My great-grandmother (my mother's mother's mother) was named Willard. She was born in 1910. She died in 2006. Like Helena, the holidays are when I tend to think of the people who are not with me -- but Granny DePratter (as we all still call her) is chief among them because she died on December 11th. The memory always lingers.
The year she died was also the year my then-boyfriend came to live with me. We were fooling around on the couch and were considering heading to bed when my phone rang. It was my mother. I knew it was something serious even before I answered (not out of any sixth sense -- it's just logic that if mom calls at 10:30pm, something's wrong). And it was -- Granny DePratter was dying and if I wanted to be there, I needed to hurry.
Orlando is a good three hours away from the small town where my mother’s family lives if you stop at any point in the drive to use the bathroom. That night, we made it there in two hours. I have no particular memory of the drive; I was just grateful that my now-husband got us there in record time.
This was the night that Ed tricked me into agreeing to marry him, primarily as distraction from how upset I was. Ed never got to meet Granny DePratter -- we’d only been together a little over a year before she died and we’d lost most of her to Alzheimer’s well before that. Even so, I think she’d have liked him. (And the whole marriage thing is working out well, too.)
My parents were young -- and my mother's parents were young when they had her. I grew up with an extensive collection of various grand-relatives, but also great-grand-relatives on both sides of my family. My dad was in the Navy when I was very little, and my mom stayed with her family a lot. My Granny DePratter was one of my first caretakers and one of the most steady throughout my life.
She was already old in my earliest memories -- she turned 67 the year I was born. That doesn't seem old now, now that my grandparents have crossed that age line. And it didn't really seem old then because Granny was one of those women who'd seen a long hard life and just kept going with the momentum of it. She drove us around, she rolled around on the floor with me, she moved to Atlanta to be near, at least for a little while, when my nuclear family settled there. And she wasn't alone. There were other women of her generation, all of them called "aunt" whether they were actually related to me or not.
I learned how to quilt by sitting underneath a large quilt frame set up in our basement, surrounded by old women doing things the old-fashioned way.
Granny DePratter taught me how to sew by hand when I was probably too young, by today's standards, to be handling a needle. She gave me scrap fabric, an old piece of cardboard with metal snaps on it, and I set to town making really terrible Barbie clothes. I suck at pants, y'all, but I can still set a sleeve like a champ.
It's from the women in my family that I learned the importance of preserving food -- though I rarely practice it today. I grew up in a family that practiced supplemental subsistence hunting and gardening, and didn't realize until I was an adult that deer meat is actually kind of hard to come by in stores unless you shop somewhere fancy.
The chest freezer on the back porch or in the utility shed (or in the basement) was just a fact of life -- every time I rearrange things in my house, I wonder where I could put a small one. Our galley kitchen just isn't prepared to accommodate it.
Sometimes I feel sort of desperately out of sync with the people who are my peers in age. I joke about my zombie apocalypse survival skills -- or, rather, my civilization rebuilding skills that I can trade in exchange for help surviving the actual zombie apocalypse. I recognize that my knowledge and practice of these skills really have become kind of luxuries -- I don't actually need to know how to can or sew by hand or make old-school poor foods.
But it's also impossible to entirely escape the kind of context I had as a child, shelling peas with Granny DePratter on the porch of her single-wide trailer.
More than that, I don't particularly want to. The women in my family, these amazing old women who surrounded me when I was little, survived. There were few men, only their widows. And there were women who had never married -- old maids who had no regrets. They'd spent their lives together, and even when they didn't particularly get along, they stuck together.
The night that Granny DePratter died, we all clustered around her bed and held her hand and talked to her. I had, before that, thought that sort of death bed vigil was mostly for the benefit of those who were about to be left behind. Death is a biological process and we're all going to experience it. The fact of it doesn't scare me though I'm not, like, jumping for a painful death.
But even though Granny DePratter had long-since wandered off into her hazy memory, I think there was something valuable in all of us being there, sitting and watching over her. It was a reminder of the other old family members who were already gone; it was a reminder of how important it is to remember the things that they taught me.
That's really the important thing now -- the reason I make homemade jelly and write down Granny DePratter's recipe for chicken and dumplings before I forget it. It's why I call my grandmother and ask her how to make funeral potatoes. I cannot keep these women with me for the rest of my life. But I can respect the work that they did and keep that with me. I can remember the details that made them who they were: imperfect products of their times (and I am the same) who kept putting one foot in front of the other because that's how you walk down the years.