This is my Granny Flonnie – the grandmother with the most sing-song name a kid could ask for.
Her maiden name was Cromwell, but do not mistake her for a Victorian-era shrinking violet. I suppose her given name was Florence, but no one ever, ever called her that. She was Flonnie, a woman who was over 40 years old when she had twin babies – a boy and a girl. The baby girl was my mother.
The year was 1936, which still holds the record for the hottest summer in the U.S., and Flonnie had those two babies on the front porch while someone poured buckets of water on the wood to cool it down. My mother once told me that she and her brother weighed over seven pounds each when they were born and that sent a shiver across my spine. Thirteen months later Flonnie’s husband was killed by a drunk driver and she was left to raise six children alone. My mother and Uncle Bob were surprise babies, born 13 years after my Aunt Margaret, who was the youngest until the twins came along. So my grandmother, now a widowed mother, took a job at the school cafeteria and brought home the leftovers for dinner on many evenings. She raised her children and then when grandchildren began to come along, she helped take care of them too.
She had developed diabetes by the time I was born and the circulation in her legs wasn’t good. She had a hard time getting around. When I was a baby, she came to visit once and spent an evening with me while my parents went out. They had put me to bed upstairs, assuring her that they wouldn’t be gone long and there would be no need for her to climb the stairs. But sometime during that evening I began to cry. She couldn’t make it up the stairs, and when they came home they found her sitting on the bottom step sobbing while I screamed in the room upstairs. She had tried to climb the stairs, but couldn’t make it. Not long after that she was confined to a wheelchair. Then, she went to a nursing home. This was the late 1960s when nursing homes were like…nursing homes, and that place is the setting for most of the memories of my Granny Flonnie. She aged quickly in that place, and most of what I remember is a metal bed in a small cinderblock room with a bell on the nightstand and another twin bed on the other side. No single room option in that nursing home.
I’m not sure my grandmother had one easy moment in her life, but she didn’t seem to believe that she was entitled to easy moments. This is a big deal for me – people who have every right to throw themselves a pity party and don’t do it. My mother was this kind of person. I, however, have quite the comfortable life so I can’t compare myself to these women. But I want to. I want their courage and fortitude and the character to face challenges without pouting or stomping my feet. I don’t want to raise my voice to a whining pitch every time something doesn’t go my way. I want to stop obsessing over how good I look in the eyes of others and start looking into the eyes of others so that I can serve them. Sometimes I tell myself that if these women’s blood ran through my veins, then I could say that I quite naturally inherited all these attributes. They weren’t perfect women at all, but they did possess some character traits I’d like to claim as my own. But these women and I are not genetically linked. And yet, I know that doesn’t matter and so I’ve tried to walk in the footsteps of both of my grandmothers and my mother. And, more importantly, I’ve shared all these stories with my girls so that they will want to walk in those footsteps also. This is another big deal for me. May I say this: I don’t want my girls to be princesses. And I didn’t buy the t-shirt.
I was raised by women who did not quiver over hard times. They weren’t afraid to bring the leftovers home from the school cafeteria or wear homemade clothes. They got their hands dirty (my mother and father cleaned every single used brick for a house they built in the 1970s) and wore out their oven mitts taking meals to people who were sick. These are the women I long to emulate. In my book, these were real women who taught everyone around them how to be both gentle and tough at the same time. You can’t do much better than that.
The ring my grandmother is wearing in her nursing home bed is her wedding ring, given to her by the husband she lost. That ring is now in my jewelry box and I take it out every now and then and try it on (it’s too big for me) and imagine myself to have the amount of fortitude that was in the ring finger of my grandmother. I’d be lucky to have that much. Gentle and tough. I’m working on it.