Our Southern Grandmothers Deserve a Celebration and Here's Why
Celebrating the women who keep the world in perspective.
Last year, I was asked to give a speech in Nashville for a few hundred folks at a luncheon hosted by Crissy Haslam, the first lady of Tennessee. The crowd was pretty intimidating, and I was a little nervous, so I called my grandmother in Memphis, whom we call Mamau, looking for some advice. As usual, she had a zinger at the ready: "Oh, don't worry about it, honey. They'll forget everything you said in a day or two."
This was classic Mamau, also known as Heloise, who at 94 years old still has the sharpest wit of anyone in the family. Born and raised in Montgomery, Alabama, she was the youngest of six, four of whom were boys, so she had to fend for herself. She also came of age during World War II, marrying a fighter pilot and raising three children, including my mother. There are 7 grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren now, and she has photos of every one of us taped to her refrigerator, right next to a picture of an old woman lifting some barbells that says, "Put me in a home, I'll put you in the ground."
As the editor of Southern Living, I'm probably expected to say I have memories of standing at her side while she made layer cakes or buttermilk biscuits or pecan pies, but that wasn't her thing. Mamau always kept her cooking simple, and in our house, she was known for making the best grilled cheese on the planet. She had one of those old-school electric waffle irons with interchangeable plates, which made her grilled cheese taste exotic, even though it was just two slices of buttered bread with a Kraft Single. I must have had hundreds of them, with Ruffles potato chips, sitting at her kitchen table.
Though she doesn't make those grilled cheeses anymore, I still call her for advice, as do all of her children and grandchildren. Somehow she seems to weather storms better than any of us, which I suppose is a matter of practice. Years ago, when she was having an unpleasant surgery, her doctor was asking about her medical history.
"Do you smoke?" he asked.
"No," she answered.
"Have you ever smoked?"
"When did you quit?"
"Three days ago."
"Well, when did you start?"
"When I was 16."
"Wait a minute," the doctor replied. "You're telling me you've smoked for 70 years, and you've never had surgery?"
"I wanted to try everything," she said.
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When I'm having a bad day, I always try to remember that story, or I just pick up the phone and give her a call. As for Mother's Day—which I'm celebrating with a mimosa brunch menu and a enjoying a series of essays from writers who recall their mother's best recipe—Mamau won't expect her kids to throw a party or shower her with gifts, but she does enjoy a good long visit at the kitchen table over a bag of Ruffles. In my book, there's nothing better. Happy Mother's Day!