Category Archives: Grandmother

Ruminations on posterity

3 generations

Sabrina, Victoria and me

I stepped away from center stage some time ago, ceding the spotlight to my children and, with it, the drama attendant in staring in one’s own story. Every once in a while, one of their dramas sloshes over into my life or I am invited or even summoned to pull on maternal hip waders and plunge into the guck welling up from the drains . . . This provided that I remember that my role is a supporting one and that any advice I might proffer will probably be ignored. Just as I, during my turn in the spotlight, ignored much of my mother’s advice. To my considerable detriment.

As regards the Afterlife, I put no stock in the Resurrection. There are just too many logistical problems. Which body gets resurrected: the sixteen year old body or the eighty-six year old body? Is there a choice? Because, if there isn’t, I’m inclined to give the whole operation a pass. And the only Heaven of which I can conceive is reintegration into the cosmos as energy, an obliteration of personhood that is surely the opposite of why people conjured up a Heaven in the first place – so that they could imagine a way in which they might continue to exist as individuals. That becomes less and less important to me as time goes on and I realize that, though unique, I am no big whop, and, in truth, the only creatures with whom  I, at present, might long to be reunited are my mother and various, deceased pets, all of whom, in fact, do live on in a way I will explain.

BenchSharonGreek-crop CU (2)

The Golden Retriever

After our beloved golden retriever Buddy died, plunging us into the most terrible grief, I encountered a woman who had owned a string of goldens. She advised me to get another pronto. “They are so alike genetically that, in no time at all, it will seem as though you never lost him,” she told me. She was right. Five years ago we bought our Nellie and now I remember Buddy with great tenderness, love and gratitude, but never grief, never pain. Nellie has effectively taken his place. She has become,  unequivocally,  The Golden Retriever.

Me, Mom, Brina_NEW

Mom, Me and Sabrina, 1990

As for my mother, she lives on in me, in my daughter Sabrina and now in my granddaughter Victoria, whose birth  has caused me to reflect on these things . . . that and the fact that  I have taken on my mother’s last great role – that of grandmother — and, as such, one whose death would not be entirely unexpected.    I may not  long for eternal life in any personal sense, embodied or no, but, when I first looked into Victoria’s navy blue eyes, I realized that it was my mother’s eyes looking back, that Mom was in there all right, tangled up in the DNA that expresses itself in her first great grandchild. Just as I am.  Just as my daughter Sabrina is.

And that’s fine with me.

The magic in names: slavery and my family

noni mike_NEW

Michael and Noni

My brother Michael remembers Noni,  our paternal grandmother, asking him, “Don’t you think it would be just terrible if you had to go to school with little colored boys and girls?” This would have been in 1954, just after Brown vs. the Board of Education; Mike would have been nine at the time. He remembered thinking about the black boys he played with at the swimming hole and in the park — about Dave and Frank and Harry — and said no, he wouldn’t mind.   He thought it would be kind of fun.

By the time I knew Noni, she was slip-sliding down into the slough of senility, thanks to a decades-long drug habit. I didn’t dislike her, but I didn’t exactly love her either. Dementia is never endearing and perhaps I sensed the hostility between her and my mother, although I was not to understand the considerable animus between those two until I was an adult. And then there was Noni’s every-Christmas-without-fail gift to me — a set of three gi-normous old lady panties. This was a gift to which I took considerable umbrage. Did my grandmother really think my ass was THAT big?

If my brain were an attic, in one part of that attic, tucked away down under the eaves, you’d find a mildewed hatbox full to bursting with mouldering confederate money, a battered steamer trunk stuffed with moth-eaten petticoats and tattered ball gowns and, a musty, dog-eared history of the Eastern North Carolina branch of the Hardy family published in 1964 by one David Hardee. Hardee, Hardie, Hardy – we’re all the same family; it was just that some of us could spell and others not. Lately, I’ve been poking around in that old corner of the attic, stirring up dust, sending up ragged clouds of moths, sifting through old mouse poop in an attempt to understand my family in the context of history and of race.

