My 94-year-old grandmother, Mama Hattie, died in January almost 20 years ago. She slipped away while astronauts stepped from the space shuttle, and the blizzard of the century blew through the East. The Pickens County Progress ran an obituary—read faithfully by neighbors in North Georgia.
Her family and friends crowded in the Hinton Community United Methodist Church, just across the road from her resting place and a pasture of grazing cattle. Sprays of flowers propped up on stands, and two sisters from my aunt’s Baptist church twanged “Amazing Grace” in the old style. A portrait of Jesus gazed kindly upon the congregation. The right words were said. And that was that.
That was that and so much more.
Sometimes my funny bone gets tickled during a funeral. This time, I thought, the jokes were on the politicians, who had just missed the chance to sound bite, photo op, and extol “family values” and “virtues.” Had they discovered her, they would have clamored to sit in her living room, hoping for a down-home TV endorsement.
Mama Hattie stood a scant 5 feet. She never learned to drive. She didn’t go to college. She stuck around the community—a cluster of houses, a gas station, a general store, a dry goods store, and an old hatchery alongside a bend in the road.
Mama Hattie was “big” on family. She and Pawie married almost a century ago. They had five children in rapid succession, while their life, until the 1930s, plodded along at a horse-and-buggy pace. A car passing on the yet-to-be-paved road was the event of the week. If the folks in nearby Fairmount spotted a car, they phoned the general store in Hinton to announce its imminent arrival. Then a crowd gathered by the side of the road to watch it jounce by. Old Doc Weeks owned the only radio (powered by Delco batteries) in the county. He set it in the window on Saturdays so men could gather in his yard to listen to baseball games and prizefights.
Despite such tales, my grandparents were not rustics staring hollow-eyed at WPA cameras during the Great Depression. They were just “getting by.” When the government rolled into Appalachia to hand out food, Mama Hattie and Pawie refused. They managed.
My grandfather taught school, farmed, and ran a general store that went bankrupt because he wouldn’t collect on his neighbors’ debts. Mama Hattie gave birth at home, did her washing on a scrub board, and stitched quilts and most of the family’s clothes. She canned, pickled, dried, or preserved whatever came from the garden. Hog killings didn’t faze her; she was grateful for the meat. My dad milked the cow, and a local gristmill ground their corn, wheat, and rye into flour. Water came from a 40-foot well and firewood from black jack oak and knotty pine.
Despite their dawn-to-dusk struggles, my grandparents found time for others. Mama Hattie sewed clothes for families that couldn’t afford it. Whenever the Friendship Church bell rang—alerting the community that someone had died—Mama Hattie comforted the family and laid out the body. Pawie and his friends dug the grave, and a neighbor, Lem Moss, made a pine coffin, which my grandmother lined with a bed sheet.
When chained convicts worked the roads, Mama Hattie worried whether they were hungry, whatever their skin color. She wrapped up biscuits and bits of food, precious packages delivered by her children.
Above all, Mama Hattie loved being a mother. Her children learned by example, not sentimental talk. She joyfully grandmothered us, serving up fried chicken, fluffy biscuits, heaps of garden vegetables, apple turnovers, and chocolate layer cake. (No preacher ever turned down an invitation to her dinner table.) She took us fishing at the nearby muddy pond and baited our hooks with worms dug up from the yard. Not a lot of bites. We mostly dangled our lines in the water and talked.
Sometimes she had cause to fuss, her apron blowing in the wind and her calls hitting high pitches that could have broken glass. “Your mother is going to kill us for sure when she finds out what you’re up to!”
The truth is, we almost killed ourselves. We tore over pastures in my uncle’s VW “bug,” with my 12-year-old cousin Melvina at the wheel. My sister Martha tried to do circus tricks on a horse, including headstands at a trot. Mama Hattie screeched the loudest when we lit out on horseback during a thunderstorm.
Being from the city, we weren’t too smart.
When my grandmother took us to explore a chicken house, we swiped a few warm eggs. During Mama Hattie’s nap, we borrowed her cooking pots, lined them with freshly mown grass, and hunkered down, trying to hatch chickens. At mid-afternoon, Mama Hattie found us. She clapped her hand over her mouth and then drawled, “Y’all are a sight. I could burst from laughing, sure as the world.”
After Pawie died, Mama Hattie still showed up at church, same time, same pew, with her best friend Maggie, who came by the house so they could zip each other up in their Sunday dresses. They took off in Maggie’s monster sedan, their heads barely poking up above the dashboard.
Every generation gave as she did. My father, a surgeon, made house calls, with medications often tucked in his tackle box for patients out in the country. When Aunt Bonnie’s husband died of a heart attack, she turned her tragedy into a passion for fundraising for heart research and educational causes. Aunt Blanche gave heart and soul to her church. Mama Hattie’s grandchildren volunteered in church outreach, soup kitchens, 4-H clubs, AIDS education, arts programs. . . . And so it goes.
The matriarch, who gave away everything and asked for nothing, spent her last days cradling the core of her diminished identity, a doll she called “Baby.”
At her funeral, the preacher read the familiar words: “In my Father’s house, there are many mansions. . . .” Mama Hattie probably asked for a modest room. “Don’t worry, Lord. I can change my own sheets and scrub the floor. And if you got any babies that need holding, I’ll keep them safe till their mamas get home.”