31 January 2013

Obligations

One of the benefits of having a wonderful Southern family is that the women marry young and have lots of children, then outlive many of their younger generations. This has certainly been the case in my family, which explains that I have personally known 2 of my great grandparents, Violet Nancy Greene and Callie May Fenity.





My experience with the two of them can almost be a perfect contrast. Violet was a sweet woman who enjoyed bright shades of pink lipstick and (in my four year old mind) spending time with her favorite great granddaughter (me!) We had sleep overs together in which we wore bright red matching pajamas. I remember that she snored, and she used a wheelchair. The only thing that ever frightened me about her were her stories about monkeys and that she could take her teeth out of her mouth. I nicknamed her Mom Mom Florida, after the place she would frequently leave me to spend her time. I remember that to me she was perfect, and I wanted to be just like her one day.





Callie May Fenity was never what you would call an attractive woman. Every picture I've ever seen her in has her wearing a very severe, worn expression.




By the time I came around, she was already in her 80's and 90's and the oldest woman I had ever met personally, and she became the definition of what old meant to me.




To be perfectly honest, the only things I remember about this woman is how much she terrified me. I remember how her house smelled, and how it always seemed much too small for the obligatory visits we made every holiday to go and see her. I must have instinctively placed myself in such a way as to never see her face, because I have little to no memory of looking at her. I remember the scratchy sound of her voice that reminded me of creaking wood, and the fear that she would want to kiss me. One of her index toes was permanently crossed over her big toe, and it seemed to me like the most unreasonable thing to be wrong with her foot.

My clearest memories of our visits to her home were the hundreds of knick knacks on a shelf right next to the door. They were souvenirs from places my various family members had visited. My favorites were a cast iron couple I always thought were Amish, but could have been any sort of mountain folk. There were thimbles, perfume bottles, metal dishes, too many things to touch and disturb in only one visit.

When she died, I remember that we spent an entire weekend cleaning out a tiny cluttered house, and I got a Mason jar full of buttons out of it. I pretended that it was pirate treasure.




Both of these women have the same relationship to me--they are my great grandmothers. The difference between them in my young mind was vast--one of them I enjoyed seeing immensely, and the other reminded me enough of an old witch that my overactive imagination simply wanted to get out of dodge, fast! But looking back now, I see those interactions so differently.

I see the effort my mother made to make sure that her daughters knew their ancestors, and that the aging women in our family got the chance to know and see us. I see my mother's hands woven throughout every exchange I had with both of these women, and every memory I have of them is truly a gift from her.

My mother was constantly making efforts like this. She would take us to cemeteries to visit graves, even when there was no one buried in them that we knew. She believed firmly that her children should be present at funerals and not be shielded from the concept of death. In so many of the things my mother did that seemed stupid, or crazy, or pointless, or creepy, I gained memories and perspectives that have shaped my identity today. Much of what I was able to do on my own as a teenage genealogist just starting out was because of all the things my mother did to prepare me for that role.

What I gained from those interactions with my great grandmothers doesn't have a price. The value is immense. But what it has done for my relationship with my mother hasn't even begun to come to fruition yet. I will be forever grateful for how she fought with me, dressed me up, put my coat on me, took me to see relatives, dragged me whining through cemeteries, all of it. I wouldn't trade one second of it for anything in this world.

What is our obligation to make sure that the coming generations spend quality time with their elders? Is it worth the fight and the hassle, even with young children?

My answer: Absolutely. I can't imagine where I'd be without that experience. I don't want to imagine it. And because of my mom being a mom and making me do things I didn't want to do when I was 6 years old, I never have to know how else life could have been.



Cheers to you mom!