We called her Mammaw. Until I was ten, I spent at least one night a week in the house she shared with Granddaddy, but I didn't know anything about her until after she died.
From the years she was alive, I remember her as dark-eyed, quiet and stern. I don't remember ever hearing her laugh. I never saw her read a book except the Bible. I remember eating breakfast in the kitchen where she fried perfectly the brown eggs my red hen laid in the chicken house out back. In the summer, I picked strawberries with her in the kitchen garden beside the house, and she scolded me for eating too many.
I always felt dismissed by my grandmother, as if she considered me too dreamy, too insubstantial to bother with. She didn't know that during all those hours I spent wandering the rooms of her house, I was paying absolute attention. And no matter how hard I looked, I couldn't really see her.
After Mammaw died and Granddaddy moved to town, he put all her things in the drawers of a bureau, a classic 1950s vanity with a large mirror, a deep center drawer and smaller side drawers. Every time I visited him in his new house on Church Street, I spent a good hour sifting through the contents of that drawer, examining the souvenirs of Mammaw's life, cut short by cancer of the colon and no small amount of despair.
The drawers smelled like powder, the highly perfumed kind that ladies of that era dusted beneath their chins, between their breasts. Inside were Christian pamphlets of a particularly fervent variety with illustrations of devils, drooling with greed and evil. I found ledgers with expenses detailed in shaky handwriting, line-by-line, down to the last penny. I found school photos of pale Sunday School kids with missing teeth, signed on back in childish loops: To Sister Carpenter. Love.
I coveted two items from Mammaw's bureau, both extraordinarily feminine and delicate. One was a smart-looking, plastic, blue high-heel shoe, the color of the sky, with a pin cushion where a curved, tiny foot and ankle should have been. The other was the china head of a woman with dangly pearl drop earrings, her gloved hand resting lightly against her rouged cheeks. Atop her head, an arrangement of artificial flowers bloomed. I tried to find something of my grandmother in those drawers, and took to bed with me the images of the shoe and the china lady, the powder smell.
My mother and great-aunt Ida, Granddaddy's sister, said Mammaw wasn't a very good cook or housekeeper, and I took their word for it. When she died, she left each of the three daughters in my family one thing. I was given her Singer sewing machine, still in the box it came in, never used. I kept it until I lived in my third adult home, never took it out of the box, never threaded the bobbin and finally sold it in a yard sale one year when I was hard-up for money.
As I grew older, stories of Mammaw surfaced. My mother mentioned her "female troubles." Aunt Ida talked about how shamelessly she spoiled her only child, Billy, my father. There were intimations of slight mental illness, vague recollections of times when she ran away from Granddaddy's house to spy on Mama and Daddy in their town, 30 miles up the road.
Finally, after I moved out West, I met a second cousin who seemed to know something about my grandmother. Her mother was Mammaw's sister, and she had visited many times the family home in Trigg County, Kentucky, where my grandmother, Louise Thomas, grew up.
"Aunt Louise was soooo smart," my newfound cousin announced, a description of Mammaw I had never heard. "She was the smartest of all the girls."
"Really?" I asked, wanting to hear more.
"When she was just out of high school, she taught the younger children in the school there," my cousin told me.
I was stunned. Later I tried to imagine my grandmother's frustration -- the budding schoolteacher who ended up running a grocery store alongside her husband, then slopping hogs, then passionately lost in a fundamentalist Southern Baptist congregation, then sick, then dead. Her boy, Billy, I knew, was probably her only joy past those few days of promise, teaching the local schoolchildren.
When Granddaddy died, I found among his few boxes of possessions, the plastic blue shoe. I kept it to remind me that we are often not the way we look, that before our lives come dreams, and that sometimes life just eats them all up.