April has been a sad month in my past. My mother died in April of 1977 when I was 14. And near the end of the month two years later, when I was 16, I found myself facing another sadness. My grandmother’s life was ending, and I was entering the hospital in Lexington, Kentucky to visit with her. I knew I would never see her again. I was still grieving the loss of my mother and now I was losing my mother’s mother.
I had been told by my Aunt Virginia what to expect, but nothing had really prepared me for what I saw when I opened the door and walked into her room. It was dim, the slanted rays of the sun sliding through the blinds of the large window was the only light, and it was casting thin horizontal stripes of light and shadow on her bed. She was motionless, lying on her back, her hands by her side and her head half-sunken into a pillow. A crisp white sheet was pulled up to just below her chin. Her arms were outside of the sheet and various IV’s were inserted into her arms and other monitors were attached to her fingers. A screen above her head registered a heartbeat, making little beeping sounds. Her eyes were closed. When I said softly “It’s Jeffrey, grandmother, I’m here” her eyes opened and with her head remaining motionless, they searched the room, trying to find me. I walked to the side of her bed so she could see me. Tubes were entering her body through her nose, preventing her from speaking, but I could see so much emotion in her eyes. The eyes can convey emotion that a voice cannot, and I realized at once that she was very happy to see me, that she was embarrassed for me to see her in that condition, and she was sad to realize we would never see each other again.
A serious infection was slowly spreading throughout her body, and no medication could stop it. Nothing could be done except to try and make her comfortable as she waited to die.
It was difficult to understand how something like that could render my grandmother helpless. To me, she had always seemed big and strong and sturdy, like a mountain.
At my grandmother’s funeral, someone asked if she and I had been close. Without missing a beat, my aunt spoke up. “They were like two peas in a pod.” And it was true, I dearly loved my grandmother. She was very special to me, and I think we enjoyed a tight bond that many grandchildren never experience with a grandparent. From the time I was 8 or 10, I spent a week with her every summer. Sometimes other cousins were there, but usually she and I were alone, and those were the times I liked best.
She lived in a very small house in the very small town of Mousie, in eastern Kentucky. It’s a coal-mining town, surrounded by mountains, and the big trucks loaded down with the black chunks of freshly-mined coal would pass by the house day and night, leaving coal dust in their wake. It was like another world to me, not a particularly pretty world, but one that was unique and even exciting. It was a poverty-stricken area where no one had much money, and some of the houses were little more than tar-paper shacks. My grandmother’s house only had three rooms, but it was neat and tidy and she made sure her lawn was mowed. I heard her say once that people can’t help being poor but they can keep their houses and yards clean. The house behind her could only be reached by crossing a narrow swinging bridge that straddled a creek. It was rickety and could only hold one person at a time. At the other end, a dirt path led up the mountainside to the house which could barely be seen through the trees. Many times I saw the people who lived up there walking to and from their house, single file, the parents in front and the children following behind.
The residents of that community were very different from people I knew at home. They spoke in a very thick mountain accent that was strange to my ears and was sometimes hard to understand. I read once that in some isolated pockets of Appalachia, the accent can be traced back to Elizabethan England. And the names also sounded odd to me. The woman who lived next door on one side was Laney and on the other side lived Deard and Gurlie Campbell. Up the road was Perl and his wife Lee Esther. And a little further up the road was a man named Bee Martin. When the Campbells re-located to another house, an old woman named Lessie moved in. I remember meeting two of my mother’s cousins, the Sloane sisters, Herma Etta and Silva Grace. My grandmother’s name was Opsie, which would have sounded unusual in any other place, but there it seemed to fit right in. I researched the name once and found out that it is a very old name from Cornwall.
All but one of her children had moved to distant places to raise their families, and the grandchildren were being brought up in cities such as Washington DC, Dayton, Ohio and San Francisco. Those grandchildren probably felt rather awkward and out of place when visiting Mousie and were eager to return to civilization. But I felt differently. I looked forward to summer vacations with my grandmother and I always cried a little when I had to go home.
Grandmother was a large, big-boned woman, standing five-foot-six in her stocking feet and probably weighing 200 pounds, if not a little more. She was not sophisticated. She lacked social graces and had only gone as far as the 7th grade, but she was very smart in her own special way. She spoke very plainly and always got right to the point. She was also very religious and belonged to what was called The Old Regular Baptist Church. It is a primitive form of the Baptist faith that is prevalent in eastern Kentucky. Its churches are known for their day-long services in which people shout and yell, speak in tongues, jump up and down and generally wear themselves out. The women are also not permitted to use make-up, cut their hair or wear slacks. My grandmother followed those directives and wore her hair in a big bun at the back of her head, held in place by a thousand bobby pins! On the rare occasions when I was privy to the pinning-up routine, I marveled at the way her grey-blonde hair flowed down across her shoulders to the middle of her back.
