Saturday, March 27, 2010

A Hermeneutics of my Grandmother

Hermeneutics is teasing out the meanings in history.

The process of passing on history conveys meaning in and of itself, adding a layer to the original story. When we tell our history, we are creating ourselves. Creating ourselves is the ultimate in religious action. Whether we embrace Mary, Mother of God, or Bridget Saint or Goddess, or Durga, or Judith, or Kali or a Raven deva, we are participating in, passing on, and continuing story.

I am going to offer a hermeneutics of my grandmother, who died one year ago today at the age of 101. Her life offers so many stories, and what I tease out to share will say as much about me as her own life said about her. She was never much for talk, my grandma, but I think she would be pleased I tell her stories.

My grandmother, pictured above, was one of the meanest women I have ever known.

She was overtly mean, saying nasty things about others behind their backs, and nasty things to their faces. She said awful things to her grandchildren. High on the list were her endless insults about any of our looks: I was too fat, my nose was too "indian" as was my straight as nails hair (she actually preferred my dreadlocks by the end of her life), I should have worn make up and shorter skirts, and my skin was too dark and "tawny." She pointed out every pimple to my brother and sister, who had severe acne, often pushing them to tears. She called my redheaded cousins "carrot top," also reducing them to tears.

To others she would flat out say, "that dress makes you look ugly," or "you have gotten far too fat since having a baby." She, of course, couched her mean mouth in terms of Christian piety: "I am just telling the truth as all good Christians should." That piety caused adults to cry.

Grandmother was a buttress of her Presbyterian church, a Sunday school teacher for over 50 years, a head of the women's committee, a famous cake baker for church bake sales (her coconut cream cake was justly famous). Her nasty mouth was accepted, as are many traits in the south, with shakes of the head, tsk's, and the ubiquitous "bless her heart."

Partly my grandmother was tolerated due to her very hard life. My grandfather was known for his violence throughout 3 counties. Neighbors and relatives used to tell stories of my grandfather's temper, not with Christian indulgence, but with worry and horror. Such an attitude says much in and of itself. When I complained of my grandmother, my many aunts and uncles and adult cousins (and this being the south, second cousins and cousins once and twice removed) often told me to be kind to her, given how hard her life was, and how much she did.

Ultimately, most people came to admire my grandmother. I sure did. The picture above was taken in 1930, one year after marriage and the birth of my father and the purchase of a family farm that required a mortgage just 6 months before the depression began. My aunt and my father grew up in a house with no electricity, no running water, and replacement shingles for the roof were made with tin cans. The mortgage would be a chain on the family until 1936, when by selling every possible scrap of food from the farm, my grandmother paid the mortgage off out of her "pin money." That pin money then went into a jar, where it grew alongside my grandmother's profits from sewing for neighbors and family. She would send both her son and daughter to college, the first in her family to ever do so.

By the time I was born, my grandmother had pulled her family by the skin of her teeth and sweat of her brow into the middle class. Plumbing arrived during WWII and electricity before my birth. My grandmother, who hated the farm and farming and rural America, continued her sewing business, something she loved. Her own dream, to someday own a small dress shop in a neighboring town, was replaced with a small sewing business from home. Despite her mouth, 3 generations of East Tennessee girls grew up with my grandmother's Easter dresses, prom dresses, and wedding dresses.

She taught me to sew when I was 12, and my own ETSY craft business owes everything to her. Growing up and hating visits to that austere and oppressive home, I had escaped to the barn (also pictured above) or back porch, and had taught myself both spinning and weaving on the old "junk" grandma had left from her own childhood. (Grandma eventually burned both spinning wheel, c. 1840, and barnloom, c. 1820, for firewood. My aunt and I had to rescue Grandma's home sewn quilts from the fire as well.) The tools my grandmother hated as part of a rural past she never escaped, were for me windows into a historical world of women spinners and weavers. I started using spinning spells by the time I was eight.

