Family, Reflectionary

Things I Learned from Miss Emily

I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, lives in you.
2 Timothy 1:5, NRSV

I’m thinking ahead to Sunday, and my own grandmother is on my mind today. Here are a few things I learned from Miss Emily, not so much things she told me as thoughts derived from reflection on her life.

When you really enjoy something, celebrate it!

My grandmother, Emily, was born on Columbus Day in 1900, and that is the only thing about her that might be deemed politically incorrect. She loved the idea that her birthday was also a holiday, and she took great offense when Monday Holidays came into fashion. She even got married on the Saturday closest to her birthday, in 1919, long before the phrase "three day weekend" had been coined.

When you figure out your look, stick with it.

For my grandmother, that meant always wearing a hat and a pair of white gloves. She was not prissy, however, and could be seen picking up other people’s trash on the street outside our house, white gloves in place. She lived until 1985, and though her style had become quaint by that time, on her it looked commanding and purposeful. When the funeral director prepared her for burial, he suggested she wear her gloves, and we were grateful to him for thinking of it.

 Use your head.

My grandmother graduated from high school in 1918, a popular girl who starred in plays, recited at the drop of a hat and received numerous mentions in society write-ups. During World War I, her family took in boarders, including a gentleman from North Carolina who worked at the local paper. That gentleman wrote a letter to his brother, saying, "You must come here and meet the girl I am going to marry." His brother applied for a job at the paper, and he came to town, and as love would have it, he became my grandfather instead. But first, my great-grandparents sent my grandmother off to the mountains to college. For one semester. I imagine they hoped to postpone or even discourage the marriage.

They did not succeed. My grandmother lived the life of a popular young matron, wiling away the 1920’s playing Mah Jongg and attending coffees. Then her husband, ten years older and from all accounts a wonderful guy, wrote her a letter while away from home, saying, "You are so bright. I would like to see you use your mind for better things." (I’ve seen the letter.) She heard him. She took up community and church work in a serious way after that, and remained a promoter of reading and education and the improving of one’s mind.

 If something is worth doing, let nothing stand in your way.

My grandmother had two great loves in her community work: the schools and historic preservation. She served on the city School Board for many years, through the difficult times in which people of good conscience struggled against those who could not find their way to understanding that all children deserved more than an "equal" chance at education. Her belief in God informed her thoughts, an understanding that in God’s eyes all people have value and will not be separated for reasons of birth or heritage when we reach the divine schoolyard. Her opinions were not, to say the least, valued by everyone.

At the same time she believed in progress, she also believed in preservation. My favorite story about her involves the Crawford House, home of the original city father. Someone wanted to knock it down to build a bank. On the day the demolition was to occur, my grandmother, President of the Historical Society, stood in court a few blocks away asking a judge to stop this terrible act. He granted the building’s stay of execution, and my grandmother ran (in her gloves and hat) down High Street with the piece of paper in her hand. I wish I could tell you she succeeded. Sadly, she rounded the corner just in time to see the wrecking ball hit the house. But that story got people thinking, and in our hometown, other buildings avoided a similar fate because of my grandmother’s seemingly unsuccessful effort.

When you’re wrong, say so.

As a gently-raised person, my grandmother had expectations of young
people. I remember once being chided by her for not looking an older
person directly in the eye. While she was right about the outcome, her
method lacked her usual diplomacy. She proceeded to compare me to a
neighborhood child with perfect manners, saying "Why can’t you be more
like A.P? She is always so polite!" (Those are real initials, childhood
friend, and you will likely know who I mean!) But many years later,
when I was a young bride, my grandmother apologized to me. She
regretted those words many times over the years, she said, and wanted
me to know that she felt I had turned out well, much better than A.P.,
and she hoped I would forgive her. I found this admission amazing and
loving and humble and humbling.

A good friend is a friend for life.

My godmother and my grandmother were best friends. They met teaching
Vacation Bible School, one a young mother and the other a teenage girl,
sometime in the mid-1920’s. They worked together in the area of
Christian Education for many decades. My grandmother did not drive a
car; my godmother took her everywhere, and although she occasionally
grumbled about it to me in later years, they loved each other dearly.
When my godmother, nine years younger, became ill in her late 60’s and
went into a convalescent home, one she would never leave due to
arteriosclerosis, my grandmother remained her faithful companion. I
never felt closer to her than I did at my godmother’s graveside, when
my grandmother said to me, "You and I will miss her most of all."
"We’ll have to look out for each other now," I told her, and we did.

Sit as close to the front in church as you can. Sing loudly. Pray earnestly. Smile often.

My grandmother sat in the front pew at church, at least in my lifetime. She listened attentively, sang with gusto and prayed with all her heart and mind and strength. She would have been a terrific preacher, if she had been given the chance.  I like to think she would be pleased to see me sitting even further up front, singing and preaching and praying and smiling. 

19 thoughts on “Things I Learned from Miss Emily”

  1. This is lovely. What wonderful memories, and I think she would be proud of your writing as well as of your other accomplishments. I can just see her running down the street in her hat and gloves to save the Crawford House.

  2. Songbird, what a lovely, lovely post. One of the things I have treasured getting to read your work is the gentleness with which you write, whether it be about hard truths or wonderful people. Thank you.

  3. I love to read about other people’s wonderful grandmothers, as I had a very special one too. I too sit up front in church as close as I can (I like to see and hear!)

  4. What a lovely tribute. Your grandmother and my mom’s mom would have been great friends. Considering the era they both grew up in, with the Depression and the Dust Bowl and the much simpler, harder lives they faced every day, there’s great advice from them for sure.
    Thanks for sharing about her.

  5. I would have loved to meet Miss Emily — but I probably have in her granddaughter Songbird.
    There are those of us who must sit near the front to keep the building from leaning too heavily towards the back of the church. 🙂

  6. Miss Emily sounds like a fiesty sweetheart, and yes, I am sure she still smiles at the fact that you are way up front in the church now. ;c)

  7. Oh this makes my heart happy! What a wonderful post songbird. Is it not just amazing that we are pieces of all of the people that love/loved us?

  8. Just lovely – specially as I barely knew the one grandparent who survived into my childhood…I love the thought of you being even MORE in front- I’m sure Miss Emily is delighted. xxx

  9. I adored Miss Emily! I have a vivid memory of her standing in the overflow crowd outside the church at my father’s funeral wearing a light blue suit and gloves, elegant as always. And she was right – you turned out very well, A.P.’s elegant childhood manners notwithstanding.

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