Which was how I stumbled upon an inventory of the Bertie County, North Carolina estate of  my forebear William Hardy. According to a will drawn up in 1793, the estate included:

  • Farm equipment — saws, fire tongs, shovels, hoes;
  • Produce – corn, potatoes, salt, flour, flax, cotton;
  • Livestock – 5 horses, 34 cattle, 15 sheep, 14 sows, 65 pigs and 47 other hogs, 22 chickens, 25 turkeys and 47 other fowls, 4 stocks of bees, a yoke of oxen;
  • Books – a Bible, Prayer Book, 3 volumes of Mares arithmetic, Harvey’s Meditations;
  • Furniture – tables, table cloths, chests, 4 beds, 2 pillows, 12 chairs, pots, pans, candles, candle snuffers, candlesticks, glasses, plates, knives, forks;
  • Tools and supplies– one file, one surveyor chair, money scales, 5 spinning wheels, 5 pairs of cards, carpenter tools, 1 cart, 67 weight of pewter, 2 saddles, 2 bridles, 2 grindstones, tailor shears, looking glasses, mill picks, writing paper, 40 barrels of turpentine, 1 bag, 2 wallets, 2 towels, guns

It also included, “Negroes as follows: Dave, Frank, Harry, Tom, Abram, Ben Rofe, Wink Bett,  Brutus, Andrew, Daniel,  Simon, Peter, Matt, Abram, Woman Bell, Woman Penn, Girl Rose, Girl Easter, Girl Polly.”

According to the will, the slaves were to be divided between William’s wife Sarah and his children. Only the sons got land, but everybody “received” one or two in slaves in formulations that read like this:

“Sarah Sutton received Matt and Simon and other sundries worth 118 pounds, 8 shillings and 8 pence.”

“Lamb Hardy received his 1/6 part of the land, negro boy Daniel, and other sundries worth 118 pounds, 8 shillings and 12 pence.”

It was their names that got me. You don’t think of a slave being named Dave, for example, or Frank or Harry and yet Dave and Frank and Harry they were and Penn and Rose and Easter and negro boy Daniel . . . and they were passed down from father to child in the same breath as forty barrels of turpentine (William was a cooper by trade) or a yoke of oxen. According to a Census of Bertie County taken some 67 years later in 1860, Ellinor Hardy, Humphrey Hardy and Jason Hardy all owned slaves — 79, 33 and 39 respectively — but these were merely enumerated; they were not named. The fact that I know the names of William Hardy’s slaves makes them more real for me.   Whereas Noni lamented a future in which her precious grandson might have to go to school with nameless “little colored boys and girls,”  Michael knew the names of his playmates and did not find the prospect of associating with them in any way problematic.  There is a kind of magic in names.

family crestIf I believed in God, I would ask Him for forgiveness — for generations of my family going back three centuries, for my demented. racist grandmother, and for myself.   But I don’t believe in God, so, instead, I’m sending this out across the arc of history, across the span of 220 years that separates us in time: Dave, Frank, Harry, Tom, Abram, Ben Rofe, Wink Bett,  Brutus, Andrew,  Frank, Simon, Peter, Matt, Abram, Bell, Penn, Rose, Easter, and Polly,  I am sorry and I’m ashamed.

And now it’s high time I clean out that bloody attic.



American Thanksgiving . . . meh

Me with my daughter Sabrina and my grandparents at a long ago Thanksgiving

Me dandling daughter Sabrina with my grandparents at a long ago Thanksgiving

I’ve never been keen on American Thanksgiving. In the first place, it’s way too close to Christmas. The memory of my grossly distended belly and the self-loathing that invariably attends that phenomenon have scarcely begun to fade before there it is again: The Holiday Meal, in the case of my family, the exact same meal we ate a month earlier, including the dressing which we always had to call rice because my brother Peter refused, for some reason, to eat anything called dressing.

Then there’s the 2 p.m. timing of the meal. It’s Thanksgiving dinner, for God’s sake, not Thanksgiving lunch!   If Thanksgiving dinner happened at a decent hour – any time after 6 p.m., for example – the torment of having to remain awake while cruelly stuffed might be mitigated by an early bedtime. But, no. This insistence on an “early dinner” blows a black hole in the middle of your day — everything is sucked into it; nothing can escape its relentless gravitational pull, and you are left to lie there, beached and disconsolate, a helpless, unwitting witness to the televised spectacle of giant men in tight pants sustaining the kind of traumatic brain injuries that lead to dementia, debilitating neurological diseases and suicide. By which I mean football.

