My maternal grandmother would qualify as one of my most unforgettable characters. The earliest memories I have of her are of my brother and me visiting her in her little house near our farm. Her kitchen always smelled of ground coffee beans. She had one of those wooden coffee grinders on the wall near the wood burning stove. She loved a good strong cup of black coffee in the morning. The regret I still have is not having time to get to know her better. She died when I was 13.
Brother and I called her Momma Hattie. Her name was Hattie Mastin Mark. She was descended from Native Americans. By all accounts she was indeed a character. I remember her unabashed joy in life, her stinging criticism of anything with which she did not agree, and the last months of her life.
Momma was often mortified at something her mother would say to folks. We were visiting a neighbor once when Momma Hattie decided to voice her opinion on the woman’s housekeeping skills or lack thereof. “Uh huh, honey you need to call dem chillums in here and make em clean up this dirty house.” The woman often made people mad, but more often than not people would seem to forgive her for her cutting remarks.
Momma Hattie would come to visit us sometime. She spent most of her time quilting. Brother and I knew better than to bother her when she was in the process of creating those beautiful quilts meant to keep us warm in winter months. I know now that she was an artist who took great pride in her work.
One day Momma Hattie up and moved to the city of Montgomery some 40 miles north of our farm. Momma said she was tired of country living and wanted to party and have a good time. I didn’t understand then why a woman her age would want to leave the country with its beauty to move to the crowded city.
When I was 13 she came to live with us. She did not want to leave the city, but she had suffered a debilitating stroke and could no longer take care of herself. She moved into my room with me. I was devastated. All of a sudden my room was a sick room. I thought of my room as my sanctuary and private place. It was autumn and school was in session so I would bring books home from the library and spend hours in my room in front of the fire reading.
School actually turned out to be a haven from the sickness and my grandmother’s cantankerousness. Nothing Momma did pleased her. It was her illness and the loss of her independence that made her that way.
I was home in bed sick with the chicken pox when Momma Hattie died in the bed next to mine. She had been with us six months. The undertaker had to come from Montgomery to pick up her body. The next day Momma scoured the room. That night I slept in my room alone for the first time in months. I never forgot that night. There was a fierce storm that I noted before I fell asleep. I saw the numerous trees surrounding the house bowing in the wind, but I was not afraid.
Some of the neighbors were superstitious and were amazed that I slept in a room where someone had died. Many years later I realized that the experience was one of life’s lessons. The chicken pox had left pitted scars on my body, but the loss of my sanctuary left emotional scars. The lesson was that sanctuary is not a place, but a state of mind.
They are all gone now. My grief for them recurs when least expected — a snatch of a song, the smell of a spring flowering shrub or freshly spaded soil in the garden, the feel of the molten sunshine on my back. It brings back an acute pang of longing so intense it defies expression. It often brings back memories of the grandmother I hardly knew and her little house in the country filled with her beautiful quilts and the smell of ground coffee beans.