My Mamaw, one of the four great-grandparents I’ve been blessed to know, passed away last week at the age of 106. I could write pages about the things she has taught me and the importance of her place in my family. She is part of who I am and who my mother is and, I hope, part of who Roo will someday be. She lived to know five generations of her family, and she is the toughest woman I have ever met.
She lived through many things that probably would have killed a weaker person. In the end, it was only the passing of time that ended her life; the human body is only meant to function for so many years before it stops, after all. (I also lovingly believe she was just too stubborn to let anything else do her in.)
I think, ironically, she taught me something very important in the days following her death. In my mind, Mamaw has always been Mamaw, and I’ve never spent much time thinking about her life before I came into it.
Last week I saw a photo of her at age 22 with her first son, Tommy, a toddler in her lap. All these years and I’d never seen a young Mamaw. She was beautiful! She was a graceful young woman with her hair pinned up and that tired look in her eyes that said she’d been chasing a toddler all day and probably all night too (in addition to everything else a housewife in the 1930s also did). She was my age once. She was a new mother once. She didn’t always have the wisdom and experience of a century to tell me my kids will turn out fine even if I don’t know what I’m doing. She had a time when she didn’t know what she was doing either.
She met her husband, my Papaw, after he starting hanging around her father’s general store in Alabama. Her sister had to point out that the young man was there to see her and she should pay him some attention. According to stories, Mamaw didn’t believe this could be true. “He made me love him,” she would say, as though she didn’t have a choice in the matter.
Papaw died long before I was born, and I can’t say I’ve ever spent a lot of time wondering about him and his life. I just always knew Mamaw to be on her own, and I don’t guess I ever stopped to wonder what her life was like before. My mom and grandparents have started the process of figuring out what to do with her house and belongings this week, and they came across a drawer in her dresser full of Papaw’s things – his work ID badges, his tobacco pipes, his hair oil and combs – things a woman only keeps when her heart is broken and she needs to remember a time when it wasn’t.
My Mamaw was a young woman once, and she had a great love. She never really talked about Papaw, at least not to me. I didn’t question this, since I didn’t take a lot of time to consider him, but now that she’s gone I have realized there was a hole there that I never took the time to see. Mamaw was widowed before 50 and lived another 56 years. She never, to our knowledge, entertained any other man or had a desire to date or remarry. I believe she loved my Papaw until the very end, even though she didn’t express that to the rest of us. She wasn’t really one for displays of emotion.
I’ve spent my life selfishly believing I knew everything I needed to know about her life – I can map her house in my mind and tell you all about the family line that comes down through her third son, my grandfather, to me. She was Mamaw, and that was that. But, obviously, I only knew her for the last three decades of her life, and she had seven and half of them before that. I didn’t really know her much at all.
She was born in 1912, and when we consider her life we typically mention the Great Depression, both World Wars and the assassinations of figures like John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King. When I recently looked up the year 1912, I realized that not only was Mamaw two and a half months old when the Titanic sank, she was also born when the U.S. still had only 47 states. She was older than Oreo cookies and only a month younger than the Republic of China.
So I guess this last lesson of hers is that she wasn’t always Mamaw. And she wasn’t *just* Mamaw. She lived a full life, with love and loss, poverty and plenty, pain and joy and uncertainty. She was like me, once, just as I hope to someday be like her. I only wish I had learned that sooner.