I love strong women and that is not a chauvinist statement. I am a chauvinist…much in the same way that I am a racist. Like many I have swum in a culture both chauvinist and racist and like many folks, don’t seem to recognize it. I recognize my culture but do not allow my chauvinist and racist leanings color my thinking…until it does, DAMMIT! I have been surrounded by strong women throughout my life. From my grandmother and mother to my wife and in between, there have been few “damsels in distress.”
The first time I attempted matrimony I married a woman “just like the girl that married dear old Dad.” It was a mistake but not because she was not strong but rather because I wasn’t strong enough. The second Mrs. Miller was also strong, maybe too much, but she is the mother of my daughter, also a strong woman and mother. The third time being the charm, I married a woman nearly thirty years ago whose outlook more and more reminds me of my grandmother.
My grandmother, Addie, was born in 1901. She would not vote in her first election until 1922, three years after her marriage to my grandfather. During my lifetime she ALWAYS took her hard won constitutional right to vote very seriously and NEVER missed an election. Her early life was hard and she would have been perfectly at home riding or walking along side of a covered wagon had my grandparents been pioneers heading to parts west. Instead she joined my grandfather on a sixty-acre tract of land trying to scratch out a living on soil that was not actually from the river bottoms. It was a hard life. When I asked her how bad life was during the depression I was told, “We were so poor before the depression hit we didn’t notice it.” Those were the days when they farmed “on the lien.” While my grandparents had land and the tools to till it with, like many southern farmers, they did not have two nickels to rub together. Seed and fertilizer cost money – something in short supply after the “War of Northern Aggression” and during the depression. A system was worked out to avoid the need for money at the primary level – the growing, cutting, digging and picking level. Sharecropping, tenant farming and farming on the lien, or even mixtures of all three, were used. In my grandparent’s case, seed and fertilizer were “loaned” to them and a lien or loan was taken out against the crop, in most cases cotton, to be paid back after the harvest. It was a system that worked but one that kept most white farmers poor and black farmers in a type of “post-slavery” servitude. Springs Industries would change the culture with textile mills and at some point PawPaw abandoned the life of existing on the institution of farming and went to work for Springs. He did not quit farming but it was no longer “farming on the lien.” My grandmother did not abandon farming until she was in her nineties.
Many mornings as I stare across my computer screen while attempting to write, I can see my backyard framed like a photograph through the French doors leading out to our, for lack of a better word, patio. My wife has turned our backyard into a cluttered and jammed wildlife preserve–accent on WILD—and it is inevitable I would think of my grandmother. Her “rock garden” was just as jammed with flowers of all types and sometimes with wildlife, too. All were thrown together in a helter-skelter manner. My favorite flowers were her tall and colorful hollyhocks. I have tried to grow them but with not nearly the same success. Her backyard was just as tangled with privet hedge that had grown so high it had formed a canopy which seemed to form secret rooms. I consider myself very lucky to have had her for as long as I did – forty-nine years as she died just a few weeks past my forty-ninth birthday. I’m also greedy because I would have liked to have had her even longer.
As jammed as her rock garden was, her vegetable garden was not. Every morning she went out to the garden to chop down any weed before it could get a foothold or to hand-pick any critter that might chew on a leaf. This devotion is something I have a high regard for as I have moved toward organic gardening. Everything was quite orderly but her flowers were not. This difference was just one of several contradictions. One of the wisest and most well-read people I have ever known, she attended public school only until the eighth grade. She seemed to crave information but only if it didn’t interfere with time better spent in her garden. Even then, on rainy days, I would catch her gazing wishfully out the window. Most of her reading material revolved around her “Classics” plant catalogs, crossword puzzles and religious materials including, but not limited to, the Bible. Despite being one of the most religious people I have ever known, she rarely set foot inside of a church and I wish I had taken the time to ask why. For some reason a belief the church might be filled with hypocrisy comes to my mind but could this be my own cynicism showing? It might have been she just didn’t like being cooped up. When we “stayed the night” due to our parent’s work schedule, she did not tell stories to put my brother and me to sleep. Instead, we played “finish the Bible verse.” To this day when I hear a parent tell a child to “Be Still”, I have to add, “…and know that I am God.”
It is spring and I have begun to plant my garden. Much too big, I really try to grow food out of respect for and in memory of my grandmother. I am not very good at it and probably could buy more food than I raise with what I pay for seed and fertilizer. I am always hopeful and it is a way to stay connected to her and what she was. Every time my hoe clinks on a rock or sweat runs down my nose as I pick beans, I see her in her fields or rock garden. My favorite mental picture is of a woman in a dress “repurposed” from cotton feed sacks leaning on her hoe, big straw hat firmly in place. She is gazing across the hill to where my grandfather’s corn field was located. I wonder if she is thinking of times past…I know I am.
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Don Miller has written three books which may be purchased at http://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM