Sunday, November 6, 2011

about that middle name

my grandmother had arthritic hands and a fat billfold full of dollar bills and pictures of her grandchildren and people i didn't know. i sometimes thought she would never be able to open the billfold because of the knots in her fingers, but she always managed. when we went to the village store together — me staring at the gizzards and the pigs feet, hoping she would not bring those home for supper, her moving across the creaking floors to gather her provisions — she sometimes bought me Chicklets. and I would down half the pack before we made the short drive back to her house.

she was taken with saying things like "my lands i pray!" and "great garden peas!", a phrase that always stopped me because my grandmother knew her peas. field and blackeyed and green (not to mention butter beans, which are not peas but have never been limas) — she and my grandfather grew them all in the garden beside their house. she taught me to shuck them out of their shells on her front porch until my fingers bled green, sitting there in the glider on a quiet afternoon. all that shucking never made me like peas, no matter the color. but there were other things she cooked that i loved.

i am named for my grandmother but am nothing like her. my father's mother, she was stoic to a fault, laughed quietly but never really giggled, my lands i pray! and she didn't know what to do with me when i cried when i looked at my mother's wedding portrait hanging on her wall. my other grandmother, whom i saw far less often, used to dance in the family room so that we were embarrassed after awhile. but she and i were more kindred spirits.

my sister, though, looks as if my father's mother spit her out, as the saying goes. pictures of them at similar ages are downright scary they look so much alike, and they share a no nonsense get-on-with-it personality. it is what it is so you do your best, and for heaven's sake, don't wallow in self-pity. it is unbecoming. great garden peas!

today is my grandmother's birthday. and before the day ends on this first day of no daylight savings time, i want to celebrate the fact of her.

hazel estelle hooks. (i'm the estelle part.) though i always hated my middle name it's growing on me. i had a friend just after college named hazel, and she was a spitfire. i wanted to be hazel instead, the part of my grandmother that must be something like the hurricane, for surely that was me. but i was estelle. estelle? the boys in my class took hold of that one in junior high calling me "ass tail", —sorry mom & dad —  and so i wanted to drop it. estelle seemed like the kind of person who would swoon across chaise lounges in silken nightgowns in black and white movies.

my grandmother estelle never once swooned and only wore cotton, but her aprons were soft as butter. she kept a jar of jergens on her bedroom dresser, and sometimes when she wasn't looking, i would steal a smell. 

my grandfather called her ES-tell when he referred to her in the presence of others, but he often just called her "Doc", or "Dot" when he addressed her, (maybe my hearing was bad even then, so at least that's what it sounded like to me.)

she was born on this day in 1902, to barden vance hooks and ida estelle garris in fremont, north carolina, one of five children — three girls and two boys. i don't know her birth order but i suspect she was somewhere in the middle. i only knew beulah, the older sister closest in age to her. everybody always said my father is just like her brother frank. she called her father "poppa". 

my grandfather died in 1989, and a year later, knowing my grandmother's memory was leaving her, i gave her a grandmother memory book. on my infrequent visits we would sit with the book, and i learned some wonderful things about her that i never knew.

like her life's dream was to teach school. math. can you imagine? another reason we are not at all alike. that she got in trouble most for arguing with beulah (well, we are like in that way, as i used to argue with my sister.) that her mother was always worried, and that her father was happy-go-lucky (like my grandfather.) and what she loved most about her mother was "everything she did, except putting a switch to my legs."  well, i'm with her on that one. all this in her words, and in my handwriting, from the grandmother book.

her favorite season was spring, and she once rode a streetcar in Wrightsville Beach, even though her family never took a vacation. her best friend? mildred sammons, who lived a couple of blocks away. her first boyfriend's name? bernard pike.

she never rode a bicycle — a fact that still amazes me — but she played volleyball at salem college (was captain of the team, which would have been about 1924.) she was the only member of her family to graduate from college, and after graduation, she rode the train to Sunbury, the little village where she would teach math in high school.

she met my grandfather there, at a picnic at cannon ferry on the chowan river, a few miles south of town. there was probably a boat ride, and in the boat, she and my grandfather may have spoken the first words of the story that would one day lead to me.

(here, her memory was clear. she wore a white dress. they ate fried chicken. and when she told her father she wanted to marry william graham byrum of sunbury, n.c., he said: "i thought i educated you to teach school." (now that sounds a little bit like my own father, come to think of it.)

i picture them, my grandfather trying to make her giggle, she trying hard not to, but smiling. he playing the player piano that was in their front hall, she thinking all that was poppycock, but enjoying it as she went on with her work. the bed they shared sits upstairs in my house, in my son's room, and sometimes i go there and lie on it, just to be close to them. is that odd?

it is unimaginable to me that when my grandmother married in her navy blue dress in her parents' home, she could no longer be a teacher. only unmarried women in 1927 could be teachers. maybe she used her math to help him in his car business, but that is a fact i will never know.

after their wedding, she and my grandfather rode the train to Washington for their honeymoon, then settled into a house that was built for her, a house that her mother-in-law told her had too many windows.i remember as a child, french doors separated her living room and dining room and i loved that. the only time she visited me in the house i've lived in for 23 years, we had just installed the same to separate our living and family rooms. 

"i always thought they were a lot of trouble to wash," she told me then. of course now, i understand.

the grandmother book is filled with fill in the blanks, some of which involve my father. "I still smile when I think about the time...."  and grandmama completed the sentence: the day your daddy was born, the road to suffolk (va) was under construction, and Bigdaddy (my grandfather) told the watchman he was going through, because i was having a baby."

the last entry — and there is no date — is an answer to a question about what she was strict about with my dad. "i'm sure we didn't have any rules!" she recalled, which i am certain is not accurate.

in my memory, we visited with my grandparents just about every Sunday afternoon, either at our house or theirs. and at least once a summer, i would spend a week at her house, picking the peas and shelling them, shopping with her at the village store, trying to sit still in sunday school at the methodist church across the street. eating those chicklets. taking a bath in her footed bathtub. 

she died in the house she and my grandfather called home their entire married life — 62 years — surrounded by all those windows that looked out at the garden and the pecan tree in the back yard, the bluebirds and the pines in the front.

early on the september the morning we buried my grandmother, my husband drove my sister and me down country roads in the fall fog. i remember a small pond on the side of the road along our route, a lone fisherman drifting with his pole. we could see only his shadow in all that fog, but the image still sticks: my grandfather, drifting, waiting for her to get in the boat. for their own wonderful story to begin.

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