My mother could hardly wait to leave that church when she grew up, and most of her brothers and sisters also left that restrictive religion as soon as they could. But my grandmother was a life-long member and I’ll never forget how the preachers shouted as they delivered the sermons at her funeral.
Another clear memory is my grandmother cooking. She spent a lot of time in her little kitchen and would create simple but delicious meals. There was a good-sized garden in her back yard that produced a great bounty of vegetables. I can remember sitting on the back steps, shucking corn and hulling peas for that evening’s supper. She was particularly good at making desserts and I have never tasted a chocolate pie as good as the ones that came out of her oven. But my favorite of her creations was what she called a stack cake. It sounds simple – several layers of thin cake, similar to gingerbread, with applesauce spread between each layer – but the instant a fork-full of that cake was put into my mouth, I was transported to some far-off place where pleasure cannot be measured. She never let anyone cut the cake until it had set for a day and the applesauce (lightly flavored with cinnamon) had soaked into the layers. Perhaps that was the secret. I’ll never know because she didn’t leave any recipes behind. I always begged her to make one of those cakes whenever I visited, and she never disappointed me.
She always seemed to be happy, but I know that she had suffered a great deal of sadness in her life. She had lost two children, one as an infant in 1938 and one as an adult (my mother). And her marriage had been fraught with disappointment and heartache. My grandfather, an alcoholic coal miner, would disappear for weeks or months at a time, then show up drunk and beat up his wife and threaten his children. They married in 1933, divorced sometime in the 1950s, re-married in the early 1960s and were divorced again by 1970. But through it all, she never seemed to stop loving him. His name was Estill Huff, and when he died in 1977, at the age of 70, she sat up all night in the church next to his coffin.
I had heard many stories of his drinking and abuse from my mother and one day when I was alone with my grandmother, I asked her why she stayed with him for so long. She told me that fairly early in their marriage, after their first two children were born, he was drinking heavily and had given her more than one black eye. He had even slapped his oldest daughter so hard “that water ran out of her nose.” She said she had made up her mind to take her girls and leave him, and she was just waiting for the right moment. They were living at the time in a small house in one of the deep hollers that are so common in that area. They are narrow valleys with high hills and mountains on either side, and there is always a small burbling stream meandering through the middle.
One day, after my grandfather had been gone for almost a week and grandmother had decided the time for leaving was right, a fierce storm settled over the mountains. The heavy rain lasted for several hours and the water rushed down from the high places and swelled the small stream into a raging torrent. A flash flood ripped through the holler.
“Before I had time to get out of the house, the water was up to the door,” grandmother said, “and then it was inside and up to the windows. There was no way I could get out, so I took the girls and put them on top of the kitchen counter and hoped the water would not get any higher, but it kept rising. I thought we were going to drown, and there was nothing I could do.”
Over the sound of the rushing water, grandmother suddenly heard someone shouting her name. It was her husband. Alarmed by the rising floodwater, he had sobered up and fought his way through the current toward the house.
“I looked out and I could see that he was holding onto whatever he could – a fence post, a tree trunk – and getting closer to the house. He finally reached an open window and yelled for me to hand him the girls one at a time. They were crying and terrified but I finally convinced Virginia to climb into my arms, and I carried her to the window and handed her to Estill. She sat on his shoulders as he managed to make his way to the edge of the yard where there was a risin’ of land and it was dry. He sat her down carefully, kissed her and came back for Louise. When the girls were both safe and dry, he came back for me. I was too heavy for him to carry, but he held onto me as we walked toward the hill. The water was dark and swift and I felt things hitting my legs, but we reached the dry land and Estill started crying like a baby. He said he thought we were dead. I realized that he really did love me and the girls and I just couldn’t leave him.”
It is a shame that the experience didn’t change my grandfather’s life. It did not take him long to revert to his old ways. But he had saved the life of his wife and children, and so perhaps he earned a place in heaven on that day.
