Love, Look At The 2 of Them.
This is how I remember my grandparents. The picture is from the 1980’s.
These are my mother’s parents. We were much closer to them than to my father’s parents. We called them Nana and Papa, although everyone else called them Florence and Robert.
Since my mom died, I’ve been the keeper of the boxes of family history. A peek into my grandmother’s boxes revealed that Nana and Papa had a long-lasting romance. Frankly, the letters and pictures are hard to reconcile with my image of them.
Florence had no brothers or sisters, and she fit the stereotype of the indulged only child. She grew up in Montgomery and was a talented pianist. When she gave a music recital, the paper noted that she was “an accomplished musician and extremely popular.” Nana would cling to that latter phrase throughout the rest of her life. She expected people to wait on her. She often talked about her college days, and how well-loved she was by her friends. I’ve known people like that, who brag about how popular they are, but the only one I loved was my grandmother.
We don’t know as much about my grandfather, except that he had a brother and a sister. Robert spent time in the army, traveling the world. This picture was taken around 1927. The ship he’s on is called the USS Meanticut. He was tall and slender and kept that shape throughout his life.
Robert and Florence were courting by 1934, when they posed for this picture on the deserted beaches of Panama City, Florida. PCB has changed a lot since then. Some of you may call it the Redneck Riviera. It actually looks romantic here, although the bathing attire probably has a lot to do with it.
My grandparents married in 1937. Their engagement notice reveals another of Nana’s obsessions: her lineage.
She and her mother, referred to as “Big Momma” in an intimidating way, not a snuggly one, wrote about Florence that “paternally and maternally she is of distinguished ancestry.” They pointed out that one of her ancestors had owned a castle and had a statue erected in his memory in Yorktown, Virginia. She was descended from George Washington’s sister. Another forebear, the great Lord Ashley, had written the well-known Shaftesbury Papers. He was also known as the Earl of Shaftesbury, and the Ashley and Cooper rivers in South Carolina were named after him. The engagement notice included the names of all her dead relatives who had fought in the Revolutionary war and a couple who’d fought for the Confederacy.
Nana and Big Momma tried mightily to conjure up some aristocratic relatives for Papa, but the best they could do was to say that he came from the “Beards, Drysdales and Dowies,” who settled in New Jersey, and some French Huguenots who settled in Virginia on land grants. I feel sure that didn’t bother Papa at all.
Regardless of his ancestral shortcomings, Florence and Robert were married, and my mother was born in 1941.
Florence and Robert tried desperately to have another child, but were unsuccessful. In her later years, each time I was pregnant, Nana would tell me about her miscarriages in excruciating detail. Well into her 80’s, every time she saw a person having a baby, she took it as a personal reminder of her inability to have more than one child. But that’s how she was. She considered how things affected her first.
My grandfather adored my grandmother. At times they were separated while he was in the army. He wrote her letters so gushing they make your heart flutter just to read them, even when you know they are written to another woman.
He writes to “My adorable wife” and ends with “My Florence, I think of you all during the day and night and am so completely yours. Your devoted husband, Robert.” In between he says things like, “Florence, I miss you greatly. You are worth the world to me.” He thanks her for each letter she sends, worries about her health, asks about my mother – is she talking? Can Florence send pictures?- and dreams of the next time they’ll be together.
In every picture I have of them together, he is gripping her tightly, so she won’t slip away.
They lived long enough to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary. Papa died in 1991, when I was in law school, and Nana lived another twelve years, miserable without him.
That’s the story of their romance.
Of course, there’s a different story, and that’s the story of my relationship with them.
Of all my grandparents, and my parents as well, Papa was the most effusive. He didn’t hesitate to express his feelings and tell you how much he loved you. Even as a child I could see that Nana could be a hypochondriac and that she was spoiled, but he delighted in her every move, catered to her, and assured her that she was the most wonderful creature on the planet.
He was devoted to us as well. He rode a bike most days, and would often ride to our house. He’d slip rubber-bands around the cuffs of his pants so they wouldn’t get caught in the chains, and I thought that was the smartest idea I’d ever heard. He outfitted the bike in other ways, too. He added a basket so he could bring us National Geographic magazines, word puzzles he’d found, or vegetables from the farmer’s market. Because dogs roamed the neighborhood, he cut off a broom handle and attached it with springs to the underside of his handlebars so he could brandish it if a mutt got too aggressive.
After he retired, he didn’t slow down. For years he volunteered for the Red Cross, driving the truck to pick up blood donations. He taught us how to make his famous peanut brittle and gave it to neighbors or dropped it off at the Red Cross.
Papa believed that the key to success was having plenty of sharp pencils on hand. He installed a pencil sharpener on the inside of our upstairs closet door and made sure we were well-supplied with pencils. He always had plenty himself, which he used until they were shorter than his pinky. When I think of Papa, I smell pencil shavings.
Papa always had something nifty to show us. He taught us how to sit in the sun with a magnifying glass and focus it on a leaf just so, and soon the leaf would smolder and burn. He explained tic-tac-toe strategies. He’d take apart his hearing aids and demonstrate how they worked.
I included this picture because this is how I remember Papa. When he saw you, he’d bend down to your level and grasp your hand and pat pat pat it hard while he asked about your latest adventure. When you talked to him you felt like you were the only person in the world. I can see why Nana fell apart after he died.
Nana remained obsessed with popularity and lineage. I might be dating a long-haired pot smoker, but if he could produce papers showing he was descended from George Washington’s sister and that they came from the same people, Nana would have been thrilled about it.
She believed that high-class people had to uphold certain standards. Women should wear their hair off their foreheads so their eyebrows were clearly visible. She’d often say, “You’d be so much more becoming if your hair was shorter in the front.”
Chewing gum was “common.”
My mother hadn’t been asked to join the Birmingham Junior League, as she’d grown up in Montgomery. When I got an invitation and turned it down, Nana took to her bed. She was stunned that a young lady would practice law rather than join a club with the Junior League’s cachet.
I redeemed myself when the twins were born and we named Drew after my grandfather. Nana was ecstatic. She’d smile at the other boys, but she wanted her picture taken with Drew, because he was “her people.”
There was a Western grocery store a mile from my grandmother’s house. She wouldn’t go near it. Instead she drove all the way to the Western grocery store in the heart of the Tiny Kingdom, because that’s where all the people who were somebody went.
When it was time for her to go to a nursing home, she flat-out refused to go to one convenient to my mom’s house, and insisted on a different one miles away, because it attracted “a better class of people.”
My mom managed her well after my grandfather’s death. She was essentially parenting her mother, as so many of us do later in life, but it was impossible for anyone to treat my grandmother with the attention that Big Momma and Papa had lavished on her. My mom was trying to hold a marriage together and spend time with her grandchildren as well. It wasn’t until after my mom died that I realized just how hard it was for her to manage day by day.
My mom and my grandmother died just a couple of years apart.
I think my grandmother would like to be remembered as she is in this picture, or perhaps the one above where she’s in the pink dress. Her hair is swept off her forehead, revealing her eyebrows. She’s happy and smiling, clearly the center of attention, where she was meant to be.