Yes, I have one of those southern names for my paternal grandmother — so shut up.
Ma Ma Grant turns 86 years old today. She is a lucky woman to have lived such a long life, and up until a couple of years ago, she was living independently. My grandfather died a couple months before I was born in 1972, and she never found need to marry again. When teased about it, she once remarked, “I don’t need another man. I come as I please, and I go as I please.”
Ma Ma Grant spent her working years in a cotton mill, retiring when my brother and I were very young. She lived in a tiny four-room house just two blocks from the mill, a house she and my grandfather rented until he died and my dad bought the house for her.
Every other Sunday we drove from Greenville for Sunday dinner. My aunt’s family lived in Woodruff, so they went to Ma Ma Grant’s right after church. Luckily, they were done eating by the time we got there because there was room for only six people to eat at the table in the kitchen — not to mention all the food that was on the table to eat, all prepared by my grandmother.
She always prepared a ham and usually at least one other meat, potato salad, macaroni and cheese, green beans, some sort of peas (either black-eyed or crowder), occasionally devilled eggs, okra (mainly during the summer), coleslaw, pear salad, and I don’t remember how many desserts. When I was in college, she had a blood clot move to one of her lungs, and after that episode in the hospital, my aunt took over Sunday dinner at her house instead.
And Ma Ma’s cooking mantra always seemed to be “It can always use more sugar.” If she bought frozen, sweetened, sliced strawberries for strawberry shortcake, she would add another cup of sugar to the mixture. Her sweet tea could send a diabetic into a coma. Sometimes, her green beans had just the slightest sweet taste to them.
Of course, she didn’t have a bitter bone in her body when it came to her family. Yesterday, as all of us gathered at my aunt’s house for Ma Ma’s birthday, my cousins and I commented on her favorite statement when we’d misbehave: “I’m gonna go out there and get a hick’ry.” But she never followed through. She never laid a hand on us.
My brother and I came along a few years after my older cousins — me five years and my brother seven years. By that time, she wasn’t able to spend as much money on us as she had spent on my cousins, but while my older cousins no longer get money for their birthdays and at Christmas, Ma Ma Grant still slips $10 for my mom to give to us on our birthdays and $20 for us at Christmas.
A couple of years ago, I was in the bathroom at my aunt’s house, and the door to that hallway bath has either never locked or never closed properly. I’m always worried one of my cousin’s kids will come barging in on me. But on this particular Sunday, Ma Ma Grant was the one who opened the door. I told her I’d be through momentarily, but she came closer, and I saw that she had something in her hand. She placed a crumpled $20 bill on the vanity and said that was for me and Hubby for Christmas. “Maybe you and him can go out to eat or something,” she said.
When she moved out of her mill house into an income-based apartment community for seniors, she wanted to make sure everyone in the family came and looked through her things and took something. She didn’t want anyone to leave without something. In her eyes, being able to provide for her family, being able to give them something they needed — not just what they wanted — was her way of showing her love. And that’s the way it is with many families of mill workers. She’s a tough lady who doesn’t get mushy, but her heart is as big and gentle as they come.