Something the other day took me back to a time, many years ago, when I followed the tight, winding roads of the mountains to present myself at the door of my maternal grandmother’s house.
She was happily surprised to find me on the porch of the humble house, which was far from where I lived, since I was living several hundred miles away. There she stood in the attire I will always recall as hers: A simple cotton, print dress that fell in length almost to her ankles, flat, black shoes, a fresh apron with a pocket and her long, gray hair pulled back into a tight, neat bun. She carried the look of the Appalachians all over her —lean, bony body, calloused hands and a thin face with finely sculpted, high cheekbones and lines written by worry but eased by prayer.
“Come right on in!” she said merrily. In her hand, was a magazine-sized paperback book. I settled in on the worn sofa beside her. “I was just workin’ a crossword puzzle.”
My grandmother, born and bred in the backwoods of the mountains, had the average education of that region. She could read, write and quote the King James Bible verbatim and at length. It was a credit to her longing to better herself intellectually and mentally that she was a serious devotee of crossword puzzles. Those books of puzzles became her favorite gift to receive.
“Oh, I’m sorry I interrupted you,” I said.
“I’m nearly finished,” she responded. “Got just about every one of them. Just studyin’ on a couple I’m troublin’ with.”
“Let me see.” I took the book from her then puzzled myself when I saw that there was nary a square filled in. “But Maw-maw, this is blank. I thought you were almost finished.”
She snatched the book back and, with wide eyes, declared emphatically, “Oh, I never write in the spaces. That way, I can use them over and over.”
I laughed. I still, after more than 20 years, laugh when I recall that. It revealed two key insights about her: She was frugal, made so by the hard times that salted and preserved her memories and, most importantly, she was so smart that she didn’t have to see it written down. She could remember which words went where so she could figure out which words were missing.
Her attributes were many. She was kind, hard-working, smart and particularly gentle to those who were troubled and had lost their way. Daddy adored his mother-in-law in a strong, unyielding way because she had loved him when he was at his most unlovable in his wayward years and helped, with kind words and prayers, to mold him into the strong man of the Lord’s that he became.
“God never made a finer woman than Lizzie Miller,” he often said.
She had a passel of grandchildren which is wrought to happen when you have eight children so my quality time with her was limited. But spring break when I was in the second grade, I went to stay with her for a week. She lived in a creaky, four-room, non-insulated house with a tin roof and no indoor plumbing. Living that kind of hardship life for a week was the best gift that I could ever receive. A person’s value, I came to realize, is not determined by what they have but who they are and what wisdom and knowledge they have.
That week, Maw-maw taught me to crochet. Folks who worked at the carpet mill bought her scraps of wool yarn from which she knitted unbearably itchy sweaters. She liked free. She needed it.
I recently bought soft yarn to crochet a baby blanket. As I crochet, I think of that woman and how the yarns of her life are so deeply knitted into those of mine.
They are threads that never break.