There don’t seem to be many saintly grandmothers around anymore. The kind that keep the faith alive for their grandchildren when the parents become engrossed with the cares of everyday. The kind of grandmother I had when I grew up. Hearing my mom refer to my grandmother as “Mother,” and her friends refer to her as “May,” her given name, it was my older sister who, as a confused toddler, gave my grandmother the mix of a pet name we grandkids called her ever after. We called her “Mother May.”
On a patch of land that is now somewhere under Greers Ferry Lake, near a place called Eglantine, a town in Arkansas, my grandmother was born. In reporting about life there in her later years she said, “There must have been a big battle there because when it rained, the dirt washed away revealing lead balls and arrowheads by the handfuls.” Her father didn’t stick around very long, and this was a lifelong embarrassment for my grandmother in her generation. Although I spent a lot of time with my grandmother, this “illegitimacy” was a part of life I never knew until I was fifty years old and she had been in the grave twenty.
A barefoot one room school house education of not much more than through the sixth grade, this illegitimacy, and what she referred to as her “bad hand” (poor handwriting), evoked subconscious embarrassments and inner apologies in her all her life. But people who got beyond her humility held her in gentle, high regard.
The “good life” was ever a dream for sharecroppers which was the chief livelihood of she and her mother all her growing up years. Carl, her half-brother, who was sixteen years her younger, and the legitimate son of a father fifty years his senior, said in an interview many years later that, “We were just poor and that’s all there was to it. That’s why I joined the Army. I couldn’t scratch out a livin’ on that ol’ place and that’s all I knew to do.” In the same interview, Thelma, Carl’s wife said, “May had a hard life. A real hard life.” And then turning to the kitchen to tend chicken frying in the pan said quietly and almost as if to herself, “But she was the best friend I ever had.”
Mother May married at eighteen, moved to Joplin, Missouri, and when her daughter, my mother, was seven, her husband was shot while trying to take a pistol away from a man following a card game “and was left to die.” To assist in the raising of her two orphaned children, fully equipped with a “basic” education, no trade, an embarrassing lack of respectable origins, and her “bad hand,” came the Great Depression. Although it was hard to tell, at least according to comments made by my critical mother during conversations between she and my grandmother in my growing up years, Mother May barely beat off the Depression with impeccable taste in clothing.
Seamstress work. She started sewing clothes and then built it into a small but soon reputable fur shop in Tulsa, Oklahoma. While there, she stumbled across “old Elder Frazee” an Adventist pastor and his flock. The Advent message and its female prophet were embraced as truth the rest of her days. She told a family story once of how, shortly thereafter, she was coming up the porch from a long day and had no idea where the supper for that day, nor many future days, would be coming from, to find two bags of groceries which had appeared mysteriously from a place of which she never learned.
Times were tough and tough times are hard on teenage daughters who have no father and not much money. Doing her best with her independent strong-willed daughter and a mixture of some hit-and-miss church school, my grandmother sought to raise her two children Adventist. The message took but with my mother the discipline of the thing was another matter. My strong-willed mother believed the validity of the message all her days but never mustered the self-discipline required of its doctrines to feel comfortable in the flock.
Marrying out of the faith, May’s recalcitrant daughter bore three children… my “two mean and ornery older sisters” (my term), and me. My grandmother, ever concerned about our being raised without serious approach to religious training, peppered our home with the “the good ol’ Review,” Signs of the Times, These Times, Liberty Magazine, and other periodicals of “the truth” during my youth, and always took us to church if we wanted to go when she came to visit. If we kids wanted to go to campmeeting in Oklahoma City, she would rent the tent and take time off from her then and there career as a private duty nurse. Somehow, this mix of occasional church visits, a few summers at campmeeting, and the exposure to my mother’s undisciplined belief, led to an eventual experience at Ozark Academy my Junior year in high school. I have been in Adventist education ever since in that I became a denominational teacher.
Mother May, an attractive woman who always looked several years younger than her age, had a couple of suitors in midlife. One lived in the Skirvin Hotel in Oklahoma City when I was about ten. She was his private duty nurse. He wanted to meet me, and he gave me a gold Bulova watch. I also had my first ever waffle at a fancy hotel at that breakfast. I thought the watch was “cool,” but it took a close second to my first ever waffle. She was affirmed by his attentions and would have been able to add a little financial security to her life for the first time, perhaps ever. He had pursued a successful career in the world of merchandising. His name was May. He was Jewish and although the days of worship were the same, there were other ideologies that she feared might somehow get compromised. “And besides,” she said, “Wouldn’t it be funny being called May May.”
Her magic with animals was legendary in our family. Perhaps it was her Ozarks country upbringing, but she was one of those people like you see in TV shows who, with a big smile and vigorous happy greeting, turns snarling dogs into poised polite pussy cats. For companionship in her ’40s vintage* upstairs one bedroom Oklahoma City apartment she had Tony her parakeet. He had an extensive vocabulary and repertoire of sassy little sayings and when not riding on the stiff rubber cord support of her iron when she ironed, was hopping around with little hot feet on the surface of her ever-erected ironing board trying to flirt with his image in the shininess of the iron bottom. Once she brought home a discovered nest-fallen baby bird which she nurtured to health, growth, and ultimate release into the wild from her tiny upstairs apartment balcony using for food a variety of homemade remedies including canned blueberries.
