Today I saw (and subsequently shared) a meme featuring an elderly woman’s lap full of pea pods, with her shelling them and the caption “Part of the problem with the world today is no one shells peas with Grandma anymore.” I can’t say that I necessarily agree with that sentiment, as there are both a lot of grandparents in urban living, without the benefit of a vegetable garden, and a lot of grandkids that do still spend time shelling peas with their grandparents, and I can’t say for certain that the lack of the magical combination is a sign of the times.
The meme, of course, infers that the world would be a better place if we spent quality time with our elders, and THAT sentiment I can wholeheartedly get behind. But it’s the specific action given in the meme that flooded me with nostalgia. I mentioned something on Facebook about it when I shared the meme, but I wanted to take a little more time to expound on my memories of my grandmother.
My maternal grandfather passed away before I was born, and both my paternal grandparents were gone by the time I turned eight, so the only grandparent that I have a lot of memories of is my maternal grandmother. Her grandkids called her Granny.
Fairly often, at least once a month, we would make the half hour drive from the northern suburbs of Raleigh to the rural town of Morrisville to spend the afternoon with my grandmother, who lived alone from the time her husband died until her mid-to-late 80s. During most of that time, she tended a vegetable garden that was over an acre in size, and with the exception of turning the soil at the beginning of the season, she handled it all on her own. She grew all kinds of vegetables, used what she grew and then sold the rest to the neighbors for extra cash. She didn’t drive and didn’t own a car at any point during my life, so if we wanted to see her, we went to her.
The ritual was more or less the same every Sunday: we’d give her time to walk back home from church, a trip of only a couple blocks, before we arrived. Dad would shortly get busy taking care of any chores that needed doing – repairs, mostly – Mom would help balance her checkbook, and that left me and Granny to head into the garden to pick the vegetables that we’d have that evening for supper. We’d wash everything off and then go sit on the screened-in back porch to shell peas or snap beans (what most people call green beans) or whatever we were having, while she told stories. Mom would finish with the checkbook and come join us on the porch, and so I got caught up in the latest gossip from around town, mostly involving people I either barely knew or hadn’t met at all. It was pretty easy to tune it out, but every once in a while the stories would turn toward family, and I tried to make a point to re-engage in the conversation then, so I could learn about distant relatives. We’d usually spend an hour or more on the porch, lazily prepping the evening’s sides, before heading in so Granny could cook. I’d usually head in to join my dad watching either football or NASCAR.
Now, keep in mind, there were four of us – me, my mom, my dad, and my grandmother.
When dinner was served there were usually two different kinds of meats, at least five different kinds of sides, and at least two pies – one was always sweet potato, my favorite. There was enough food to easily feed eight people on the table and counters. (My grandmother’s kitchen was decently sized enough, but was dominated by a dining table that could seat six in a pinch.) Now keep in mind this was any given Sunday – no special occasion, no event to celebrate. Holidays would produce twice this amount of food and all four of us usually ate for nearly a week off that one meal.
I went to work on the vegetables a lot of times because I was told to – it kept me out of my dad’s way and it let me spend time with Granny. There were a lot of times that I didn’t really want to be out there, and I was bored a lot while I was working. I was a preteen at that point and my interests were elsewhere. It felt like a chore to preteen me.
But as I grew older, my grandmother stopped being able to tend so much land, and she started keeping a smaller and smaller garden with fewer vegetables in them. She needed help more in both the garden and the kitchen. She’d forget to take medications, and we’d have to remind her. What was once a chore became both a labor of love and an expression of grief. My grandmother was deteriorating before my eyes and I didn’t know what to do about it.
My paternal grandparents were almost three hours away in Wilmington, and I only saw them during the summer when school was out. I didn’t see them deteriorate, although my grandfather didn’t actually deteriorate – he was sitting by the front door waiting on a fishing buddy when he had a massive heart attack, and he was gone. His cardiologist said he likely didn’t feel a thing. He was the one to discover the body – he was the fishing buddy my grandfather was waiting on. My maternal grandmother had both Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, although the latter wasn’t yet a diagnosis at the time, and her deterioration was kept at a distance. She was moved to a nursing facility closer to home and Mom and Dad would go out to visit her, leaving me with Granny while they were gone.
Eventually Granny got to the point that she needed to go into a nursing home, and as I was in need of a place to live, I moved into the house and paid a pittance in rent to maintain the taxes on the house. I lived there for a year and a half.
My mom and dad and I had made a habit of going to Myrtle Beach over Thanksgiving weekend, buying a prepared Thanksgiving dinner for Thursday evening, and then spending the rest of the time taking advantage of the restaurants in the area. All-you-can-eat seafood buffets were big in Myrtle Beach at that time, and we would usually spend one evening indulging in as many crab legs as we could.
In 1994, I had to work the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, so Mom and Dad headed down to Myrtle Beach early and started prepping while I finished my shift. I got off work, went home, packed up the car, and was about to leave when I got a call from Mom.
“Oh good, we caught you. Don’t worry about coming down. Granny’s gone.”
Thanksgiving dinner that year was convenience store hot dogs on the way to go pick out her casket.
Looking back at that time, I wish I’d asked more questions. I wish I’d gotten a lot of recipes from her – her magnificent sweet potato pie recipe died with her, as did her recipe for chicken and dumplings (she called it “chicken slick”). I wish I’d gotten her green beans recipe. A few years after she died, I’d already moved to Houston and was eating dinner at a place called Goodson’s for the first time. I remember I ordered the large chicken fried steak – a mistake, since that came on a platter all its own and it overlapped the platter all around – with mashed potatoes and green beans. The second I sunk a tooth into the green beans I wondered why my grandmother had faked her death and moved to Texas to make green beans for a restaurant there – the taste was exactly the same.
I don’t have many memories of my childhood – generally it wasn’t an experience I’d prefer to remember – but the memory of those lazy Sunday afternoons with Granny are among my fondest.
As I said in the Facebook post, I thought of that time snapping beans and shelling peas on Granny’s back porch as a chore, and I really didn’t want to be doing it. Looking back as an adult, however, I’d give anything for one more meal with my Granny.