Last year my widowed mother spent most of the year battling and then recovering from breast cancer. During the holiday season, I was fortunate enough to reconnect with my grandmother Frances’s last remaining sibling, my great aunt. It was almost like having Frances there with me. We were all connected by our common love for my grandmother. I will be forever grateful for that day.
There we were, sitting in my kitchen, four generations of Hamilton women sharing stories, food, and laughter in the effortless way that Southerners do. In the midst of reminiscing about life, the topic drifted to my grandmother. We talked about her pain and her kindness. Her life was not an easy one. Frances knew a thing or two about being brave. She understood tragedy.
Frances’s mother Mattie fell victim to malaria at an early age of 23. She left behind a toddler and a young husband, but not much else. I’m told Mattie’s parents came to Mobile and took their young daughter back to Mississippi to be buried. I don’t think Frances ever heard from them again. I’ve often been curious about Frances’s childhood, but she rarely spoke of it. I always sensed that she carried a tremendous amount of pain and grief about her experiences as a child. Even though she tried to hide it, she carried that brokenness for the rest of her life. On rare occasions she would regale me with stories of playing hide and seek in the watermelon fields close to her home. Those stories are as close as she came to sharing what her life was like as a child. When Frances was 8 years old her father remarried and began again with a new family. Around that same time, Frances went to live with her paternal grandmother, while her father moved back to Mississippi.
Just like many other poor Southerners, Frances ended up dropping out of school and working in the mills of rural Baldwin County, Alabama. While she was still very young, she married a tall, handsome man named Ed. Despite his many vices and abuses, I could always tell she cared for him, but I think he disappointed her most of all.
Ed worked for the newspaper, but spent most of his time making and selling moonshine. Frances stayed home being a wife to Ed and a mother to four rowdy boys. That was until my mother came along, and Frances got her baby girl. Around this time Ed decided he was finished with family life and Frances. He just got up and left, moving on with another woman. Frances and Ed never divorced, but it wouldn’t have been much different if they had. Frances had no rights, no child support. She struggled to support herself and my mother as best as she could. Some days they had to choose between coal or food. Can you imagine? That’s not an easy choice for a single mom, not then, not now.
Those were dark days to say the least.
Frances lived with us while I was growing up. I feel fortunate and grateful for that. She taught me so many things about being a mother and grandmother. Frances was very generous with everything she had, whether it was her meager income or her time. Some of my favorite childhood memories are the days spent shelling pecans on the porch with my grandmother. I learned a lot on those days, mostly through osmosis.
I never saw her angry. I’m sure she was suffering in many ways but she was too busy caring for others to complain. All I ever felt was love. Some days I would just sit with her while she rocked in her chair. The windows would be open and old southern, gospel music played softly in the background. I still get choked up when I hear “I’ll Fly Away”. Those memories shaped me into the woman I am today. I can’t imagine my life without her influence.
She died in 1999. I have one photo of her holding my then, 3-month old daughter, Madison, who carries Frances’s mother’s name.
Fast forward to 2016, in my kitchen with four generations of women. Overwhelmed with missing her, we decided to bring out Frances’s bible. It’s nearly in pieces now, but I treasure it. She had written a letter in the back pages, right in the middle of countless family birth and marriage records. I know more about my family and our history from that bible than anything else. In her letter she was begging her estranged husband to be choosey with the type of people he brought around their children, and asking her boys to settle down in the world. She knew they all needed to turn down the volume in their lives. They never did.
The last line was a special note to my mother, “girl be brave”. It resonated in my heart. I had read it a thousand times before but none like this day. There we were, a room full of people that loved Frances, you could almost feel her presence. I’m not sure if it was my mother’s illness or reconnecting with my great aunt, but the text took on a whole new meaning. I was moved to tears.
I knew I had to share this, the magic I felt that day. It was palpable. I wanted to donate a portion of the proceeds to charity because that’s what Frances would do. She would give and then give again. Frances was the most generous person that I have ever known, and I hope to continue in he honor.