Tuesday, September 23, 2014

A Remembrance of My Grandmother on Her Birthday

Two women sit sewing. You’d call the scene quiet, if you didn’t see the frenetic quick gouges the needle of the younger is making through the mending she has knotted in her hands. 

The iron-gray hair of the older woman, pulled into an untidy bun at the back of her head, frames a round, wrinkled face hidden as she huddles over her quilting frame. She’s piecing together squares of the bright primary colors she favors for her quilts: vibrant red, restful blue, white, black, an abundance of the latter because of the six children she’s lost. The squares are made from clothes worn to tatters — in her case, many of them black silk or wool mourning dresses.

As she quilts, she takes long sips from the cup of rich black coffee always at her elbow when she works around her house. Whichever family member happens to brew the coffee each morning sets aside one pot especially for her, one so strong that no one else in the family dare touch it. 

Then there’s the tea she also likes so bold, so brown, that a mouse could trot across the cup, as they say in Ireland where she was born. Jars of the thick brown tea go with her to the fields, along with cold baked potatoes, to sustain her as she hoes, chops, picks, stops to nurse whatever babe she has swaddled at her side at the moment. 

Sixteen of them she’s borne, of whom ten have survived. The straggling hairs at the back of her neck are nothing to be remarked upon, then, in a life that has contained such loss, so much ceaseless labor, such joining together of tatters of black mourning dresses with colors of blood, sky, and bone. Needle, thread, and cloth, the piecing of color to color in patterns designed to reconfigure pain to something closer to comfort and joy: this is the story to be heard in the bowed gray head of one of the two women who sit sewing. 

The other woman, she of the angry, jabbing needle and the thick auburn hair that sashays atop her head with each quick stab of her needle: she's my grandmother, Hattie Paralee Batchelor. Today is her birthday. I know this story of a very specific day on which she sat sewing with her mother Catherine Ryan Batchelor because she told it to me repeatedly in my childhood, always with chagrin about how she behaved on that day.

It was the day on which she told my great-grandmother that her beau, Will Reynolds, a brother to her sister Fannie's husband Lewis Reynolds, had proposed to her, and she wanted to marry him. My great-grandmother's reaction was to cry, tears streaming down her face onto the quilt she was making. 

"I had thought, Hattie," she replied, "that you'd stay with me to my death." My grandmother's response was to throw her mending on the floor and stomp out of the room, as she swore to her mother that, since she had no choice, she'd do what her mother expected of her. 

And so she did. And the man she loved then married someone else the following year.

My grandmother (1908) is the young woman sitting next to the woman with the extravagant hat. Her beau Will is behind her to her left. Her brother John is in back with upraised arms, her brother Ed in front of her. The others I don't know.

My grandmother was the last girl at home after her three older sisters Delilah, Alice, and Frances had married, the fourteenth of her mother's sixteen children. After her father's death in 1907, she and the three unmarried sons of the family, two of them, John and Ed, younger than my grandmother, one immediately older, Monroe, remained with their mother to her death. When their mother died in 1910, the four youngest family members, whose ages then ranged from 25 to 15, were parceled out to live with one older sibling or another.

My grandmother ended up living with her sister Alice, who was kind to her, a lifelong friend and constant helpmeet to her for many years. But in the year or so in which she lived with Alice and Alice's husband, she'd hear the husband at night complaining to his wife about the expense of keeping  Hattie. 

So that she jumped at the first chance to marry that came down the road after her mother's death, that chance being my grandfather, William Z. Simpson, a man some 20 years her senior, with whom she was not really in love at all. But he was there, his mother having just died and he needing a housekeeper to replace her and the spinster housekeeper, Miss Sophronia Thrower, who had assisted his mother in keeping house for him, but who refused to remain with him — What would people think? — an unmarried man, a widower, after his mother's death.

He was a man with property and a good reputation, from a family considered "old" and "good," a family that a generation before had had land and servants in abundance, with deep roots in what are called the first families of Virginia. And so when Mr. Simpson — as she insisted on calling him when she spoke of him even after they married — asked for her hand in marriage, after having sent her several little billets-doux asking her, please Miss Hattie, to except [sic] this token of his esteem, she accepted.

My grandparents in 1912, in what I believe is a wedding photo. My grandfather's first wife died several days after giving birth to the little boy, Carl, whom my grandmother raised.

What else was a young woman to do, unmarried, without father or mother, with no money to her name, in that time, in that place? When she heard her brother-in-law night after night tell her sister how much it cost to keep her? When the man she had really loved, the man she had wanted, had married another?

And when her mother bound her to herself with such guilt, such tears, in the final years of the mother's life? These are the stories of my grandmother's life, the stories I remember on her birthday today, because she told them to me over and over, often with tears in her eyes (especially when she talked about her mother having to work in the fields, something considered shameful for women, white women I must be truthful and say, to do in that time and place, a sign of poverty). Some of the stories were told to me, too, by her three brothers whom I knew, Pat, Monroe, and Ed. It was Uncle Monroe who told me of his mother's love for rich strong black coffee and the pot of it he and his siblings brewed for her each morning.

The quilts themselves told me the story of my great-grandmother's love of bold primary colors and bold patterns, of the abundance of somber squares among the red, blue, and white, when I slept under those quilts as a child, and when, following my grandmther's death, I inherited a box of quilt pieces my great-grandmothers had cut for quilting. And now I tell all these stories to you, to celebrate the birthday of a grandmother whom I dearly loved.

And what else can I do, when, as William Faulkner has reminded us, "No man is himself, he is the sum of his past. There is no such thing really as was because the past is. It is a part of every man, every women, and every moment. All of his and her ancestry, background, is all a part of himself and herself at any moment" (Faulkner and the University, ed. L. Glynn and Joseph L. Blotner [Charlottesville: Univ. Press of VA, 1959], p. 84)?

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