I wrote this essay after my paternal grandmother died. Her birthday is coming around again and she is, as ever, strong on my mind. The poem below hung on her wall all of the years I knew her. It didn’t mean much to me then. It does now.
Lewis Grizzard once wrote a song about lost traditions of Southern football games. The chorus went: “First they took Dixie, then they took whiskey, now we can’t pray anymore.” Whiskey. Prayer. Mentioned in a single breath as co-equal rights. You have the right to whiskey. You have the right to prayer. Right away, we know that a Southerner wrote this.
It’s a good line, one that makes us think about the truth that we all ignore in both bars and churches; the truth that we are made of conflicting stuff. The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak. We fight against our impulses, good and bad. We are two souls, or three or maybe even four, sharing one body. We are dichotomous; walking contradictions. We are made that way. I never saw a better example of this than Mama.
She had a name other than Mama of course; Louise; although I only learned that later. Louise was born a poor skinny farm child, one of seven brothers and sisters. She left home at the age of 16 and went to Washington, DC to make her way in the world; and discovered she was a good waitress. She looked a lot like Mamie Eisenhower when she was young – a more attractive Mamie Eisenhower.
She had a big sort of wicked smile, and a talent for helping men and their money go their separate ways. She worked in the Raleigh Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue, where she served Orville Wright and Jean Harlow and Charlie Chaplin – and during the Depression, she served the sons of president Roosevelt at the Raleigh’s bar. She said they drank a lot. So did she. She was tough.
She fought life. We are talking, after all, about a woman who walked away from a husband who beat her. Took her two young sons and walked away. When we’d ask how she did it, she’d say, “I turned the page.” Not a lazy woman either – she worked two and three jobs at a time – serving breakfast at one place, lunch at another and dinner at a third. And if she was out of work, she’d walk the sidewalks of Washington, wearing a waitress uniform she had borrowed a few years back, with her hard, shiny waitress shoes in a little paper bag under her arm, and she’d walk into any restaurant that looked promising right in the middle of a busy breakfast shift and she’d march right up to the manager and she’d say, “I’ve come to work. I can start right now.” And more often than not they’d say, “OK.” She wasn’t weak woman. Nor a shy one. She could hold her liquor. But she did drink it.
I never heard the stories of her drinking until I was a grown man. Stories of her passed out on the floor or smashing up old Packards. You don’t tell children stories like that. Not about their grandmother. It just isn’t done. Because of our Southern penchant for keeping quiet about family matters, a lot of the details never got cleared up. What caused her to drink? Maybe a man. She had three husbands, Bill, Bob and Frank. The only man she was ever in love with that I know of was Mac, who worked as a newsreel sound man for Movietone News. Mac was married and Catholic and his wife said no divorce and those were the days when that was that. Maybe it was romance that led to it. Or maybe it was just life. Hardships. Heartbreak. The stuff that leads us all down the roads where our vices wait with open arms; like Belle Watling waiting for Rhett Butler in Gone With the Wind.
In her late 40’s, still a waitress, alone again, still drinking, she moved back to South Carolina; to Georgetown, where her son had taken his new bride to live and where now the birth of her first grandchild occurred.…a moment that thrilled her in a way she could never have anticipated. Life had been hard and disappointing but now here was this child, this new little life staring at her with brand new eyes – eyes that had no idea of how hard it was to make a marriage work or to fight the devil in the darkness. And then, the most amazing thing happened. As she held the new little baby in her arms, her son said, “Mom, you can’t be alone with the baby if you are drinking.”
Now at this moment, she was almost certainly what we would call an alcoholic – a prime candidate for rehab and recovery and experimental drugs that might cut the craving for alcohol. She was a drinker. And when her son said “You can’t be alone with the baby,” when he told her that she and that little pink beautiful creature would never do all of the things that she suddenly longed to do for the child and with it – when he told her that none of that would be possible because she drank – she did an amazing thing. She quit. With nobody’s help, with nobody’s encouragement, with nothing but those little infant eyes offering her the slightest incentive to leave this ingrained habit of years and years, she left it all behind and never took another drink until her dying day.
And at that moment, Louise became Mama. She became my grandmother. She transformed herself into another person. Remarkable. There’s a beautiful story in Genesis in which Jacob is working for Laman, the father of Rachel, the woman he loves, and the father makes him work extra long to get her. The verse reads, “And Jacob served seven years for Rachel – but to him, it seemed only a single day, so great was his love.” So great was his love.
