Grandma’s cheekbones swallowed her cringe, “I hate that name!”
“Isn’t your name Virginia?”
“My middle name,” Grandma smiled. “But, I’ve always been a Virginia.”
Quite an interesting thing: to be in my thirties and discover my grandmother’s birth name. Then again, she had only been Grandma for half of those years. Technically, she was a step.
She arrived in my life exactly when I did not want her to.
My parents’ divorce was beyond messy. Eventually, my father and his entire family rejected me and my sister. In the midst of too many changes, my mother met a man born in Arkansas. I did not want to trust him and I didn’t want him in our lives, even if he did present me with a dozen doughnuts when we first met. I ate four of those doughnuts in one sitting, angry I enjoyed each one more than the last because he brought them. I wanted Mom to myself. I wanted my father to love me. Instead, I got a stranger. With a cadence reminiscent of Johnny Cash. He spoke slowly and not often; it didn’t matter that when he did speak, it was thoughtful and intelligent. And it didn’t matter that he brought my mother a red rose every Friday. He wasn’t Dad.
But after six months, the stranger wasn’t going away. Worse, his parents were coming to visit. They drove from Jonesboro, Arkansas, up to Michigan. And that scared me. Because Southerners were all surely racist, all (Louisiana excepting) Catholic-hating Christians. Klan members. Mint julep smiles hiding a lynch mob in the backyard. As a little girl who had lost so much, who championed the underdog because she was one, the South represented the ultimate rejection of a person: if one was too different, then that difference was paid for with one’s life, or worse, one’s spirit. I determined not to like these Southerners.
But my better self took over. I was polite. I listened. To be frank, the man who became my grandfather was difficult to understand. His words tumbled through a pinched nose. But the older woman? Her voice was like sinking onto a down pillow: soft, layered, comfortable. I stared at her for a while from across the living room. She smiled often at me. And in that moment, not wanting her at all, I knew that somehow I was hers. That despite all of the differences in accents, beliefs and experiences, all of those superficial things I focused on, she, quite simply, was Love. In that moment, she became mine.
I honored her. I wrote her letters. Bought her angels because she loved them; because she was one. I talked to her, shyly when I was a girl and with the concerns of a woman when I became older. I listened and observed. Immaculate in self and home, decorated in all things delicate, Grandma was strong. Strong as a man: she had picked cotton and cut her hands in the hot Arkansas sun. And strong as only a woman can be: she gave birth to her child only to bury him.
She taught me something else as well: how to shut up.
Once, when my husband and I accompanied my grandparents to their Baptist church, a man—not a preacher or deacon—was given an opportunity to preach.
He began, “Jesus said, ‘you got to walk your walk and talk your talk.’” My eyes widened; I’m pretty sure those words never came out of Jesus’ mouth.
“Jesus said, ‘if you smoke cigarettes, you’re going to hell.’ It’s in the Bible.” My fingernails dug into my husband’s arm, smoking sinner that he was.
“And Jesus also said, ‘if you are a homo-sex-chew-al, you are going to hell.’ You got to walk your walk and talk your talk. It’s in the Bible.”
The only walking I wanted to do was right out the church door. I remained rooted to the hard bench, not daring to talk, afraid of the ugly words behind my tongue: Redneck idiot!
After a buffet lunch at their favorite restaurant, we returned to my grandparents’ house. Grandma sat in her favorite chair and picked up her crochet hook.
“He didn’t do too bad,” she began.
She looked down at her fingers working through the yarn. The tiniest, slyest smile crept on her mouth. “You know, I have a nephew who’s gay and everybody was so shocked when they found out. I always knew. I love and accept him now as much as I ever did.” Without taking a breath, she continued, “That sure was some good peach cobbler, wasn’t it?”
I had sat in church and the restaurant, seething a little, angry to find the one person who embodied my own prejudices. But Grandma? Over a ball of a yarn, she diffused the man’s ignorance yet left him intact. She made sure I knew her true feelings: Bless his heart, that man doesn’t have a clue. Then, she let it go, falling to the ground like the piece of fluff it was. Classy. Very Southern, I suppose; but ultimately, classy.
Behind it all was a lesson I cherish: as long as I know who I truly am, what I think and what I’m about is no one’s business. If I am secure in my truth, then I must reside there rather than in base emotions. I certainly don’t need to confront or condemn, even when I want to. Arrogance and righteous indignation cannot share the same quarters as Grace.
Grace, Truth and always, always, Unconditional Love: the most beautiful gifts from my angel grandma. A true Southern lady.
Grandma passed away nearly a year ago. I miss her everyday.
But I think she’s smiling now, as I write the next line. You picked a fine time to leave me…Virginia, but I am forever grateful for the time we had together. For loving me immediately. Just as I was; just as I am.