Her driving was also family legend. There was always some mumbled report of a mysteriously and newly bent fender and whenever she applied the brakes to stop, she always pumped them believing they would last longer. I had to follow her someplace once when she owned a red Studebaker and because of the way rear lights were connected in those days, if her turn signal was blinking and she was pumping her brakes, it seemed as if all the lights on the back of the car were blinking at different times, and different speeds, and you had no idea what it was you were supposed to understand she was about to do. I remember thinking it resembled a fire engine going down the street backwards.
In 1966, when my grandmother entered her final senior years, she came to live with my folks in Springfield, Missouri and to pursue a lifelong dream of colporteuring. When the engine fell out (literally) of her old 1957 lima bean green Studebaker, she bought a red VW Bug and charged over the hilly Ozark mountain roadways selling and telling the Bible Story, the Great Controversy, Bible Readings for the Home, and hawking some “big four-color-book on health” to any takers she could get. I remember my mother chiding my grandmother about being out so late on the highways one rainy autumn night. My grandmother dismissed the concern with the fact that she was old enough to take care of herself. “And besides,” she said, “I like driving in the rain.”
She died in 1970 and was buried miles apart from her long ago murdered husband, who was buried miles apart from their long ago deceased son. From the beginning to the end, she had to pretty well hold on to whatever of life happened to be handy. Her life was never very secure with material, she was of disreputable parentage, possessed hardly any education, suffered the premature death of a husband and likewise her son, bore a recalcitrant and independent daughter, and had to whip the Depression into oblivion. But she kept the faith against all troubles and odds and while spreading it wherever she could, spreading it most wherever she loved. To assess how much such a life experience pays off for all the others whose lives she was in and out of is difficult. To assess how much it paid off for me is not. Her influence led me to a source of life meaning and sense of destiny. She has a great-grandson now that looks like he will be a Christian doctor soon. She would have been so proud, as am I… and of her.
I don’t see many grandmothers around like that anymore. Maybe it’s because hanging on to the faith against all troubles and odds is no longer part of the faith. But… maybe those grandmothers are still there. Maybe they just have to be your grandmother in order to recognize them.
Epilogue: Apparently, about six months after Mother May’s death, my mother found her way into the baptismal pool of our local church. I was stationed at a distant place in the Army at the time and my mother never mentioned anything to me about her baptism, before or after its occurrence. Her baptism was never a topic of conversation between us. Someone, probably the pastor’s wife, sent me a simple white envelope containing a photograph of the event and a note which said nothing more than, “I thought you might like to have this.” From the appearance of the photograph, it appears the baptism was an entirely private affair. Approximately 18 months after her baptism, at age 54, Mary died following a long battle with tobacco and caffeine addiction. She too left me with legacies which I cherish.
*This was 1966 and she had a ’40s style “icebox” — a real one. The iceman came with a 25-lb block of ice slung over his shoulder which he would place in the top compartment of the two-compartment wooden “icebox” where the cooling effect of the evaporating ice would drift downward to the lower compartment, keeping the milk, butter, and scant few veggies fresh. Mother May’s apartment was the only occupied apartment of the three second story apartments which shared a common bathroom.
Mother May’s Famous Earthy Phrases and Sayings
In occasional deference to her usually refined and gentle ways, Mother May’s down-home upbringing showed through in her wise, humorous, and endearing country sayings.
Regarding my hesitancy to dash from the porch to the car during a sudden rain shower she chided, “Oh, go on silly! You won’t melt! You’re neither sugar, nor salt, nor nobody’s honey.”
Recalling mosquitoes she encountered in Yellowstone National Park during a long ago family trip she exclaimed, “They were so big, if you’d hit ’em with a board you’d knock a pound of feathers off of ’em.”
If a sudden good fortune arose, from her own depth of personal experience she was quick to counsel, “When opportunity knocks you better grab it by the forelock because it’s bald behind” and that one should pursue an emerging opportunity “Like a duck on a Junebug.”
Following a young man’s very personal and public confessions of private sins during a church service altar call she counseled her young grandson: “Old Elder Detamore used to say, ‘Public sins should be confessed in public and private sins in private.’”
Offering a chagrined analysis of a visit by our local conference president who came to remedy a big problem at our small church she said in a low-voiced whisper, “Well… he was kind of like a bull in china closet, and you know what they say about them don’t cha? What he didn’t breakup he doo-dooed on… and they don’t use the word doo-doo.”
On rare occasion, exasperated by some minor calamity, “Oh, gosh!” would slip out and she would, in great embarrassment, “Apologize for her problem with an occasional by word.”
Occasionally, ruminating with my critical mother over certain Depression-era decisions, she would always remark, “Well, it seemed like the thing to do at the time.”
Jay Linthicum taught Technology/Industrial Education in Adventist academies in Nebraska and California for 41 years. Newly retired, he has followed his granddaughters to a place of which he had not heard of previously — northern Idaho.
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