I cannot imagine two more diametrically-opposed personalities than my paternal grandparents. My grandfather was a rather quiet and withdrawn man who often sat in his rocking chair in the midst of the chaos of Thanksgiving or Christmas Eve dinner in his small house as members of his family chatted amiably and grandkids ran to and fro shrieking and playing games. My endearing image of Papa, as I called him, is of him sitting in that chair, quiet and almost stock still with just a tinge of a smile on his face. He never said so to me, but I think he enjoyed being in the middle of all that noise even if he preferred the quiet of his more typical days.
Contrast that with my grandmother, or Granny, a fiery, boisterous woman who loved to be in the middle of it all. Much of that noise during those family dinners came from her as she engaged in lively conversations with her kids and grandkids. She raised six kids (three boys and three girls) and had eight grandchildren, which made for quite a ruckus when we were all crammed in three of the rooms in their tiny, six-room house on the hill.
My grandmother was your prototypical southern woman with the sweet southern accent that could charm anyone, and she did. She could talk to strangers as if she’d known them all her life. She loved being in the middle of it all, and as if she needed to prove it, she usually went shopping the day after Thanksgiving with my aunts. In fact, she expected them to include her (there’d be hell to pay if they didn’t). She was always going somewhere or had somewhere to be. Even after she retired, no moss grew under her feet. She didn’t have time for that.
Many times my dad would take me to visit my grandparents, but it was usually just a visit with Papa. Granny would be out with her daughters or simply out on her own or with friends. That house fell so quiet with her gone. As a boy I remember stepping through the door when Papa was the only one home and not hearing any sound. He’d be sitting in his chair reading the paper or just resting. That’s the way he liked it, his respite from what had to be constant chatter when Granny was home. When we’d drive by their house sometimes, I’d look for the car in the car port attached to their house. It was usually gone, but if it was there, I knew Granny was home, and I knew Papa was likely nodding in silence as Granny rambled on about whatever caught her fancy.
Never the wallflower, if Granny had something to say, she said it. If you crossed her, you knew it beyond any doubt. My dad often recalled stories of times when he misbehaved as a kid or a teenager and had to pay the price with his mother. She struck fear in him as a kid, but he loved her beyond words. Both my grandparents passed within a few years of each other back in 1998 and 2002, and while both losses were hard on my dad, the loss of his mother was the hardest. Her passing altered his demeanor in subtle ways that only those who knew him very well could see, like he was a fighter who had taken one too many punches.
Of course, my view of my grandparents is mostly through the lens of a kid and a young adult. I couldn’t possibly know them as my dad, aunts, and uncles did or understand them beyond the construct of their roles as my grandparents, but each of them had a different impact on me. I cherished the quiet conversations that I had with Papa because they were so few and far between, but Granny set the tone as a vivacious, determined woman who lived life to the fullest extent she could. Papa was as deliberate as Granny was exuberant, and that’s probably why they fit so well together.
To me, Granny was the center of our extended family. For all of his subtle wisdom, Papa seemed content to take a backseat to his outgoing wife as long as he could relax in his rocking chair or recliner as life ambled by. Granny enjoyed her role as the center of attention and set the example of what a strong woman should be, which had an immeasurable impact on me and the person I would become. All these years later, I can still hear her sweet voice in my head opining on what’s happening in the world or plotting her next trip or adventure with my aunts. If ever there was a person with whom I wish I could have one last conversation, it would be her.