My mother’s death was particularly hard on her, and her loud sobbing during the funeral is something I will never forget. When my father married again a few months later, grandmother was not especially happy, but took the news in her stride, sending a note of congratulations. She wanted to like my father’s new wife, but my step-mother did not make that easy. The first Christmas after they were married, dad decided to introduce his new wife to his former mother-in-law. A few presents were put in the car and we drove from Tennessee to Kentucky.
Grandmother had prepared a hearty luncheon and greeted my step-mother with a smile and a friendly handshake. She was obviously trying hard to alleviate any awkwardness, but my step-mother looked uncomfortable. She spoke very little and held onto my father. In fact, she held onto him in a way that sent a very clear message that he was hers! She stroked his hair, leaned into him as they sat on the sofa and nuzzled her head against his neck. I learned later that after we left, grandmother called my aunt and said “they acted like teenagers who have the hots for each other!” She said she was tempted to ask if they wanted to be alone in the bedroom! My step-mother was never invited back. Fortunately, I was invited back, and I was able spend more time enjoying her company and hearing her stories.
But on that April afternoon in 1979, there were no more stories for her to tell. It was her turn to listen, and as she looked at me, her clear blue eyes showing emotions she could not express, I told her how much I loved her and how much I would miss her and how much I had enjoyed her stack cake and chocolate pie. I told her that my mother was waiting for her “and I know that you and mom will be waiting for me. It might be 60 years until I get there, but for you it might only be the blink of an eye.”
Her eyes were glazed with tears, but they were smiling.
She died two weeks later.
At her funeral, I listened as the pastors named the many virtues of Opsie Grigsby Huff. They said she was a loving mother, a doting grandmother, a helpful neighbor, a loyal church member, a hard worker and a thoroughly good person who never thought ill of anyone. I dearly loved my grandmother and thought that the pastors had described her very well, but was it true that she had never thought unkindly toward anyone? I didn’t think so. In fact, I was quite certain that she had harbored some unkind feelings toward one person in particular, and it wasn’t her alcoholic and abusive husband. It was her mother.
I always enjoyed talking to my grandparents about their childhood and their parents and grandparents. My Grandmother Carrier waxed nostalgic whenever she would talk about her mother and father, and there was warmth in Grandmother Huff’s voice when she reminisced about her father, Elijah Grigsby, who had died in 1942. She told me how much he loved his grandchildren and always had several straddling his knees. But when I asked about her mother, my great-grandmother, she didn’t have much to say. For a long time, all I knew was that her name was Jenny and that her maiden name was Messer.
One day I asked my mother about her grandmother Grigsby and she was also vague. She had no memory of ever seeing her and said she was sometimes mentioned when older relatives were visiting but always in whispers. Mother said it was though her grandmother was a mysterious figure whose dark shadow fell over the whole family.
I also asked my beloved Aunt Virginia about her and the fragments of information she gave me made me even more curious. Just like my mother, Aunt Ginny had never met her grandmother Grigsby, and when I suggested she might have died before the grandchildren were born, she said no, that her grandmother had died much later. “I was out of high school and living in Ohio when my grandmother died,” she said. “It was a surprise to me because I knew nothing about her, but mommy mentioned it one of her letters.”
When I was a sophomore in high school, just a few months before my dear grandmother died, the history teacher asked us to create our family tree. My father had spent a lot of time tracing his ancestors, so one side of my tree was very healthy with many limbs and branches that stretched to the top of the large sheet of paper. But the other side had a withered look, with only two small sprouts, my grandmother and grandfather. During Christmas break I spent a few days with my grandmother and I told her about the school project and asked for her help.
She had an amazing mind for details and gave me the names of her grandparents, several uncles and aunts, a few great aunts and great uncles and even a couple of her great-grandparents. She also wrote down the names of her brothers and sisters and her parents. “I’ve heard a lot about of your father,” I said. “But I don’t know anything about your mother.” Her eyes looked toward the floor and a solemn expression crossed her face. “I don’t like to talk about that.”
“Please, grandmother, do tell me,” I pleaded. “I really want to know about her.”
~ ~ ~
When my grandmother was born in 1909, the primary industry in that area of Kentucky was mining. Southeastern Kentucky, with its high mountains and deep narrow valleys, is not an area suitable for farming or other agricultural concerns, but it has plenty of coal. The mountains are criss-crossed with wide veins of it, and a century ago coal was in great demand. Coal burning plants supplied electricity for cities all across the nation, it powered the engines of locomotives, was delivered to homes through coal chutes to be burned in furnaces and was shipped to countries all over the world. Coal mines went deep into every mountain in areas of Kentucky, Virginia, Pennsylvania and West Virginia, but it was not a fair industry. The miners were mired in poverty while the mine owners got rich.
