My sister Ginger and I were always vigilant when we knew that she was grocery shopping. We focused our attention on the intersection about a tenth of a mile up the hill from the end of our driveway, and when we saw her car turn onto Morningside Drive, we made a beeline for her house. To the casual observer, I’m sure it would have seemed that we were two extraordinarily polite and thoughtful grandchildren who wanted nothing more than to help their grandmother unload her groceries from her car . . .
. . . but we had ulterior motives. We knew that somewhere inside those brown paper bags from the Minute-Ette (before it was Food Town or Food Country U.S.A.), there were two boxes of Barnum & Bailey animal crackers just for us. Although I don’t remember it specifically, I feel certain that she required us to say please and thank you before and after she gave them to us. Our manners were very important to her.
Animal crackers weren’t the only treats at Memaw’s house. My mom still complains that we would eat bananas at her house, while bananas in our own kitchen turned black because we wouldn’t touch them. With some delight, no doubt, our grandmother would remind her that “things just taste better at Memaw’s house.” I remember enjoying those Friday night frozen pizzas in Memaw’s kitchen while my father and grandfather worked into the wee hours of the morning at my granddad’s livestock market.
My favorite treats were always the Moon Pies! On Saturday evenings when Memaw and Granddaddy kept us for our parents’ date nights, we enjoyed those Moon Pies while we watched Hee Haw and the Lawrence Welk Show. One time, Ginger, who’s four years older than I am, used her ability to read and write against me. She slipped over to Memaw and asked if she could have a “P-I-E,” and although I didn’t yet know what that spelled, I saw the result. So I promptly asked Memaw if I could have an “S-I-E,” and despite the misspelling, I apparently communicated, because I got my Moon Pie too.
She was an elementary school teacher, and she often brought home workbooks to help me learn letters, shapes, and other things I would need to know in Kindergarten or first grade. As I was practicing the art of writing capital Os one day, I let out a frustrated groan because one of my circles wasn’t round enough–it was flat across the top. I remember how funny she thought it was that I called it a “cranky O.”
She was slightly less amused, however, when she discovered sand all over the hood of her car one day. Although it was true that I had been playing in the sand pile in her yard earlier in the day, I assured her that I was not the culprit. Instead, I threw my imaginary friend under the bus. “Jim did it,” I said. I don’t think she ever bought that explanation.
In addition to teaching during the week, she volunteered as a Sunday school teacher at Abingdon United Methodist Church, and it was fairly common for my sister and me to ride to Sunday school with Memaw and to join our parents later in the morning for the worship service. We were in Sunday school every week. Both Ginger and I have multiple perfect attendance pins to prove it. Of all the gifts she gave to us, her faith and faithfulness may be the greatest.
Sometime in the fall of 1977, my mom told me that Memaw had a disease called cancer. She told me that it would make her very sick, and that she probably would not live. I was barely six years old, and the first thing I could think to ask was, “Does she know?”
So, probably because of all the Sunday school lessons I’d never missed, I began to pray. I prayed that she would get better. I prayed that God would let her live. And as I prayed, I watched her body weaken and deteriorate. I stood at her bedside and spoke to her when the only thing she could do in response was groan.
After a few months, on May 12, 1978–a Friday–Ginger and I could see from the school bus window that our dad’s Volkswagen Beetle was in the driveway. It should not have been. He never came home from work before the school bus arrived. He met us in the driveway. Something was wrong. This was all unusual, almost unnatural. We sat on the NFL bedspread in my bedroom–Dad, Ginger, and me–and he spoke. “Memaw died.”
Those two words make me cry, even as I write this thirty-four years later. The rest is a blur. People brought food, her house was full, I sat next to my mom in the funeral service, of which my only memory is that Dr. Thomas Chilcote whistled slightly between his teeth each time he pronounced the “s” in Christ. I believe her funeral was on Mother’s Day.
I missed her so much. I wrestled with God. Why had she died? Why hadn’t God answered my prayers for her health and life? I’m convinced that the wrestling with God at such an early age led me right into this loving relationship with Jesus Christ, and ultimately, into ordained ministry. God works in mysterious ways, indeed.
I always think of her in May, but this year, she’s been on my mind particularly. I was in Abingdon United Methodist Church last month and peeked into a classroom of the Margaret Blair Preschool, her namesake, where children continue to learn what they’ll need to know in Kindergarten and first grade in the very building in which she taught Sunday school. There’s an 8×10 photo of her on the wall of that classroom, and I’m so proud each time I see it.
At my son Brett’s Little League baseball game in Saltville a couple of weeks ago, I was delighted to learn that the concession stand had Moon Pies. I spent the best 75 cents I’ve spent in a long time to enjoy that Moon Pie and to remember . . .
Man, I’d love to have just one more Moon Pie with her. I’d love to write one more cranky O with her. I’d even love to sit and watch Hee Haw and Lawrence Welk with her just one more time.
Memaw, I barely knew you, and I still feel in my heart that I lost you way too soon. But I’ll always be glad and grateful that you are part of who I am.
I’ll see you again. You bring the animal crackers. I’ll bring the S-I-E-s.