horribly afraid of thunderstorms.  She told me the story of the time when she was just a little girl, she was outside playing and fell asleep under a large bush.  When she awoke, there was a horrible storm and she was terrified.  After that experience, she became a nervous wreck any time the sky began to grow dark.  There were unwritten rules my brother and I had to follow if a thunderstorm was approaching on Mamaw’s watch.  First, we couldn’t use the telephone.  She convinced us that lightning would strike us dead if we were talking to someone during a storm.  Second, stay away from the kitchen sink.  She was certain the electricity would come right through the kitchen window and electrify us on the spot.  Third, we had to immediately go downstairs to the garage and wait for the storm to pass.  Many spring afternoons during a storm, the three of us would sit in the dark garage in Mamaw’s Chevette waiting for the all clear sign—no lightning or thunder.  To this day, I have a completely irrational fear of thunderstorms over which I have no control.  I don’t hide in my garage, but you can best believe that I won’t be near the kitchen sink talking on the telephone!

Papaw Charlie was quite a strange fellow–quiet and reserved at times, angry and rude at others.  The one thing about Papaw Charlie was that he was consistently inconsistent.  You never knew what he would say, what he would do, or where he would go.  One morning he got up, packed the car and drove to California to visit his sister Rose.  We didn’t even know he was going until he was gone.  I learned at a young age not to cross him, argue with him, or disagree with him.  It was his silence that bothered me most since I never knew where he was coming from or what he was thinking from day to day.

There were times of sweetness in my memories of him though. Many times I remember following him from his kitchen to the livingroom, hot on his heels as he carried his coffee cup, dripping hot drops of brown liquid on the floor of the hallway, all the way to the brown vinyl recliner in the living room.  He would settle in and I would hop up and settle in the crook of his arm, content to sit there with him as he drank his coffee and watched TV.  Papaw must have been quite at a loss as to what to do with me since I was the first girl born into his family after three sons and a grandson.  Some years after he passed, my grandmother found a bag in the back of his closet.  In it were two brand-new 1970’s style dresses, complete with tags, size 6, from JC Penney’s.

They were a gift to me from Papaw that I never received.

I don’t know why he never gave the dresses to me.  Maybe he didn’t think I’d like them, maybe he thought he wasn’t good at picking out clothing for little girls.  Whatever the reason, I’ve kept those dresses, in the same bag, with the tags still attached, so that I will always remember he was thinking of me even when I thought he wasn’t.  From Papaw Charlie I inherited my intelligence.  There’s no doubt in my mind that the man was some type of genius, who never really related well to his own family.  He once gave me a book, Smoley’s Logirhythms, a book of mathematical formulas and numbers that I was just as excited to receive as he was to give.  We couldn’t talk on a fashion level, but with math, we could relate.

Papaw Charlie passed away at home on Father’s Day 1994, just a few weeks before my wedding.  It wasn’t until he was gone that I realized how much I missed him.  Very few people had gotten to know him, mostly because of his quiet nature and sometimes scary demeanor.  But I knew he loved me and was proud of me, and I suppose I will always miss that side of him.

(See Parts 1 and 2 of Growing Up in the previous posts.  Essay concludes, next post.)