I don’t remember seeing my Grandma Workman laugh, or even smile, until after Grandpa Workman passed away. I was around eleven when he died, but I barely remember his death—or him. But I recall that to me, he was a scary, cranky old man who didn’t seem to like children. Funny considering the fact that he and Grandma had nineteen children.
My daddy was the eldest. He was a good daddy, a kind, gentle man who didn’t have a mean bone in his body. I suppose he must have gotten his goodness from Grandma because to hear him tell it, Grandpa had a terrible temper. I recall my daddy telling a story once about Grandpa, something about him getting so mad at a horse that he practically beat it to death. But if Grandpa treated his children and wife like he treated that horse, Daddy never spoke of it—at least not that I know about.
Grandpa died in his seventies. My grandma lived into her eighties. And it was somewhere in that time when she lived alone, when she was free to be herself, that I really got to know her.
When we were in our early teens, too young to date but not too young to like boys, my cousins, sisters Lesa and Jennifer, (You have previously become acquainted with them if you’ve read “The Root House”) and I spent many Saturday nights at Grandma’s home. She’d sit cross-legged on the bed with us and talk about school, makeup, boys, whatever subject our featherbrained minds flitted upon. And even with her gray hair and wrinkles, she fit right in with us giggly girls. She took delight in our silly talk, her blue eyes sparkling like she was right in the thick of it with us—girls on the verge of becoming women. It was easy to forget she was our grandma.
Grandma’s house had two bedrooms, so we slept two to a bed, and we girls took turns on who had the honor of sleeping with Grandma—after we had talked ourselves out, which sometimes didn’t happen until the wee hours of the morning. No matter when we fell asleep, though, Grandma was an early riser, and we were up at the crack of dawn helping her fix breakfast. It was always the same: homemade biscuits, fried eggs, white gravy, and coffee. Grandma took her strong brew black, but Lesa, Jennifer, and I liberally laced ours with cream and sugar. Then, we tidied up the house and talked more.
I never thought about it at the time, but Grandma never had the chance to be a teenager, to be frivolous and lighthearted. She married Grandpa when she was thirteen. Child to wife, nothing in between. I don’t know how they managed it, but my daddy wasn’t born until Grandma was eighteen. Then it was one child after another. Nineteen children! I can’t even begin to imagine what that was like, always pregnant, always a baby at her breast. For over thirty years.
But you don’t ponder such things when you’re a fledging. You don’t think about your parents or grandparents as ever being young, walking the same path, thinking the same thoughts, having the same dreams as you. That comes after you are no longer young, after life has beat you down, and you realize that most of what you dreamed about, most of what you planted in the garden of your life is never going to bear fruit.
Then you wonder: Did Daddy’s life go the way he wanted it to? Did Mama ever dream of doing big things? Was Grandma happy with the hand fate had dealt her?
I don’t have the answer to any of those questions, and I never will. But I do know that for a couple of years, before Lesa, Jennifer and I moved on from just talking about boys to dating them, before we traded our Saturday nights with Grandma to Saturday nights with our boyfriends, we made her life exciting in a way she’d never experienced: we made her young again.
And it wasn’t all one-sided; she shared some of her experiences also: She and Grandpa fleeing West Virginia after Grandpa had beaten a man so severely that the man died. Their trip by covered wagon to Montana, where my daddy was born. The time she threatened to walk out on Grandpa, leaving him with the kids, if he didn’t stop drinking. (And it worked!)
Mostly though, she preferred talking about what was going on in my cousins and my lives. Through us, she lived the carefree, and sometimes heartbreaking, teenage years she never had.
But there are two things she told us girls that have stayed fresh in my mind for all these years. One was her telling us that Grandpa had never seen her in the altogether. Lord, did we ever wonder how they’d produced nineteen children, and he’d never seen her without clothes. And the one I still laugh about today. I can still hear her saying: “Girls, there’s nothing uglier on the face of this earth than a naked man.”
©2021 KT Workman
On a side note—the reason I used the image of an old woman’s bare feet is because I rarely saw Grandma Workman in shoes. One of my sharpest memories of her, second only to her grin that was so like my daddy’s, are her feet.