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The June 2022 weekend we moved into Oakhaven, temperatures soared in the 100’s, and the pace of my life seemed to be heating up as well. In less than a week, I had hit two major life milestones: I had moved my last child into her college dorm and helped Neil pack up our house and leave Florida for Alabama. We’ve been living here at the farm for a week now, and I feel like I’m waiting for the scattered parts of me to catch up so we can all settle down and come back together in one body. We are in the final stages of unpacking, and just yesterday I came across something very special in the bottom of a box of family albums: a book of my grandmother’s handwritten poems. With more than a dozen moves under my belt in the last 15 years, I hadn’t come across it in a while, and I sat down to take a break from unpacking to look at it. The cover’s plastic coating cracked as I opened it. I smiled when I saw her familiar cursive handwriting, the way her “i’s” had circles over the top instead of dots. I grazed my fingertips over the words on the page, as if through them, I might somehow feel the back of her hand. 


It’s said that a child’s ability to form loving bonds in adulthood is established with at least one parental figure in the first three years of life. I was blessed beyond measure to have three: my mother, my father, and my grandmother. Without a doubt, I love all my family – cousins, aunts and uncles, and grandparents, but I think sometimes two souls are a match and get along like peas in a pod. That was me and my grandmother, Annette. I called her Grandmama, and she had a collection of nicknames for me. She said that as a baby, I was so cute that she had to come up with the ugliest nickname for me that she could think of: Monkey Tail. Of course, she didn’t mean the long appendage for climbing trees. She meant the red-raw steak part of the monkey, and monkey butts are as ugly as it gets. Thankfully, as I got older, she renamed me Cricket; still ugly, but not as bad.


A child of the Great Depression, Mildred Annette Weems was born on January 7, 1929. She grew up as one of eight children in Cedar Springs, Georgia, a tiny farming town near the intersection of Georgia, Alabama, and Florida. Typical of the times in this part of the world, her father was a sharecropper doing his best to scratch out a living from the land. She didn’t talk too much about her childhood. I don’t think I was mature enough to ask the important questions when she was alive, so most of her stories are lost to me forever. One that does stand out, though, is when her father sent her to the grocery store to buy him tobacco. She was about 7 years old and had to make the long trip along the dirt road. She had a hole in her pocket and lost the dime he’d given her. When she got home, he beat her with his belt until her legs bled. I remember being horrified hearing that story, and I still wince when I retell it. But here, in her book of poetry, my grandmother describes her childhood in a way I’ve never heard before, and it matches the resilient and optimistic spirit that I knew and loved so much.

I was born in 1929. We lived in a little bungalow way back in the fields.

We had to cross a branch with no bridge to reach the main road where we met the school bus and got our mail. The winters were hard. We walked two miles with scant clothing and frostbitten fingers and toes on frozen ground to meet the school bus. In summer we worked in the hot fields barefoot, often walking on the plants to relieve our feet from the burning sand. Sometimes I fainted from the heat. I hated picking cotton, bending our backs until they were numb with pain. We’d finally have to get on our knees to rest our backs. Then our knees would hurt. Life wasn’t all bad. When the wood was brought in for the big iron stove, and big buckets of water from the well, our work was over until Mama finished cooking a delicious home-grown meal. 


Our toys were very simple, mostly homemade, but we had fun. On rainy days, we’d cut out paper dolls from the Sears and Roebuck catalogs. We played a lot of marbles and ballgames. We invented many games with homemade toys. We were all musically inclined and spent hours after supper singing acapella since we had no musical instruments. Our Christmases were wonderful whether our gifts were large or small. Mama’s fruitcakes were delicious. She and Daddy believed in plenty of food, and we worked hard to can and preserve it.


We raised our pork, beef, chickens, and eggs. Daddy used his smokehouse to preserve our pork. He salted part of it and smoked the rest with hickory. His sausages were mouth-watering. Mama canned the beef. She raised chickens to fry, to make chicken and dumplings, or chicken and dressing. On special occasions, we were allowed to rob the hens’ nests and meet the rolling store. The store operator would trade us whatever we selected within the price range for our eggs. That was a real treat for us. Many times we’d buy large gingerbread cookies called “stage planks” with pink icing on them.


Daddy made our syrup. He raised the cane, ground the juice, and cooked the syrup in a large kettle. He milked our cows, churned the cream into butter, and Mama put it into a mould to make a pretty design on it. We shucked and shelled our corn and had it ground for bread. Sometimes Mama made hominy with some of the corn. We grew our vegetables, too.


We often had neighbors, friends, or relatives spending the day with us. Mama sewed and cut hair for the neighborhood, free of charge. Quite often we had strangers stopping by, looking for a place to stay overnight. Daddy never turned them down.


I am thankful for my heritage. I feel I am a better person for having lived in that era. 

By most accounts, my grandmother led a simple life as a farmer’s wife and a homemaker. Some of my fondest childhood memories took place in her kitchen. After my grandfather left for the fields, she would sit at the little desk in the kitchen with the domed hood of her hairdryer pulled down to her brow as she read her Bible. After dressing, we would begin preparing for lunch, the main meal of the day. I would help her cook, stirring the peas or making dessert. She would dance and sing silly songs by the stove. She knew I loved her fried cornbread, and she would pull a chair up by the stove so I could watch. She would drop heaping spoonfuls of cornmeal batter into the hot grease. When golden brown, she would take them out with metal tongs and put them on a plate covered with paper towels. We would sit down to a table with a spread of baked chicken, garden tomatoes, lady peas, cornbread, and iced tea. I think my all-time record of cornbread consumption at her house was 10 pieces. Like most Southern grandmothers, she loved us with food.