Great Dane Lovey admires the turkey

Great Dane Lovey scrutinizes the turkey

My family is surprisingly functional – which is not to say that we don’t have our fair share of little traumas, pretty much all of which can be characterized, as per my daughter Alice, as, “first world problems”. However, not even we were not immune to the kind of dysfunction that seems to go along with quivering tubes of cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie that looks like baby pooh. Case in point: one Thanksgiving when we were children, my mother, frustrated at my brother who was being all winge-y, shook him. Now my parents were not into corporeal punishment; Mom far preferred a good shaming larded with barely veiled threats that she was on the verge of disowning us, as conveyed by such statements as, “No child of mine would ever do (that thing you just did).” All this to say that Mom probably didn’t shake Peter very hard, but, on that one occasion, shake him she did, and, every year thereafter, Peter would kick off Thanksgiving dinner by dolefully recollecting, “And then there was that Thanksgiving Mom shook me. . . ,” sending the poor woman into fresh paroxysms of guilt.

Sometimes we had Thanksgiving Dinner at my paternal grandparents in Hillsborough, North Carolina. My Aunt Elaine and Uncle Clyde would come down from Winston-Salem and Aunt Elaine, who was something of a gourmet cook at a time when that was regarded with some suspicion in the South, would bring along a little something for the family to savor. One year she presented the assembled, bleary crew with tomato aspic, confounding us all. “What is this?” “Do you eat it?”   This reminds me of a conversation we had with my husband’s Auntie Gloria in which she described the eating habits of her daughter-in-law. “She eats strange things,” Gloria confided in us. “Like vegetables.”

Between her alcoholism and her morphine addiction, my grandmother had succeeded in pickling herself by the time my memories of her congealed into some kind of coherence. Noni contributed but one dish to the Thanksgiving feast – her signature dish, a sweet potato,marshmallow casserole awash in a sea of bourbon. At fifteen minute intervals throughout the dinner preparations, Noni would lurch to her feet, weave her way to the kitchen, baste the sweet potatoes, baste herself and return to the living room to stew in her own juice.

My father carves as my mother looks on

My father carves as my mother smiles for the camera

In the meanwhile my grandfather, by dint of steady  drinking, would wax from sentimental to downright maudlin before deciding to check on the mail.  I would accompany him to the mailbox at the end of the long driveway, both of us knowing full well that there was no mail on Thanksgiving but that we needed the air.

So, all in all, I’m thankful for Canadian Thanksgiving, which takes place in the second week of October.  Canadian Thanksgiving celebrates the harvest rather than that time before we exterminated them that Native Americans saved our bacon.  It doesn’t result in a four-day holiday and, therefore, a loyalty test wherein persons are forced to travel vast distances in inclement weather to prove that they love their families of origin. And finally, being on a Monday, Canadian Thanksgiving isn’t followed by Black Friday, about which don’t get me started.  And then there’s the fact that my ex chose Canadian Thanksgiving 1989 to come out of the closet — scarcely festive at the time, but, in the great scheme of things, something for which I am truly grateful.

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Ughy — My Ur Dog

Dad with me, Peter and Ughy.

Dad with me, Peter and Ughy.

My father courted my mother with puppies.  The first was a mixed breed called Pot, who was summarily run over. The second was a black cocker spaniel  named Ughy.  Ughy arrived on the scene four years before I was born, at a time when Mom and Dad were both married to other people, but clearly gearing up to bolt – you don’t give just anybody a puppy, not in my family. And Dad gave Mom two.

My mother’s childhood dog  was Poochie, a terrier who spent his dogs days asleep in the sunny middle of the street in front of their house in Stillwater, Oklahoma.  Unlike Pot, Poochie died in the fullness of time and of natural causes — for the dozen or so years he was on this Earth cars just edged around him.  If this seems extraordinary, consider this: my grandmother never learned how to back up a car.   She didn’t need to.  She only went two places — her beauty salon and  the grocery store — and both her hairdresser and the boy who bagged her groceries were more than happy to turn the car around for her so that she could drive herself back home.  That’s the kind of town Stillwater, Oklahoma was — women could drive cars in one direction and dogs could sleep undisturbed in the middle of its streets.  Of course, if you were a black man and dusk was approaching, you would have been wise not to count on the same degree of insouciance.   We’re talking Oklahoma here and some things don’t  change.

