When I think about my Grandmother, my dad’s mother and the only grandmother I knew since my mom’s mom died long before I came around, two memories shine most vividly. The first is of the food she would prepare for my siblings and me each summer when we would visit her in Andalusia, a speck of a town in south Alabama. Daily she spoiled us with my still-favorite lunch of ham sandwiches, Cooler Ranch Doritos (which she pronounced “doe-ree-tahs’), and Coca Cola Classic. To my childhood delight, each dinner came with dessert, the best of which was Million Dollar Dessert, which would’ve been more aptly named Five Dollar Dessert, as it consisted merely of alternating layers of whipped cream, chocolate pudding and sweetened cream cheese atop a flour and butter crust. Half of my slice I would eat layer by layer, delicately skimming each off with the tines of my fork, and the other half I would gobble down quickly, scooping all of it up at once.
The second memory is of the bath time rituals which always began with Grandmother filling up the tub over halfway, providing me with a veritable swimming pool of water to splash around in compared to the few inches my mother would draw at home in order to conserve. Next, I would retrieve a plush rainbow-striped washcloth reserved just for me that she would have already laid out next to the tub. While waiting for Grandmother to fish around beneath the bathroom sink for a handful of wind-up ducky toys, I would sit patiently in the warm water with the still-dry washcloth pressed against my face inhaling its fresh dryer sheet scent. And as she helped me bathe, the wind-up ducks would zip across the water until their spring-loaded momentum ran out, at which point they would dive headfirst into the soapy tide. Afterward, I would sit on her lap as she gently combed out my wet hair, and she would often tell me about how, with brown ringlets and always-brown, never-blue eyes, I looked just like my father when he was my age.
Grandmother’s skin was soft, thin, and wrinkly. An Aquanet-bound cottonball of bright white hair sat atop her head, framing her bespectacled eyes and a crooked smile that quivered slightly with age. She baked signature grandmother “cowboy cookies” made of oatmeal, chocolate chips, and pecan, and each time we saw each other when I was a little girl we sang “The Wheels on the Bus,” our signature grandmother-granddaughter song. After I outgrew the childish tune she would often remind me of what fun we used to have driving that imaginary bus around town.
But regardless of my age, I always called her Grandmother. Not Granny or Nana or Grams, which lent a certain formality to our relationship, her tenderness toward me notwithstanding. And for that reason, a letter she sent me while I was in college transformed her from a kindly familial archetype to a real person—and more specifically a once-young woman like myself. Her gorgeous antique penmanship painstakingly inked across cream stationery, Grandmother breezed through some opening pleasantries before proffering simply: “Let me tell you about myself.”
I grew up in Dozier, a very small town (probably 1,000 population) in south, Ala. I entered school in the 2nd grade because I could already read, the reason being, I worried my mother to death to tell me the words on cereal boxes and on other things I saw. Excuse my boasting, but I was a fast learner and made top grades all through high school… Oh, I must tell you that we had two Literary Societies in High School. One was the “Ever-ready,” the other was the “Busy Bees.” I was a member of the Ever-ready. We both had a band and competed. In ours, the music teacher played the piano, a male student played the banjo, and I played the guitar, which my father had given me one Christmas. I suspect this really surprises you!
During high school days our social life revolved around parties at different homes, which the parent would plan and chaperone. This included only Dozier young people, most related to each other. One lady would let us dance at her house but most wouldn’t. Those strict Baptists and Methodists thought it was sinful, my family (Methodist) included.
When I finished High School my family wasn’t financially able to pay for a college education. My Aunt Dot and Uncle Buddie lived in Athens and invited me to stay with them and attend the Georgia State Teachers’ College for a teaching degree. How wonderful it was to live with them and continue my education! My uncle dropped me off at school when he went to work, and then brought me home. My major was English (my favorite subject).
You may have heard me or others speak of the Depression. I’m very familiar with those times… and I mention this because it was [a] time of hardship.
And soon after that abrupt nod to the Great Depression, the letter’s timeline leaps forward to present, as though she didn’t care to share the grittier details of that era—details that I would later seek out after she casually asked me to write her obituary, as though it was little more than requesting a ride to the grocery store. Not that I tried to connect the dots of her biographical ellipsis for the sake of her death announcement, the responsibility of which I shrugged off, but rather down the road it became a gnawing obligation, a peace offering and penance, to her memory and to myself.
After a year in teacher’s college, Vivian’s school funds ran out, and she moved to pursue a teaching job in Penfield, Georgia, a previously prosperous town whose cotton industry had been ravaged by an infestation of cotton-chomping boll weevils. The agricultural pest’s unwelcome arrival only made the Great Depression more difficult to weather in the Deep South, but it was that very economic blight that eventually brought my grandmother and grandfather, Paul, together there in sweltering Penfield.
