My grandmother had a saying that she used when the piteous “bless her heart,” was too mild a sting. “She’s lost her pride,” indicated a slip down the human food chain to the level of under-rock dweller.
Let me unpack this saying just a bit for those who are unfamiliar with Appalachian people from Eastern Kentucky, which was where I was schooled by my Nanny every summer of my childhood. Pride was all some folks could claim as their own. You might make the wrong assumption, as you whizzed by on Route 25 from Johnson City into the dark hollers of Harlan, that a family with that many broken appliances in the front yard had no pride to begin with. But that was all they had – pride of family legacy, pride in their ability to scrape by, proud of their kids, proud of the little bit they owned, though it may be washed away in the creek in the next flood.
So saying “she’s lost her pride,” was a warning, a prayer for sanity offered silently for a friend or neighbor who was experiencing slippage of dignity. Generally, this option was reserved for older people who were making a spectacle of themselves –women who were using too much makeup or showing too much cleavage. Men who had taken up with a much younger woman, or were drunk in public. Younger women got a pass, somewhat. “Two cats fighting in a bag,” was something I heard Nanny chuckle under her breath as the beautiful girls passed the porch in their cut-offs, long hair rhythmically grazing their butts. Seeing me dazzled by their effortless sexiness she would remind, “Pretty is as pretty does.” Let your inner dignity shine forth. My first yoga guru in some sense – don’t be fooled by the surface, since it is here today and gone tomorrow. Concentrate on the interior, and the hard work knowing who you are.
My initiation into Southern womanhood was conducted as Mom and Nanny canned beans in mid-August, the kitchen windows opened, but no help against the Amazonian humidity created by Ball jars boiling on the stove. As a child, I was spared these working conditions – but I hung out in the kitchen anyway, watching them move from stove to kitchen table for breaks of iced tea and Kent cigarettes. Both wore housecoats with snap buttons up the front, sweetened their tea with Sweet n’ low and traded advice, funny stories, hard feelings, compliments and resentments, recipes and suggestions — the teeming, seething perfumed ecstasy of mother-daughter relationships.
After the morning of work and a hearty lunch, we all bathed and dressed up for a walk to downtown Harlan to the dress store that my grandmother worked in when they were poorer. Horton’s was the best dress store in town. My grandmother, voted the most beautiful woman in Harlan Kentucky in the early 60s, kept up with fashion and beauty, but it was always reflective of her inner decorum — modest, elegant. By the 1970s, when she was in her 50s, fashion for her was polyester pantsuits. As she grew older, her beauty shined through though her beautiful legs were hidden in two ply poly.
Mom and Nanny both died in their mid-sixties, at the height of their older woman beauty, where a lifetime of hard and joyful work and love for family and neighbor burnished their inner dignity to a rare shine. I am now 56. My hair is gray and it is long enough now to wear in pigtails, which I do when I need to wear my bike helmet. I live in yoga pants and now have a YouTube channel. Sometimes I worry I’m making a spectacle of myself. I wonder what they would say about their legacy. Have I lost my pride?
I feel their gaze from the front porch of the hereafter. There they snap their beans from MacDaddy’s garden into the newspaper on their laps, iced tea glasses sweating in the first glimmer of sun that burns off the fog in the holler. They wouldn’t want me getting a big head, so they aren’t going to give me complete blanket assurance, especially on the social media front. And they want me to buy tops that cover up my boobs and that butt of mine. Dangerously close to two cats in a bag.
Epilogue: This story started out from a place of truth — I could heard Nanny say “you’ve lost your pride” as I was braiding my hair. It made me smile at myself in the mirror. But like all writers of memoir, I’ve found that in the putting words around my experience, the truth gets further away from me. There are empty spaces in memory that we fill up with imagination or we insert short hand place holders, like the still pictures we use on Zoom calls. This has meant that every time I conjure up my grandmother, I experience the same day. It is always August, always bean shelling and canning day, and always ends with the trip to Horton’s Dress Shoppe. I wear terrycloth shorts and white sandals, my long hair in a ponytail, my pre-adolescent belly straining at my sleeveless white cotton blouse. I can smell the garden, feel the heat from the carport and the cool of the coal house as I played Starship Enterprise with Ed, Feller, Kathy and Mac. But the soundtrack is off. I hear the rustle of the newspaper, the pop of the beans, doors opening and closing, the Ball jars clinking the in the pot, the mumbles of adult speech, the heavy footfalls of children running but these sounds are not synched with the action..
In our backward glances, we lose a bit of present-moment truth, so we embellish, sometimes for ourselves, sometimes to entertain ourselves and others, like I’ve done here. Our lives are stories with beginnings, middles and ends, meant to be told and heard — consumed. Like these quarantine doodles of my Nanny, nothing can quite capture her spirit, her beauty, that time, my family, that love.
You’re a beautiful writer Meg! I love this piece and want to read more! The old sayings are the best aren’t they—- such truth. Xxx
Yes! I hope they make it down the line to my grandkids…
Meg, I love this collage of your Grandma. Your writing is beautiful. I can picture the scene in Kentucky from a small girl’s eye. I have a similar memory of Grandmother with ripe tonatoes on a fork. Dipping them in hot water to peel the skins before placing the juicy globes into Ball canning jars. She also made a pickled relish called ‘chow’: onion, cauliflower, cucumber, peppers. What will folks remember from this time of pause?
Ah, the smell of ripe tomatoes! My grandfather grew Big Boys — they were as big as dinner plates and so misshapen that the boiling water trick didn’t get all of the skin off. There were always slices of fresh tomatoes and fresh raw onions on the table for the midday meal. I guess our COVID 19 days will be remembered for that really strong whipped coffee drink from the internet and failed sour dough starter attempts!
Beautiful. Just Beautiful. Thanks!
Thank you, Diane! Miss you!
Oh my gosh, Meg. I loved this so much. The story and the epilogue. This is a marvelous piece of writing. Love love love. Your Nana and your mom would be so, so proud to see who you are now. I was thinking about your mama just yesterday, and wondering how old she was when she died, trying to do math and figure it out. I knew she was young. Man, I loved her. And I loved her KY stories so much. So much love to you. Please keep writing. I soak it up!
Thank you, dear heart! I wonder if our time in Bangladesh contributed to our love of story. There is something so compelling about the telling and hearing of stories in my life.
How lovely, Meg. You are, indeed, a wonderful writer and painter of memories. I remember your mother so fondly and with such admiration for her work. I also grew up with some of those memories of southern country, living with my grandmother and visiting aunts and cousins in dirt-poor tobacco land in NC. We had such fine times playing in the woods, picking blackberries, cutting out figures and furniture from the Montgomery Ward catalogue and playing “house” with them, having fresh vegetables for mid-day meal and cornbread and milk for dinner.
You are a beautiful person.
Oh, Barbara! Thank you. I know there is a kinship between us — as mom would say we’re all pioneer stock and kids in’ cousins. I hope you are writing these memories down for the grandkids — or recording them. So precious. I hope to see you soon!