Her full name was Mary Ellen Davis Jonas, but to my sister, my cousins, and me, she was always Bebo. We can thank my cousin Bill for that memorable moniker. My sister Ginger, the first of four grandchildren, originally called her Memaw, but Billy’s pronunciation came out “Bebo,” and it stuck. Everyone who knew and loved her agrees that it’s appropriate that she had such a distinctive name, because she was one of a kind.
She was born one hundred years ago today, November 20, 1914, in Ivanhoe, Virginia, and she missed living an entire century only by a handful of years. What a century she witnessed! Her lifetime spanned the administrations of seventeen United States presidents, and she approved of the Republicans. Why? Because she blamed the Democrats–Wilson, Roosevelt, Truman, and Johnson–for getting us into wars. So, she was a Republican, and she even had a poster of Richard Nixon on roller skates. “Poor old Tricky Dick,” she would say, “He didn’t do anything worse than the rest of them. He just got caught.”
To put her life in historical context, consider some of the other memorable events of 1914, the year she was born:
- Babe Ruth made his professional baseball debut.
- Henry Ford introduced the Model T assembly line.
- Charlie Chaplin debuted his character The Tramp.
- Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated, beginning Europe’s downward spiral into The Great War, World War I.
Twenty-two days before her fifteenth birthday, the stock market crashed on Black Tuesday, October 29, 1929. The ensuing Great Depression coincided with her teen and young adult years. The seasons of her life that should have been the most fun and carefree were neither. I remember being surprised once when she told us that she had the opportunity to go to Radford College when she graduated from high school, but because she felt the need to help out at home, she chose to forego college. In retrospect, I’m sure that those days of subsistence and survival made college seem somewhat extravagant and fanciful anyway.
Through all the time I knew her, it was clear that the depression era had left its distinct impression upon her. She clearly remembered that time when, in her own way of describing it, “We didn’t have nothing.” Because of that lasting memory, Bebo was not a spender. She cut coupons and checked sale papers, and when she and my grandfather went grocery shopping, they visited several stores and got the things they needed where they were the least expensive. Once when I drove her to the grocery store, she picked up a canister of Morton’s salt, looked at the price tag, and put it back on the shelf with disgust. She couldn’t believe that it cost thirty-three cents, and she wouldn’t buy it because she remembered when it had only cost a nickel.
Because of her frugal nature, she was ahead of her time in reusing and recycling. That’s a polite way of saying that she was a borderline hoarder. She and Granddaddy had three outbuildings–a garage, a wash house, and a shed. All were packed to the gills with stuff she couldn’t part with and/or might need again. The stairway to their bedroom had a passageway only about fifteen inches wide because the stairwell doubled as storage area too. I never really saw the mattress in the other upstairs bedroom because it was covered with things that needed to be kept. Over several visits, I noticed that she rinsed and reused a styrofoam coffee cup from Long John Silver’s. After her Great Depression experience, she was going to be ready for the next “rainy day.”
Her strict self-discipline about her own spending, saving, and keeping, did not translate to strict expectations about her grandchildren’s behavior. My sister and I loved visits to Bebo’s house because it was like stepping outside of the rules for a little while. I remember jumping on the bed in the downstairs bedroom with my cousin Toby as our mothers called from the living room for us to stop. Within the safety zone of Bebo’s house of fun, we began to chant, “We don’t want to! We don’t have to!” We knew that Bebo would come to our defense. “Let ’em have fun,” she would say, usually followed by, “poor little ol’ things don’t know no better.” At Bebo’s house, we could play in the creek all day, go without baths, pee outside, shoot guns, and raid her kitchen cabinets to make what Toby and I called “animal medicine.”
At Bebo’s house, we could say things that were off limits elsewhere. I remember sitting on the porch swing with her one day when I was probably seven or eight years old. My cousin Toby and I were shooting blooms off of the flowers in the garden with a .22 caliber rifle when she asked us what “dirty words” we knew. The best I had was G-rated, probably things like “butt” and “fart.” She told me that those weren’t any good and shared with me her preference for “shit.” I’m sure I giggled, and if I had any sense, I realized how lucky I was to have a Bebo.