Summer visits to my grandparent’s house were always much anticipated. The highlights might include a ride to town with her in their giant Lincoln Continental to visit my great-grandmothers in the nursing home or to get groceries at the Piggly Wiggly. I can close my eyes and see the curves of the road I’ve travelled since infancy, the wooded areas suddenly opening into sprawling fields, flashing with green and red stripes of soybeans and red clay. But the best times were just spent at home, outside in the swing under the oak tree in the front yard.


One afternoon, my grandmother sent me inside to fetch popsicles for everyone. The lights were off in the house, and the kitchen was dimly lit except for the window with the curtains pulled. As I walked by, a brilliant burst of streaming sunlight filtered through the red and orange wool fabric, and I was instantly bathed in gold. I felt completely and utterly loved. In that moment in time, the exterior world ceased to exist. Like a sunset, it lasted just a few seconds, and I came back to my surroundings, remembered the popsicles, and the moment passed. But that single moment made such an impression on me, I can still see and feel it 40 years later. Looking back now, I think my grandmother’s kitchen just might have been the place where I first encountered God.


I was incredibly shy as a child and would blush at any probing questions from my grandmother about whether I had reached puberty. When I started middle school and needed a bra (more because you were a baby if you didn’t wear one and less because I needed it), I couldn’t even say the word. I told my mother “I need a……” and proceeded to draw a bra out on my shirt. Grandmama’s generation really didn’t mention sex (other than don’t do it until you’re married), and if it was mentioned in the context of marriage, it wasn’t mysterious or bawdy, it was practical, like what happened in the barnyard. When I was in my 30’s and had children of my own, she shared a story about a prank my grandfather pulled. She told me he once put on her girdle and threw her – naked – over his shoulder and ran out into the yard. They lived out in the middle of nowhere, so there was little risk of being seen, but I can only imagine her laughing and screaming protests at the same time. Her 5’2” body thrown over his 6’8” frame didn’t have much of a chance stopping him.

Their love affair was one for the books, and hearing this story released Grandmama from the limits of my experience of her.


It was kind of like a kid seeing a teacher at the grocery store and realizing they were real people with a life outside of school. I began to see her as a woman in her own right, perfectly flawed like the rest of us, and full of life.


Because of the nine-year age difference between my grandparents, his death at 68 left her a widow at 59. She had been a 17-year-old bride, and they had been married for 42 years. Her grief after his death was palpable. I remember visiting her that summer after he died, and my 17-year-old self didn’t have the emotional scaffolding to support my own grief, much less hers. The presence of his absence hung in the air, and I saw a side of her that was confused and lost. I remember her looking at me with wild eyes saying, “Why are you treating me differently?”. She had never spoken to me like that before. I just didn’t have the capacity to help her manage the bottom of her life dropping out from under her, so I didn’t say much of anything at all.


Over time, she seemed to regain her foothold in the world and began to see the silver lining behind her loss. My grandfather had a devilish sense of humor, but he was an introvert. He had grown up sharecropping during the Depression, taking responsibility for his mother and 7 siblings at 16 years old when his father died. He had once dreamed of becoming a doctor, but never finished school beyond the 10th grade. My grandmother and the farm were his whole world, and that was enough for him. He didn’t like to leave home very often. But Grandmama loved people and had always dreamed of seeing the world, particularly Israel. She somehow found a tour group, and for the first time, crossed the ocean in an airplane leaving home thousands of miles behind. She came back from Israel with a 12×18” framed picture of herself smiling atop a camel. I wish I could remember more about her trip, but the only thing that’s stuck with me is her telling us that she took a pair of old underwear for each day of the trip and threw them away as she went. This way, she explained, she wouldn’t have to carry around dirty underwear in her suitcase. She smuggled tiny Cypress tree clippings from Israel home with her in her suitcase and planted them on either side of her driveway in the front yard. Last I saw them, they were over 30 feet tall. 


Somehow, my grandmother was diagnosed with COPD at 76 years old. She was very healthy and had never smoked, but my grandfather had for many years. I grieved her for four years as we watched her waste away. When we knew it was close to her time to go, I climbed up on her recliner, gingerly resting my bodyweight on each arm of the chair across her lap, hovering over her 80-pound body. She looked like a frail baby bird with just a wisp of hair. I told her I wasn’t ready for her to go, and I didn’t know how I’d make it without her. Once again, she consoled me, and told me it would be alright. Remarkably, it has been alright. More than alright. I have this crazy theory that when someone you love dies, they become a part of you in a way someone still living isn’t. I get to carry her around with me, hearing her voice, what she would say about this or that. She leaves me little love notes in the form of a mourning dove’s coo, and she led me home to the farm of my dreams. The stories I missed about her life somehow show up in the box I’m unpacking, and she continues to teach me about how to live a happy, meaningful life. Most of all, she’s shown me what a precious gift it is to be a grandmother so I won’t mess it up when it’s my turn.



Christie Chandler