People assign names to dogs; their dog names emerge with time.  Thus Bill’s Fancy became Mary Frances; Luv (allegedly Danish for Lion) became Lovey;  Tennessee’s Waltz became Tenney, which also happened to be the name of the circle we lived on. Ughy’s given name was, improbably,  Lord Ogilthorpe, thence Oggie, thence Ughy, a.k.a, Boodle Dog.  My Grandfather Zant always called him, “Black Dog.”  “Hi, Black Dog,” he would say.  “Come here, Black Dog.” Ughy adored Grandaddy, perhaps because Grandaddy recognized his true essence.  He was, after all, a black dog.

Ughy watching over my bassinet . . . or was he?

Ughy watching over my bassinet . . . or was he?

My mother told the story of how Ughy would drop his toys into my bassinet. She maintained that this indicated a desire on his part to share his toys with me.  I think it’s more likely that he was actually trying to take me out from the air. Then again, he used to bring Mom mice that he had killed and how can that be interpreted other than as an act of largesse?  In his seventeen years, Ughy only bit me once and that was because I stuck my face in his food dish.  I would do the same to anybody who stuck their face in my food dish.  Consider that fair warning.

Growing up, I was convinced that Ughy could talk; I figured he was just holding out.  On weekends, my father would take me and Ughy along on various errands and, while he was in the Hostess Outlet Store or at the roadside corn stand, I would edge closer to Ughy and whisper in his silky ear, “It’s all right.  He’s gone.  You can talk now.”  That’s when parents left kids in the car and no one thought a thing of it.

Golden Retriever with false teeth.  You get the idea.

Golden Retriever with party teeth. You get the idea.

Ughy had two tricks.  He could sit up on his hind legs for hours  while wearing one of my Dad’s white t-shirts, and he would happily circulate amongst party guests, gag teeth clamped  between his jaws, for so long as people applauded. He taught himself those tricks in his spare time, which was copious.

Ughy buried bones in the carpet.  He would dig and dig and dig, creating no hole whatsoever, then deposit the bone in the no hole  he had dug.  There it would remain until someone glanced over at it, at which point he would promptly dig it up from the no hole and bury it in plain sight somewhere else.  Once a kid on our block dared to call Ughy fat and I beat him up.  He was the only person I have ever beaten up and I never felt a shred of guilt about it. Call my dog fat: you’ve crossed a red line.

Ughy was my first dog –  the original dog; the archetypal dog; the Ur dog.The worst thing I could imagine, apart from the death of my mother or father, was Ughy’s demise.  I would lie in bed at night and try and imagine what a world without Ughy would be like.  But then I’d have to stop myself; his loss was too painful even to contemplate.

The last year of his long life, blinded by milky cataracts and wracked by cancer, Ughy was falling apart the way old dogs do: at the seams. During that sad period Dad carried him tenderly up and down the stairs as required.  My husband and I can relate. For the better part of three years we hefted our aged and enormous Golden Retriever up and downstairs, hoisting him into cars and airlifting him onto beds. Recently a fit-enough looking neighbour  told us he had been forced to put his Springer Spaniel down because she could no longer climb stairs.  As soon as he was out of earshot, my husband and I looked at one another, aghast.    “He couldn’t carry a Springer Spaniel up and down stairs?” we asked.

Ughy contemplates his Christmas stocking

Ughy contemplates his Christmas stocking

Every night Dad fed Ughy his green cancer pain pills, stroking  his throat to make him swallow, as he sang:

“Green pills, they taste so good/

when doggies eat them like they should./

Green pills, they taste so nice./

They taste like they’re made out of sugar and spice.”

He sang this to the tune of Green Sleeves.

Then one day it happened — Ughy was gone.  A chasm opened up in the earth and in we fell, only to struggle out, not twenty-four hours later, with the parti-coloured ball of fur and bad news who would become Crocapuppy – the infamous Frances of the Socks.  If Ughy was a true gentleman — and he was — Frances was bitch incarnate.  Life goes on and new dogs come on stream — one after another. And then they die, and you feel like you’re going to die, and then you don’t.

. . .

And then you do.

