I slept in my twin-sized bed with the Lamb Chop’s Playalong sheets tucked tightly around me. It was summertime, and even at age 6, I loved sleeping late. My MeMe tip toed to my room, trying hard not to let the worn stairs creak. She opened the door gently and peered inside, smiling. MeMe tucked her 70-year-old knees beneath her to sit next to my bed and pat my back, saying my name as quiet as a whisper. When I grumpily pulled the covers over my head, she softly and sweetly sang, “This is the day that the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it.” She didn’t want me to waste my day, my God-given day.
I lost MeMe almost three years ago, and the burning funeral is still etched in my memory with a permanent marker. The heat suffocated my family and me, as if we had to push through the steaming air to even walk around. I remember sitting on a plastic chair made somewhat fancier by Memory Chapel’s blue velour slipcover and staring through the fogginess of my tears at the numerous flowers flooding the graveside. The pink roses caught my eye. They were beautiful, but the unforgiving heat caused them to droop. MeMe had been that way for the past few months, beautiful but drooping, her color and health fading in a nursing home in Moundville, Ala.
The roses inside the church were protected from the harsh humidity. They stood proudly, sharing their blossoming petals and sweet, but not too powerful, aroma withpassers by. MeMe spent most of her life like these roses, and that’s what I want to remember most.
MeMe, known to most people as Mary Fraiser Mills Lawless, was born in 1925 in a community called Big Sandy, the last stop in Tuscaloosa, Ala., before reaching the Hale County line. Meme was the youngest of nine siblings and was named Mary after her mother and Fraiser after her father.
“I guess they ran out of names by the time they got to her,” my mom joked.
She grew up in a two-room house with chickens, cows, pigs, dogs and cats surrounding the home. That rickety house isn’t far from where my parents live. No one has inhabited it for years, but daffodils still bloom there in the spring, filling the sloping yard with touches of yellow.
When MeMe talked about her childhood, she said that she and her sisters could fit five to a bed easily. That was their heating system when the humid Alabama weather turned bitterly cold. It was the Great Depression, and they were poor.
“We didn’t know we were poor,” she said. “Everybody was poor. We just thought that was how it was.” The Mills didn’t have much money, but, thanks to their animals, they always had eggs, milk and meat. They were the fortunate ones. MeMe and her sisters wore panties made from flour sacks and dresses made from potato sacks shamelessly.
“Now I had a real pretty dress made from a feed sack,” she told me. My mom and I would giggle, but she was serious. MeMe was always sincere, no matter if she was
explaining how Jesus could forgive the adulterous woman at the well or discussing the complexities of making crunchy homemade pickles.
The MeMe I knew was careful and cautious, worrying about me constantly. My parents and I wouldn’t tell her about a vacation until a few days before we left. It prevented premature worry, which was helpful to someone with high blood pressure.
Through my recent uncovering and prying of her life, I’ve realized how courageous MeMe was. Sure, she decided to live with her older brother in Moundville during the week, zoning her for Hale County High School. She said that Tuscaloosa County High School was just too big, and the size frightened her. However, she was the only daughter out of five to get her driver’s license, which may not seem like much today, but was life-changing to someone who spent most of her life running errands in a cart pulled by a mule. She lost her mother when she was only 17 years old, but MeMe didn’t let the tragedy keep her from earning her high school diploma. Her husband, Rufus, died when she was 53, but she fought on, taking a job at Englewood Elementary School’s cafeteria to care for herself and her only child, my mother.
Though MeMe didn’t always have a job, she was constantly working. Even when she was pushing 80, she and her sister, Nora, would wake up around 5 a.m. to care for their garden. This was not your average backyard vegetable garden, though. About thirty rows of tilled earth stood between the storage house and the woods. She would plant everything. Potatoes, cucumbers, tomatoes, bell peppers, onions, hot peppers, pumpkins, peas, corn, butterbeans and much more filled the never-ending rows. My mom, dad and I
would also help with the garden, even though I didn’t share the same passion for the earth as my grandmother. I’m hoping that is a passion that comes with time.
My bonding time with MeMe was spent inside. We would sit in the living room with paper bags of purple field peas, cracking open the weathered shells to reveal the shining, green jewels waiting inside. They glistened, smelling fresh, watery and new. The shells stained our fingers plum, but we didn’t care. We were more concerned with eating the peas served with green beans, fresh cornbread and fried potatoes the following Sunday.
I didn’t have much interest in cooking when I was young, so I didn’t get to learn much of that art from MeMe. I did enjoy baking with her, though, and she could make some of the best cakes, pies and cobblers ever to grace a covered-dish luncheon. Her signature dessert was her caramel cake. The soft yellow cake topped with thick and creamy icing melted in my mouth, causing my taste buds to explode with flavors of vanilla, condensed milk, butter and, of course, caramel. It wasn’t sticky like most people’s caramel cakes. The icing was a pale beige, not the dark brown like a store- bought cake. Everyone would beg MeMe to make her cakes for United Methodist Women meetings, Sunday school socials, Christmas parties and everything in between. The cake was so moist that no one realized MeMe used Betty Crocker mix. Her secret was to mix the batter twice as long as the box says. The cake will come out softer every time.
When MeMe wasn’t baking or gardening, she was immersing herself in God’s love by practicing it, reading about it and praying for it. MeMe was at Big Sandy United
Methodist Church whenever the doors were open, clad in her Sunday suits my parents would give her every Christmas. She sat on the third wooden pew and listened to the pastor’s message intently. She would remember everything and be ready to discuss the singing and the Scripture over country-fried steak at Sunday lunch. She read her Bible every day, writing notes in the margins with her wobbly cursive. I now use that same Bible and strive to read the Word with the same fervor she had for it even in her last years. She was like King David, truly after God’s own heart.
MeMe always thought of others before herself, doing practically anything to help someone else or make somebody happy. Even while suffering from arthritis, she would bend and crawl around her home with me in games of hide-and-seek. She drove her sisters around Tuscaloosa and Moundville in her banana-yellow Buick Century, chauffeuring them to their medical appointments and taking them to the hair dresser every Friday. Nothing could stop her from buzzing around town with her sisters, not even cataract surgery. She took Willardean and Nora to a doctor’s appointment before her eyes were completely healed. When my mother found out, she was infuriated, but MeMe insisted that Willardean told her when to go and when to stop.
“But she doesn’t know how to drive, Mother,” Mom said. “No, but she knows her colors,” MeMe replied nonchalantly. I know my MeMe is happy. I know she’s in heaven, where she can be in constant
praise and worship of God, but I’m still selfish. I want her to be here. I want her to see me graduate from college. I want her to see me get married. I want her to meet her great-grandchildren, but she never will. She crosses my mind every day, whether I’m
looking down the dusty, red dirt road to her old house or noticing a bush of blooming pink roses. The worst is when I dream about her, only to wake up in tears and realize it wasn’t real.
She was everything a grandmother was supposed to be and so much more.
When I roll out of bed to the sound of my blaring 8 a.m. alarm, I sometimes wish I could just sleep the day away. It is then I can hear that soft, gentle voice just above a whisper singing, “This is the day that the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it.”