My grandmother married a miner but she did not come from a coal-mining family. Old census records list “cooper” as her father’s profession, which means he made barrels for a living. And he must have been very successful. With poverty being so prevalent in that area, he was able to send five of his children to college, very unusual for that time and place. My grandmother had three brothers and two sisters, and all five of them were college-educated. And they all became teachers. She was the fifth of six children, the youngest daughter.
Something must have happened to the economy in that region after World War I because in 1919 several Kentucky families migrated to Oklahoma, some to work in the oil fields and others, like my grandmother’s family, to work in cotton fields and nut orchards. Grandmother said they traveled by train, which must have been exciting for a ten-year-old. The family homesteaded on a piece of land near Stroud, a few miles from Oklahoma City, where they intended to make a new life for themselves tending orchards of walnut and pecan trees. The first year must have been a happy one for them, but problems appeared in 1920.
“My mother started acting strange,” grandmother told me. “She couldn’t sleep and would get up in the middle of the night and walk from room to room, complaining that the top of her head was burning like it was on fire. And she was always scared that someone was prowling around outside in the dark. Everything frightened her and she was very nervous.”
Her odd behavior became even more intense, which concerned her husband. After several months, he decided that she was suffering from extreme homesickness, so in 1921 he packed up the family and moved back to Kentucky. Grandmother was 12 and had just finished the seventh grade.
“We thought that mother would be fine after we got back home,” grandmother continued. “But it made no difference. Some days she would stay in the bedroom all day, staring out the window and not talking to anyone. On other days she would be angry for no reason and would yell at everybody. And then she started going outside and wandering away and getting lost. Neighbors would find her and bring her home.”
In the early fall of 1921, when the school term was about to begin, the problem became a crisis. Jenny could not be controlled. She didn’t recognize her own husband or her children and would lash out anyone who tried to touch her. She was examined by a doctor who insisted that she be admitted to a mental hospital for treatment. She was sent to the Eastern State Hospital in Lexington, the second-oldest mental institution in the United States, which had opened in 1817. It is still in operation today.
As was often the case at that time during a family crisis, the youngest daughter was asked to take on the responsibilities of running the house. With her oldest brother already married, an older brother in college and her older sisters (who were twins) preparing to graduate from high school, 12-year-old Opsie had to drop out of school to do the cooking and the cleaning. She wanted to continue with her education, like her older siblings, but she did not have a choice.
Her mother stayed for a year in the institution and was then allowed to come home for a visit. She had improved considerably and it was hoped that she could resume her life as wife and mother. No one wished for that more than my grandmother, who was desperate to go back to school. But it was not to be.
After a few days, Jenny slipped back into a mental fog and became violent.
“She attacked my father with a pair of scissors and tried to kill him,” grandmother said as she re-lived the painful memory. “I was the only other person in the house so I ran outside and screamed for help. Two men came running and it took both of them to pull mother off of him.”
Jenny was subdued and within hours was on her way back to the institution. That was 1922, and she stayed there for the rest of her life, until she died in 1955 at the age of 80. She never saw any of her family again and none of them ever visited her. She was shut away and forgotten. But Elijah never divorced her and when he died, he was still carrying her picture in his wallet.
My grandmother was never able to complete her education which greatly limited her opportunities. What could a woman in 1930 do if she had not gone beyond the 7th grade? She married a man who was probably beneath her socially, and she settled into a life of poverty and hardship. But despite that, she was a good mother and she instilled within her children an appreciation for education and a desire to seek a better life than the coalfields of Kentucky could offer.
As she was telling me the story, I detected a note of bitterness and resentment that she had probably tried to hide for years. It seemed to me that she was angry that her mother’s mental illness had forced her into a life she would not have chosen.
If I could go back to that day when I was alone with my grandmother at her kitchen table and hearing that tragic story, I would take her hand, kiss her cheek and tell her that I am glad that her life unfolded the way it did because had she not made that sacrifice, I might not be alive. When I drew my family tree, it was well balanced with tall branches on each side, and I was given an “A”. I was eager to show it to my grandmother, but she died before she could see it. After many hours of on-line research, I have been able to add even more branches to that tree and it now reaches three hundred years into the past.
Whenever I look at all of those names and see Jenny Messer Grigsby, I think of a woman whose mental breakdown put my grandmother’s life on a path she did not want, but a path that made my own life possible.