Confessions of a Knitwit

My daughter Sabrina in the unfortunate sweater I knit her.  Her brother Will is enjoying her misery.

My daughter Sabrina in the unfortunate sweater I knit her. Her brother Will is enjoying her misery.

I’m a knitter.  I come by it honestly.  My mother was an Über knitter.  She taught scores of people to knit, myself included.   Once I visited her in the hospital after a major operation. When I entered her room, I found her trying to talk the nurse into letting her teach her how to knit.  “It’s easy,” she assured her. “I can show you!”   I knew then that she was going to be OK.

My grandmother excelled at fancy needlework – embroidery and lace-making, crocheting and cut work – but nothing so plain as knitting.  So Mom asked my grandfather to teach her to knit; this was in the days before video tutorials and Knitting for Dummies.  Grand Daddy hadn’t a clue, but he had watched his mother knit and he was a problem solver.  Two straightened-out wire coat hangers, a ball of twine and a few false starts later, he had figured it out. There was no stopping Mom after that.

I love knitting.  I can spend hours poring over pattern porn on websites like or     I delight in pondering new projects.  I revel in wool.  If you asked me to describe one moment in my life when I was perfectly happy, I would have to say it was sitting on the deck of a cruise ship sailing around a Greek island while knitting, listening to the audio version of Margaux Fragoso’s gripping memoir, Tiger Tiger and sipping on a bottomless gin and tonic.  It just doesn’t get any better than that.

My passion for knitting does not, however, mean that I am a good knitter or even a competent one.  Au contraire. Once I was sitting next to a stewardess on a plane from LAX to Hawaii.  She saw that I was knitting, pulled out a piece she was working on – a complicated lace pattern — and asked me to fix a teensy mistake for her.  I then proceeded to completely and irrevocably (there is no other word for it) f-k up her entire project. The worse thing: I had to sit next to her for the next four hours.

Sometimes people say to me, “You’ll have to knit a sweater for me!” As if that would give me great delight.  It would not, but not for the reason you might think.  Chances are any sweater I knit for you would turn out to be oddly misshapen and then you would have to hide your disappointment.  You would most certainly never wear it and how could I blame you?  I remember the sweater I knit for my daughter Sabrina, which was elephantine, or the one I knit for my mother in law — if she was a large dachshund, it might have suited her, but, alas, she is not.

If, however, I knit that same peculiar sweater for myself, I can always unravel it and knit something else out of it, which I can then unravel and so forth.  My husband can attest to the fact that I spend a great deal of time unraveling sweaters.  He appreciates the cost savings; good yarn is expensive.   Recently a woman approached me at the Green Roof Diner here in Port Stanley and asked if I would knit a layette for a grandchild she’s expecting.  “I will pay you,” she said.  “Oh, no,” I hastily demurred.  “I couldn’t deal with the guilt.”

After Mom passed away, we hauled four large garbage bags of yarn down to the Thrift Shop – this was the yarn I didn’t take for myself.  For the next seven years, every time I visited my father, I would find additional bags of yarn and knitting projects in various stages of completion stashed here and there in cupboards and at the back of closets and under beds.  Like a squirrel, Mom cached yarn about her territory lest some unforeseen catastrophe befall her and she find herself without.  As it turned out, catastrophe did befall her — she died — and, as it also turns out, yarn is one of those things you can’t take with you.  I felt bad throwing out those semi-completed projects —  that dangling cowl neck, that half of a sock.  She had such big plans for them and they came to naught.  Like so much in life.

Ah, well.

It’s five o’clock, which means: time to fix myself a Bloody Caesar and break out the needles.

The strange tale of my grandmother’s origins

George Skinner

George Skinner

My grandmother’s ancestry is a mystery.  That’s because she was adopted as an infant.  The story goes like this. My great grandfather, George Skinner, was the conductor of the K.D. Special, a train that ran between Joplin and Galveston.  Right after the Galveston Hurricane of 1900, the K.D. Special pulled into Galveston and my great grandfather went for a stroll to take in the damage.  This was profound. The Galveston Hurricane was the deadliest in American history, and the second costliest. Between 6,000 and 12,000 people died.  Just to put that in perspective, Hurricane Katrina claimed the lives of 1,800 people.   On his stroll, George Skinner found two things – a beautiful oak ‘secretary’ or desk, which now inhabits a corner of our living room, and a newborn baby girl, my grandmother.  He brought both home.

