I received an email from a stranger. Maybe “stranger” is a strong word. Perhaps a new virtual friend. But certainly someone I’ve never met. He told me he likes to read my memories in the newspaper. He said he is a math/science nerd and perhaps his story would bore me. Then, he told me of our connections. He wrote: “I drive a lot for my job. When I cross the Choctawhatchee River on I-10 in the Florida Panhandle, I always think that some of that water flowed past my grandmother’s house in Newton.”
Recently, a tangible friend asked my opinion on her marketable skills. I yelped: “What do I know about marketable skills?! The only thing I’m good at is getting people to talk about their grandmothers!” So, we talked about her grandmother.
I had three grandmothers: two biological and one who belonged to my husband. We all three agreed I came second to Nana in his estimation. I didn’t really blame him. At least I was in the top two. She died last week. Actually, it was several years ago, but we cling to the dates, don’t we?
She didn’t quilt or cook cornbread or host the women’s missions society or do any Southern grandmotherly things. She didn’t even go to church. She worked swing shift at Kimberly-Clark for 40 years and lost her ability to sleep regular hours. She didn’t keep house. All the same, Dollie Harrison Barnett’s grandchildren adored 894 Maria Street in Memphis, Tennessee. Like a country music song, they climbed over her on the swing in the backyard under the old sweet-gum tree. She made up silly songs for them.
“Watermelon, watermelon, fresh and fine. Nobody’s watermelon tastes like mine. It’s red in the middle, and it’s green on top, and it makes my lips go flippity-flop.”
“There once was a bird, no bigger than a turd, sittin’ on a telephone pole. He stretched his little neck, and he (pooped) about a peck, and he strained his little (booty) hole.”
“Going down the river in a little red canoe: Chuck, David, Dollie, Billy, and Carolyn, too.” (The remainder of the ballad was new every time, but the story was standard. The brave cousins rallied together to battle evil villains and super crocodiles and to save each other.)
Chuck, David and Dollie (her namesake) lived in Memphis. Billy and Carolyn lived in Rome, New York. Nana took the Memphis children to New York and went to New York to bring the Yankee cousins south as often as possible in her blue 1968 Pontiac Tempest, connecting the dots with Howard Johnsons. She pulled out in front of a Buick Wildcat on one of those trips and totaled the Tempest. Uncle Bill picked them up in Pennsylvania, and they flew home after their visit. It wasn’t Chuck’s first flight from New York. He and Nana had already made a trip by airplane. For the special occasion, she bought him a wide-lapeled corduroy suit with a paisley shirt. And took him to Sears to get his picture made.
A generation passed, and Nana quit going back and forth. Instead, her grown-up grandchildren took their children to Nana’s house. The cousins from Alabama and New York reunited with the ones in Memphis on either the Fourth of July or Thanksgiving. One thousand miles dwindled to 1,000 square feet.
She had hip surgery in her late 80s and didn’t recover well. She went to a rehab/nursing home that she called the lockup. She begged Chuck to spring her. Doubtfully, he encouraged her to do her exercises, so she could get strong enough to go home. So, she did.
At 94 years old, at home on Maria Street, she fell and hit her head. The spread-out family had about two weeks to make their plans.
After her retirement, she worked for years at McDonald’s serving breakfast. She pocketed Beanie Babies for her great-grandchildren. I had a box at my house. I handed one to each of the next generation to tuck into her casket. They made a wreath around her head. Her 8mm home movies that Chuck had transferred to video played in the background at her visitation.
After her funeral, her beloveds gathered on Maria Street one last time to laugh and feast and drink Dr. Pepper. The sweet-gum tree had been cut down years before. We spread blankets and picnicked where it used to be.
On the cover of her funeral program was a little red canoe.