The most remarkable thing to me is that in all the 31 years I knew her and loved her, I never had any indication of the person my grandmother had been before we were born. Never. She just turned her back on things you aren’t supposed to be able to turn your back on. And she never looked back.
Her grandchildren were her redemption, and for us, she became a new creation. We were her world and she was our sun. That’s a kind of strength I don’t have. She retained her earthiness. She became the most unlikely Presbyterian in the history of that denomination. The contrast between where she had been and where she had come flared up at odd moments – you could always depend on Mama for a memorable line. Once when she was hosting a women’s circle meeting, she called the President of the Circle to go over the plans for the meeting. Everything went well until Mama told her that she planned to serve cookies. “Well,” said the President, “we usually have a meal.” “Well, we’re having cookies,” said Mama. The President pressed the point, not a good idea with a woman who had met Jean Harlow. “The women of the church will be expecting a meal.” To which Mama famously replied, “The women of the church can kiss my ass.” They were good cookies. Everyone seemed to enjoy them.
She taught Presbyterian Sunday school; she studied her lessons each Saturday night and wrote out every word she would say the next morning on lined notebook paper, her neat small script filling both sides of several pages. She cared about getting it right. She grew a garden every year. On summer nights when I would stay over with her, we would sit in rocking chairs on the front porch on Simms Street and watch the sun go down over rows of corn. She fried chickens and planted flowers and bought me a bottle of Old Spice and combed my hair and splashed the Old Spice on me and said, “Now you smell like a man.”
Old men courted her but she wanted nothing to do with them. She never went out at night. She stood on her head once in a backyard circus. She was 60 years old and she stood on her head. Amazing.She became a new person – it was as if the years of disappointment and grief and sorrow had never happened, or more accurately – that they had been redeemed by the grace of her rebirth as a grandmother. I do not believe that time alone heals all wounds, but I have become convinced that time and redemption and atonement do. Forgiveness is the stuff of a good life, especially when it begins in the mirror. She never spoke of her old life to me, and we talked quite a bit. She passed her last years with a series of heart failures but a spirit of steel. She never asked for a drink. Ever. New life. New birth. She would not disappoint her grandchildren.
“And Jacob served seven years for Rachel – but to him, it seemed only a single day, so great was his love.”
Her Presbyterian pastor came to her bedside towards the end of this remarkable life. He was English and immaculate and he reminded her of Mac, the married newsreel man from Washington; from that long-ago life; the only man she ever talked about with a hint of longing in her voice. Her pastor stood by her side and took her hand and said, “Mrs. Kruse, how are your heart palpitations?” Mama said, “Why don’t you climb under this sheet and give my heart something to palpitate about?” A week later Pastor John preached her funeral in a brilliantly white robe with a dazzling blue sapphire around his neck. It was Christmas time and we sang the song she had sung two weeks before, the last time she was able to come to church. Angels From The Realms of Glory, a great old hymn about the shepherds leaving their work and the life they knew to see a new thing in the eyes of a newborn child.We sang it at first the way people sing at funerals, tentatively, as if we would wake them. “Angels from the realms of glory, wing your flight oer all the earth, ye who sang creations story, now proclaim Messiah’s birth, come and worship, come and worship, worship Christ the newborn king…”
But as we came to the third verse we sort of picked up steam and those who had known her, really known her, sang lustily, sang in a matter befitting the homecoming of a woman who had traded the bottle for a baby bottle and had stood on her head and met Jean Harlow and hit a no count husband over the head with a lamp. We sang for her, “Sages leave your contemplations, brighter visions beam afar – seek the great desire of nations, ye have seen his natal star – come and worship come and worship, worship Christ the newborn King.”
My father chose the words for her grave marker. They let you pick three: Rest In Peace or Home With God or Our Blessed Mother, that sort of thing. He chose One Hell of a Woman. Too many words, but if you make “helluva” just one word it fits perfectly. If you visit her grave today, almost 15 years later, you can see the occasional car driving by on a Sunday afternoon, veryyyy slowly, to see this blasphemous grave marker. They shake their heads and say, “Lord, Lord, did you ever? What kind of woman was that?” But Dad was right. She was one hell of a woman. She lived one hell of a life, and she was redeemed.
What more could any of us hope for?