My great grandmother, George’s wife, was known by a number of names throughout her life.  She had been christened ‘Melander Arnold’, which she thought sounded too much like a slave name.   As a young woman she called herself Elizabeth; later she demanded that everyone call her Melissa.  Both my Aunt Mary Elizabeth and I were named for different iterations of her.  For the purposes of this post, I shall call her Maman, the name by which my mother and aunt knew her. The Arnolds were a well-to-do family in Louisiana, but when Maman’s father died in the Civil War, her mother, figuring that she had but one life to live, decamped with an itinerant preacher by the name of Norwood with whom she promptly produced what can only be described as a mess of oafish offspring. Thus did the aristocratic Maman find herself living in much reduced circumstances and in the company of Crackers.  Understandably this made her cross.

What also made her cross was being presented with an infant of dubious origins and told to raise her.

MamanMaman was a schoolteacher when she married George Skinner, a few years her junior, mustachioed and dashing.  It was a good marriage in that it proved her re-entry into the middle class.  Back then a train conductor, particularly of so eminent a train as the K.D. Special, was an important personage; when I finally saw photographs of the house in which my grandmother was brought up in Dennison, Texas, I was surprised by its size and relative grandeur.  I had pictured it as a kind of ragged bungalow beside a railway track, weather vane listlessly churning in a hot, dull wind as tumbleweed blew down a dusty, deserted street.  But no.

The Skinners had no children.  Or, at least, Maman didn’t.  What she did have was premature cataracts. Cataract surgery was available at the time, but it involved scalpels, suction cups and forceps and she was understandably squeamish.  As the years went by, Maman’s world became fuzzier and fuzzier; purples and blues ceased to exist for her; increasingly she saw the world in shades of sepia.  Then, one day, home comes George with a desk and a baby.

George treated my Grandmother as though she were his own child.  In the days where orphans were more likely to be used as servants than treasured, my grandmother was treated like a princess.  There are portraits of her at about age eight, wearing a sumptuous blue velvet dress and white kid gloves, her long auburn hair curled in ringlets.  She was given piano lessons, at which she excelled, and sent off to study music at Texas A & M University, at a time when few women went to university.  Every day my great grandfather’s train would chug past her dorm window and she would stand at her window blowing kisses to him as he waved at her from the little platform at the end of the caboose that was his office.  When she married my grandfather, George gave her a Steinway baby grand piano.  They were utterly devoted to one another.

Ruth Skinner Zant

Ruth Skinner Zant

Maman and she, not so much.

To deal with the baby, Maman summoned one of her lowly half-sisters – Nellie Sue Norwood – and entrusted her with the baby’s care.  How could George expect a blind woman to take care of a child?    My grandmother called Nellie Sue “Sweet Aunty” and “Sweet Aunty” went on not only to raise her, but to half raise my mother and aunt as well.

No one ever told my grandmother that she was adopted.  Then, for some reason, George did.  He came to Stillwater, where my grandparents were living, and told Grandmother the truth . . . or his preferred version of the truth, the Galveston version.  My mother was very young at the time, but she remembered what happened next with great clarity.  Grandmother locked herself in her bedroom and wouldn’t come out for three days.  Afterwards she never spoke of it; no one spoke of it. It wasn’t permitted.

What compelled my great grandfather to tell my grandmother that she was adopted?  We’ll never know.

What we do know is that, years later, when Maman succumbed to a stroke  in the greenhouse out back, she was found clutching a yellowed article cut out of some small town newspaper – a society column that included this mention:  “A Mr. George Skinner from Joplin called upon Miss ___ _____ last Tuesday. This makes the fifth time this year that Mr. Skinner has visited the lady.  Could wedding bells be in their future?”    One might conclude that this news of her husband’s philandering was what killed her, but, remember, Maman was blind.  She couldn’t see to read; hadn’t been able to for years. She must have received the column long ago; it must have yellowed in her possession.  She had not gotten rid of it, but kept it close for all those years, so close that she died with it.

Damage post Galveston Hurricane

Damage post Galveston Hurricane

You can’t make this stuff up.  On second thought, maybe you can.