And Then There Were Grandmothers
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth; after that, He created grandmothers. If you want to talk about creating something in His own image, the grandmother is it. Remember as a child how "God-like" she seemed to be? She was all knowing and all seeing. She could be gracious and forgiving, but the wrath of a grandmother is not something soon forgotten. I grew up with two grandmothers who lived fairly close to me, so I was able to spend a lot of time with them as a child. My grandmothers were very different in terms of appearance, personality, and background, but they did have similar Christian values and work habits.
In December of 1948, Imogene Ballentine gave birth to a baby girl who would, twenty three years later, become my mother. Mrs. Ballentine would frequently tell her six grandchildren that twenty-three years was long enough for her to be a mother, but I know she loved having us around. We called her "Nana" instead of the traditional grandma because she insisted the name suited her better. Nana is a petite woman, standing about 5'4", with bright blue eyes and hair to match. From her twenties to the present day she has always kept herself in perfect, manicured fashion. Her nails have always been an exact one-half inch above the tips of her fingers for as long as I can recall, and the roots revealing her true hair color have never shown. The family has tried to update her wardrobe many times through Christmas and birthday gifts, but she still maintains that 1940's look. This rebellion against fashion truly reflects her incredible personality.
Nana has a knack for creating big scenes and is often a little too outspoken. I will never forget one incident in a Denny's restaurant. Nana, her sister, and I had gone in for dessert one night and were waited on by a nice-looking guy. Nana purposely spilled her ice cream so that the waiter would have to bend over to clean it up. Just as he bent over, she reached up and pinched his butt. Her sister roared with laughter, and I hid under the table. I was shocked to see a sixty-five-year-old behaving like a teenager, but I think her young-at-heart attitude helps us relate to each other even better than I relate to my own mother. Nana is also very creative. When I spent the night at her house as a child, she would keep me up until all hours of the morning telling me stories of magic kingdoms and far away places, all off the top of her head. Her creativity might have evolved from her background of competing with her seven brothers and sisters for the attention of her mother.
Nana was raised in Apopka, Florida, a small town destined to become a large city. At least that's what they thought back in the 1920s. Today, Apopka is still a small town, but as in the old days, it still has some "citylike" qualities. It is far enough northwest of Orlando not to be considered a suburb but close enough to house many city folks who want to escape the "hustle and bustle" of big city life. Nana grew up in a large Victorian-style house near the main road that ran through town. Her family were afforded the pleasure of a large home not because they were rich, but because they needed the space, having eight children to house. Her mother and father taught their children that family was more valuable than anything else. Nana has retained this maxim and stays close with her surviving brothers and sisters. Although it was difficult to get an education as a woman back in the late 1920s, Nana had an advantage. Her mother was a teacher and spent many hours coaching her in the three "R's." Her mother similarly taught her how to play the piano. Nana is an excellent pianist and often enjoys singing to the tune she's playing. Unfortunately, her mother didn't instruct her in the art of voice. Eventually Nana had her own family and raised two children, six grandchildren, and two great grandchildren.Yet in her golden years she again had to compete for attention, but this time with another grandmother.
Percie Lee Wright was her name, and she was a tough opponent. Much of my memory of Mrs. Wright involves a swing she sat on and the bowl of butter beans she was always husking. We did call her Grandma; she had no objections to it. She was a towering woman, standing about 5'11", with dark eyes and hair. The lines and wrinkles on her face reflected the many hours of labor she had gone through in her lifetime. She was never concerned with how her nails were kept. They always ended up with more dirt under them the next work day. Her hair was another story. She adored changing hairstyles as often as she changed her socks. She kept a collection of multicolored wigs on her dresser that she occasionally allowed the grandchildren to play with. When she donned one of those wigs, her hair might have changed, but her personality remained constant.
Grandma was not a very vocal person, even when she was angry. When she became angry, she just grabbed her switch and we knew to stop whatever we were doing. She was very predictable in some ways. Every day she followed the same routine. She made a large breakfast every morning, and, after that, if she wasn't running out to feed the chickens or tend to the garden, she sat in front of the TV watching her favorite soap operas. It was difficult sometimes to talk to her because she didn't like to express her feelings. My father has inherited that trait, and I think that since I missed out on learning more about her, I have tried to build a closer relationship with him. I did, however, enjoy just sitting next to Grandma on the swing, husking butter beans at dusk. There was a peaceful silence that helped me understand why she chose to spend her life on a farm.
Grandma grew up in Ft. Walton Beach, Florida, a small rural town right around the corner from Pensacola in the panhandle. Her family were farmers and very poor. She had only two sisters, and they shared a small room in a three-room house back in the woods. In her youth her father did not have the means to own his own farm, so he worked for wealthier land owners. They did keep a small garden, however, that provided them a money-saving alternative to purchasing their vegetables from a produce cart or store. So at the early age of five Grandma learned how to tend a garden and cook a country meal. She attended school just long enough to learn the basics of reading and writing. As she got older, she was able to work with her father, and they ultimately saved enough money to purchase their own modest farm. They had chickens, cows, and, of course, a much larger garden. When she and my grandfather married, they took over the land her father owned. Soon Grandma had three "younguns," as she called them, and twelve "grand-younguns." Sadly, she passed away in 1987. I was sixteen at the time and just starting to become the rebellious teenager so many of us do. Since that time I have often felt that I have had a guardian angel watching over me, keeping me out of trouble. I like to believe that spirit is Grandma.
Though it would seem my two grandmothers were total opposites, they did share some comparable qualities. They were both loyal Baptists and had similar rules they enforced on the grandchildren. Nana kept a list of her own "commandments" on the refrigerator for all to see. The real ten commandments were listed at the top-the ones written underneath were her own creation. They consisted of sayings we heard often such as "thou shalt not bite," "thou shalt not spit," and "thou shalt not whine." Grandma lived by the simpler commandment "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." This proverb she enforced with her switch, of course. Nana and Grandma both worked very hard at what they did although their occupational choices were drastically different, Nana was a secretary for many years. She continued working even after she had children. Grandma also worked hard on the farm while she was raising her kids. Overall, they both possessed those "God-like" characteristics that made them remarkable women and grandmothers.
The difference between my two grandmothers is evident, yet it is difficult to deny that my heart holds a special place for both of them. What is left to say about grandmothers? In the end, God saw every thing He had made, and, behold, it was very good. God blessed the seventh day, for it was the day of rest, and He blessed us all when he created grandmothers.