I wrote this post in tribute to my grandmother on her birthday seven years ago. She was Thanksgiving to me.
My grandmother, who we called Big Mama, lived life large. She was quite the character and was unlike the acquiescent namesake in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” She would tell you what she thought and was usually pretty funny in so doing. The title of this post is one of her familiar sayings. When she would get up from her chair to go in the nearby kitchen to begin cooking, we would ask if we could sit in her chair. To which she would respond, “They’re all my chairs, but you can sit in that one.”
Big Mama would have been 103 on her birthday next week, so she is in my thoughts. Although, she died fifteen years ago, her memories and funny stories echo and certain events will bring them to the forefront of my mind. In addition to being a character, she was a person of character. My grandmother had a tough time the last ten years of her life, as she worked on her feet most of her life as a clothing sales person. With osteoporosis, her body would begin falling apart and she would often fall breaking things. In fact, one doctor said he believed her hip just broke, then she fell.
She ran the Boys and Men’s Clothing sections of the stores where she worked in a large, small town. Her clients were lifelong, as men would get out of college and go see her to be fitted with a business wardrobe. My favorite story about Big Mama was when she teased her cheap boss in front of the President of the company who had come to visit. After lending the President her pen to write something down, he put it in his pocket. She said, “Sir, that is my pen. My boss is too cheap to buy us pens, so I brought that one from home.” That got a chuckle, albeit a nervous one from her boss. She made the company so much money, she would not get chastised for telling the painful truth.
Yet, when I think about Big Mama, I think of Thanksgiving. Our ritual was to pack up our family and go to her house for the holiday. The family of one of my mother’s sisters would attend as would several of Big Mama’s close by siblings and their spouses, whose kids lived far away. Even after she could not walk much, my wife and I would go and she would direct us on how to make the various dishes. With her fingers ravaged by arthritis, I would tell her as she would micromanage too much, “Big Mama, don’t point that crooked finger at me,” to which she would laugh. To do this day, I make Big Mama’s cornbread dressing, which is the name it is given. To me, it is my way of paying it forward, as our house has become the go-to house for Thanksgiving.
Big Mama was the next youngest of a family of twelve. The rhythm method was not very effective as a birth control means. She got her large personality from her mother, whom everyone in the community called Mama, even my mother and her sisters. Mama was also the local medicine woman, as the hospital was so far away. Big Mama told us the story of her younger brother who knocked his front teeth out as he attempted being a gymnast unsuccessfully. Mama sat him down and boiled some water, while she rinsed his teeth off. She placed a towel in the hot water and gave it a quick rinse and told her youngest son to shove the towel into his gums. The gums swelled up and she jammed his teeth back in and they held. Big Mama learned from the best.
I have written before about my quiet grandfather. He and Big Mama were a perfect match, a yin and yang. My grandfather that I knew was my step grandfather, as Big Mama’s first husband did not stay home very much. She divorced him at a time when few people did, so it shows that she was not going to live with her mistake any longer. Being a small community, everyone understood. But, her greatest heartbreak was when she had to bury her youngest child, my favorite aunt. No mother or father should have to bury a child. I cannot imagine a greater heartbreak. While hard, we are heartbroken, but less surprised when we have to bury a spouse as we know that is part of the pact. Yet, a child should outlive his or her parents. Even when the child is in her fifties, it is still hard, especially after the child had health issues all her life.
She mourned my aunt’s passing until she died. Like any mother and daughter, they butted heads, but loved each other greatly. We all did. Big Mama, you are the best. You are one of the biggest characters I have known. You also were a person of character. We are better for having known you and you are still missed. Happy Birthday.