My Grandmother Winnie lives in Columbia, Tennessee. This April, very close to Mule Day, she will turn 98 years old. Her mind is still clear and she stands nice and straight. When we visited this Christmas, I suddenly realized, despite her good health, that I should take the time to ask her any questions I had about her life. I am still haunted by my failure to do so with my grandfather who died in 1995. I was young, nearly married, and didn’t have time to learn the lessons of the past. Today, I want to know as much as I can about our family’s history.
She was born and grew up on a farm in Hohenwald, Tennessee. I think the German translates that name into “high forest.” Her mother was a formidable woman known to me as “Nando.” I always wondered where that odd name came from. Apparently, it was the label my father applied to his grandmother as a child. I say she was formidable because relatives talk about how strong she was, how much work she could do, what a great cook she was, and how she hustled to make everything go. I only knew her as a woman dying in a back room of my grandmother’s house when I was a child.
The great depression hit when my grandmother was a teenager. When we study it in school, we see pictures of jobless men standing in line for soup and bread. I asked her what impact it had on her family. “Not much. We were poor, but we always had enough to eat and a house to live in.” She remembered her first job as a young married woman. She worked in a department store six days a week, all day. On the weekends, when there were movies she worked late at night in case any moviegoers wanted to shop after the show.
She and my grandfather were a two career couple. He worked with the phosphorus that was once plentiful in the state and would often come home with holes burnt in his clothes from handling the stuff. On a couple of occasions they owned and ran a small grocery store, but each time they got it going the landlord wanted it back so he could run it himself. They decided not to go for a third time. He thought about becoming an undertaker, but his wife and child vetoed that. Eventually, he settled into a long run of work with phosphate and she became a school lunchroom manager. On a couple of occasions she has told me with amusement about the time she attended a state workshop for her and her peers around Tennessee. “Do you use the state menus or do you just go by golly?” the state supervisor asked. When she tells the story she looks at me with a smile on her face and says, “I reckon I just went by golly.”
She and Grandpa raised my father in Mount Pleasant, though he often spent summers with his cousins on the family farm in Hohenwald. He was an excellent student and went to Vanderbilt on scholarship. He is blonde, hale, and hearty in his early 70’s. I suspect he may have his mother’s longevity.
Over the years she and I have sometimes talked about politics. I know that she has voted almost exclusively for Democrats. Why did she vote for the Democrats? Because her mother and father did. She voted for Reagan in 1984, not in 1980 when she supported Jimmy Carter. “Why did you vote for Reagan in 1984?” I asked. “Because he was funny and good.”
When she and Grandpa retired, they became volunteers together at Maury General Hospital. He was extroverted and put people at ease, so he chose to work in the emergency room. She preferred the gift shop and worked there many years until they changed to a more new-fangled cash register. She figured she was old enough not to make that transition. By the way, she still makes the trek to the Church of Christ in Mount Pleasant every week as she has for decades.
I can’t wait until Mule Day to talk some more. Call your grandparents.