My grandmother, stern and stalwart member of her church, hated folk religion. Her mother, always called Mamaw to my generation, had run an illicit liquor business selling homemade brandies from the herbs in her garden, and embarrassing my grandmother throughout prohibition. No one, by the way, ever tried to close down my great grandmother's wines and brandies! For my grandmother, having a famous mother who used herbs, alcohol, bread and folk midwifery to maintain a home business (and her own bank account), had been a source of great shame. My great grandmother, also a staunch Presbyterian - and temperance worker, used the name witch as a Christian without compunction. My own grandmother, with her famous sewing business, refused having her own bank account throughout her life.

Of course I am made of them both, and their lives were ever focused on building, creating, saving what they could, finding their own strength and independence wherever they could, and in their hands they created and passed down all that love and strength to me. I did not attend my grandmother's funeral last year. My daughter was receiving an award for her piano playing the same day as the funeral, and every single member of my family told me quite sternly to go to the award ceremony with my daughter. "That is what your grandmother would have done," they all said. I believe they are right.

So who is my grandmother? A battered woman with a horrific and violent husband? A fervent and loving Christian wife? A devoted and selfless mother? An impoverished proletarian worker? A strong and courageous woman who wrestled what she wanted from life as best she could? She herself, by the way, would pooh pooh such questions and this article. "There is work to be done," was one of the many things she said, over and over, every day, and of all that anyone remembers of her, that is probably the one thing she said most. For 101 years she was up at dawn, and in bed by 10:00. Not a day went by without her washing a floor, feeding the barn cats, or baking biscuits.

The stories told about my grandmother represent alternate religious paths. Her funeral, at the Presbyterian church in Fall Branch, Tennessee, included a fairly normal sermon about my grandmother and her work in the church. No mention of my violent grandfather, my grandmother's lifelong business and efforts to put her children through college, no mention of her lifelong dream to own a dress shop. The sermon did include her Sunday school teaching and works in the church. The minister didn't mention her coconut cake.

My father, who loves his mother still, often tells of her hard work, especially the gardening that kept him alive during the depression. He will not discuss his own father at all. When my aunt talks of my grandfather's violence, my dad will ever try to shut her up. Not interested in women and sewing, my dad never mentions my grandmother's creativity. He was, however, proud of her work before she married, when my grandmother for a few short years had lived in Elizabethton and worked for a textile mill.

A seed collector, my dad still grows plants from his mother's garden.

I tell about my grandfather's violence. I grew up under strict orders to never allow my sister or any other grandchild near him alone. I also tell of my grandmother's sewing business, though I am the only one of her grandchildren to learn to sew, to later work in a textile mill myself, and to have my own quilting/spinning/weaving business. I'm also the only one of my family to talk of my grandmother and great grandmother as businesswomen, as artists, as fiercely religious women. I am the only one in my family to keep that picture above.

We can approach religious puja, and worship as women, the way I have approached my grandmother. To put it mildly, my grandmother's endless comments about my looks were hurtful. I could have left my relationship to her with those undeniably cruel stories. Teasing out religion as women, we - whether pagan, Christian, Hindu, Jewish, Islamic, Wiccan, Buddhist, Celtic, New Age, - have to weed through equally hurtful stories of oppression.

However, if I had kept to the surface stories about her, the stories from her own church and from my dad, I would have lost my grandmother who saved the family farm and sent her kids to school, and I would have lost the grandmother who dreamed of a dress shop, and who dreamed of design. If I had kept to my grandmother's own words, I would have lost her completely as well, since her own words were often cruel or cliche. If we let others choose our stories and the meanings there, we lose our grandmothers and we lose ourselves.

Instead I am blessed. I am a talker, and I ask questions. I taped my many relatives' stories when I was younger, hearing about my grandmother from the many women who wore her clothes. I questioned my grandmother as well, taped her, too, and when I was older told her she was too often cruel. (She was surprised. I now wonder if she had no idea how others heard her mean insults.)

I had my grandmother show me her treasure box one day, which had her wedding ring grown too small, some pearl earrings, and the canceled mortgage from 1936. She never threw that mortgage away. I was 14 when she showed it to me, and even then I understood it was a paper of deep importance.

So there you have a hermeneutics of my grandmother. I encourage everyone to go hermeneutic their own family stories. You may find scraps of paper with the essence of your relative. In the finding we are all richer.

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