With little more than four mules and two wagons to their family name, young Paul had moved with his parents and seven other siblings to the boll weevil-pillaged Penfield where they began sharecropping. Over time, his father built up his business and acquired land of his own that Paul hoped one day to farm, because that was his Depression-era American dream that would haunt him the rest of his life: to become a farmer. And one Sunday at the local Presbyterian church, Paul noticed a new face and a pretty one at that, or at least that’s how I imagine it must’ve gone.
After a proper Penfield courtship, the hopeful farmer and elementary school teacher got married, but after Pa John passed on, his land was divvied up in such a way that robbed Paul of any significant acreage. Thus newlywed, embittered by the betrayed inheritance and much in need of steady employment, young Paul and Vivian set out for Alabama where he eventually settled into life insurance, and she continued teaching elementary school. After buying a house in Andalusia, they had my father, their second son and last child. Even though he never became a bona fide farmer, Paul tended an impressive backyard garden every summer, and Vivian proved an immaculate cook and housekeeper.
Unlike Grandmother, my grandfather, who we called Pop, wasn’t as much of a textbook grandfather, though his skin like hers was also soft, thin, and wrinkly, and from time to time, he let my sisters and I brush his thinning hair and even put hairbows in it, which left us all giggling uncontrollably when we would hold up a mirror for him to behold his makeover. But Pop also had a temper, and though his outbursts were never physical, his raised voice terrified me. When that happened, Grandmother would swoop in and scuttle my siblings and me away to give him time to cool off, and we learned to give him more space and quiet than Grandmother required.
Of course, as a child I didn’t know those heart-hardening circumstances that undoubtedly fueled Pop’s undercurrent of anger that always made me slightly uneasy around him. Nor was I aware of how my grandmother spent a year in Athens, Georgia, where I grew up in order to carve out a brighter future for herself than what Dozier, Alabama, could’ve ever offered, only to end up back in small-town Alabama where she so badly longed for a daughter that she would sometimes wistfully dress her youngest son in pink, the same son who would grow up to have me, who favored him so much that Grandmother doted on me like the little girl she never had. Nor were those the types of personal details she would’ve wished me to share when she asked me a year before she died to write her obituary.
During what would be her last visit to my parents’ home, as we were sitting side by side on the living room sofa, similar to the cuddled-up posture we would assume while singing the “Wheels on the Bus” so long ago, Grandmother turned to me, a junior in college at that point, and told me matter-of-factly, “I’d like you to write my obituary.” Trying not to look stunned, immediately, I said that I would. But I never did.
The last time I saw Grandmother alive was on a Thanksgiving Day barely a year after she made her obituary request. She was in the hospital and dreadfully thin, and I don’t remember what she said to me as she squeezed my hand towards her lovingly because I was overwhelmed by the guilt of knowing that I wasn’t going to do her that one final favor. I wouldn’t write the obituary, telling my parents that the task was too emotionally overwhelming, when in fact, I was too scared that I couldn’t because I didn’t know the first thing about obituary writing and wasn’t impressed enough to learn, and when I hugged her good-bye, I knew it, though I couldn’t admit it out loud for years because I didn’t want to believe my own true story of being the granddaughter so self-involved she didn’t at least try and do the right thing.
She died on my twenty-second birthday, and at the funeral I wept mournfully at her loss and, even more so, shamefully at myself.
The obituary my aunt cobbled together for her was appropriately respectful and factually correct, as Grandmother would’ve wanted. When I read it, I realized again what an insurmountable writing assignment it truly was, to condense one woman’s multiple identities as sister, wife, mother, and matriarch across a sprawling family tree into a dry rundown of dates, towns, and common last names. Anything I could’ve cobbled together would’ve felt like an insufficient testament to not only her unrelenting adoration toward me, but also of her confounding complexities, many of which I only began to better understand after she died and I set about filling in the gaps of that biographical letter that was, in a way, the obituary she wrote in flawless cursive for herself and graciously shared with me.
“As I look back on my life, I’m sure the hardships have made me a stronger and more fulfilled person,” Grandmother wrote in the letter before signing off.
When I’m older and a grandmother perhaps one day, I hope I can claim the same epitaph.
Cristen Conger is an Atlanta-based writer, a podcast co-host of Stuff Mom Never Told You, and the internet's unofficial Curator of Lady Knowledge. Her work specializes in all things women, gender, sex, and getting laughs. Not always in that order.