Bebo loved and was very loyal to anything that dated back to her childhood in Ivanhoe. This was especially apparent in her culinary tastes and in her descriptions of her “good ol'” favorites. She loved good ol’ country ham and good ol’ beans and cornbread. Her favorite dessert was cornbread mashed up in a cup of buttermilk. Once as we ate country ham she said, “Ain’t nothing better than ol’ hog, is there?” Without really thinking (poor little old thing, I didn’t know no better), I said, “Well, I guess there are probably some things better.” Those were fighting words. She quickly looked up at me, eye-to-eye, and demanded, “Like what!?” I changed the subject.
Her dietary rule of thumb was “Eat what your appetite calls for.” I guess that’s why I walked into the kitchen late one Thanksgiving night to find her eating some of the fat we had trimmed from the country ham earlier that evening. She was dipping that “ol’ hog” fat into horseradish and enjoying a nice little bedtime snack! I guess that’s what her appetite called for at the moment.
Speaking of appetites, you’d better have one around Bebo. She wanted you to eat, and she wanted you to look like you had been eating. We used to say that if Bebo told you that you looked good, it was probably time to lose some weight. Her habit was to put food on your plate as the meal progressed. I tried to warn my brother-in-law Wayne about that habit the first time he celebrated a holiday at Bebo’s. I told him to get only about half of what he wanted on his plate the first time around, because Bebo was going to provide the refills whether he wanted them or not. Wayne didn’t listen (poor little ol’ thing didn’t know no better), and she loaded him up with substantially more than his appetite called for.
She had a fairly unique home remedy for small maladies. As she would say, “I take me a Contac and a laxative.” I think I’ve figured out her logic–if you had some kind of germ making you sick, the Contac would help you to blow it out your nose and the laxative would help you to blow it out the other end. It’s genius, really.
One of the things that I loved most about Bebo was that she loved her sports! She loved the University of Virginia (“poor ol’ ‘Hoos”). She loved the Washington Redskins (“poor ol’ ‘Skins”). She loved Tommy LaSorda and the Dodgers. She loved any of the good guys and underdogs in professional wrestling (“poor ol’ Igor, Wahoo, etc.). On the other hand, she had no patience for their rivals. The University of North Carolina’s Dean Smith was “ol’ Schnoz” because of his prominent nose. More than once, she let us know that she “despised” the Dallas Cowboys and the New York Yankees. Once, when an announcer had the nerve to refer to wrestler Ric Flair as a “great champion,” Bebo invoked one of her favorite words and said, “Hmmph. He was a shitty champion.”
Of all the pictures I could share of Bebo, this is my favorite, taken when she was about seventy-five years old, as she prepared to throw me a pass in my back yard. How lucky was I to have a grandmother who would play football with me? Through our childhood and teen years, Bebo walked the tightrope between happiness that we grandkids played sports and fear that we would get hurt. That protective streak carried over into our adult lives. As we got ready to leave her house or to end a phone call, she often said, “Don’t let nobody run over you.”
I think she felt run over, or at least knocked sideways by my grandfather’s death in 1990. From that point on, having spent over fifty years as half of a couple, she was never content alone. In many ways, they exemplified the principle of opposites attracting. He was a quiet man. She was not a quiet woman. He was more reserved. She gladly spoke her mind. I guess they were counterweights to each other, and after his death, she was perpetually off-balance. She often talked about “poor old Payton.” She missed him, grieved him, and wanted to be with him.
On her ninety-fifth birthday, surrounded by her kids, grandkids, and great-grandkids, I tried to tease her into making a speech. “Ninety-five years,” I said, “That’s a lot of years to acquire wisdom! What do you have to tell us?” She frowned a little and said, “Well, I’ll tell you this–when I die, just have a graveside service, because I’ve outlived everyone!”
Seven months later, we gathered for that graveside service. I tried to lead the service, though my voice faltered and tears blurred my vision. Years earlier, she had come to hear me preach once, and as she hugged me at the door, she said, “J.B., you’re going to be a good preacher.” I thought I had touched her in some way until she continued, “Look, we’re getting out of here already, and it’s only 11:57!” That June afternoon in the Fletcher Chapel United Methodist Church cemetery, I wished that I could have been a better preacher. But, the tears that kept me from being good that day were tears of love. I guess their tribute was more eloquent than my words anyway.
In this season of Thanksgiving, I’m so grateful to God that Mary Ellen Davis was born one hundred years ago on this day in the little town of Ivanhoe, Virginia. I’m grateful that she and Payton Jonas found each other and spent their lives together. I’m glad that she became my father’s mother and my grandmother.
I believe with all my heart that there are millions of grandmothers out there, but there was only one Bebo. I’m thankful she was mine.