Lum: Grandmotherly memories
October 16, 2013
It is a shock to me that I am almost 20 years older than my paternal grandmother was when she came to live with us. Widowed and destitute at 57, she was wrested from her home in the Deep South (her name was Robbie Lee in honor of the confederate general) into the land of the damned Yankees.
I was 4 when Gran arrived, so I could barely remember life without her living in the house — she was just there, like my older sister and the dachshunds. I didn't consider adults as human beings, and old people were in a class by themselves. Gran, to my mind, was an ancient crone, though not as ancient as my great-grandmother Mama, who put the fear into everyone during her annual visits and was frequently at death's door but kept on ticking.
There was a hierarchy of fear on my maternal side. Mama, who feared no one, put the fear on her daughter, my grandmother Monie. Monie, my mother's mother, feared no one except Mama, and my mother feared no one except Monie and Mama. It was an interesting matriarchal lesson for me as a kid. If my mother feared Monie and Mama, you can be sure I was scared to death of them.
I could use words like "honor" and "respect," but these women were, in their own way, holy terrors, and terrors mean fear.
"Fetch me a switch," Gran would yell at us, pointing to the lilac bushes, "and if y'all pick me a little one, I'll get it myself."
By this time my little brother had been added to the family, and we all knew how to pick the perfect switches and then laboriously peel the bark off them while Gran forgot what infractions she was pissed off at, followed by dancing and screaming bloody murder as she swiped awkwardly at our legs.
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These days, she could have been brought up on charges, but none of us had the least fear of Gran. Gran was fear personified. We could drive her into hysterics by leaving an open umbrella in the parlor, and God help anyone who broke a mirror (seven years bad luck) or stood anywhere near a faucet during a thunderstorm. We were merciless in teasing her many superstitions.
Monie was a different kettle of fish. She was a devout Southern Presbyterian whose devotion to Christianity did not include African-Americans. Only one generation away from slave owners, Monie's South when I was a teenager — before the long-overdue civil-rights movement — was still divided into "white" and "colored" facilities.
Her black housekeeper was allotted a drinking glass, which she left boiling on the stove when she finished her duties. For Monie, heaven was strictly for white people. For the heathen kids in our family, heaven was that — except for a week-long visit, Monie lived in Alabama.
"Ah didn't kick the cat; ah just pushed it with mah foot!" Monie would exclaim self-righteously as the cat flew out the door. The cats, the dachshunds and the family would all crawl out of their hidey holes when the train pulled into the station to take her away.
Su Lum is a longtime local who, without role models, had to wing it with her granddaughter. This column appears every Wednesday in The Aspen Times. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.