My grandmother, Miz Lena, was one of the strongest people I've ever known. She was a proud Middle Tennessee lady who never quit at anything. I only remember her crying twice. Once was when my mother died. The other time was in the mid-'80s. She was frustrated and confused. There was something wrong with her. She was forgetting things.
I was in Los Angeles. I called her every Sunday. Over the phone, she sobbingly told me, "Honey, I kaint think straight."
She had no way of knowing that she was in the first stages of the most awful disease that God allows to exist: Alzheimer's. Grand Mom was in her mid-70s and still building houses. I told her that she needed to slow down and stop working so hard. Eliminate unnecessary stress.
She gave me an earful, "Oh really? You think I'm some Jackie Kennedy? Just lay up in bed and ring me a little bell and be waited on hand and foot? Baby, I got to work. I got bills to pay. Adrian's health is failing, and he don't know nothin' about collectin' his money owed to him."
Adrian was my grandfather, a very successful architect. He and my grandmother had amassed a small fortune. They didn't owe anybody anything.
She continued, "What we gonna do if he comes up sick? He don't exercise. Just sits up there in his chair pickin' his feet and watchin' that wrestlin'. Eatin' all them sweets. Stuffin' hisself. He's a biscuit away from a heart attack. No, umh umh, Honey, I got to make sure we have enough to get by."
There was no talking her out of it. She was country. You just keep working. I think she built a couple more houses before she was forced to quit.
It was in the mid-'50s, on a Sunday afternoon in late spring. My grandparents were on their way back from inspecting one of Grand Dad's building projects outside of Memphis. They were in my grandfather's Buick. A drunk truck driver came barreling over the hill, swerved over the center line and hit them head-on.
Miraculously, my grandfather escaped with very little injury. Upon impact, Grand Mom was slammed to the back of the car into the trunk. They had to blow-torch her out. Both of her legs were crushed. Her left arm was broken in several places. Her back was broken. The doctors had to remove part of her stomach, and she was left paralyzed from the chest down.
Her right arm, somehow, still worked. And she lived.
I remember when she first came home from the hospital. They put her in her bed in the back of the house. Grand Dad and Elizabeth, my grandmother's maid, sat by her bedside and wept. I stood behind them. Grand Mom was very weak and frail.
Miz Lena had been in the hospital for several months. They wanted her to stay longer, but Miz Lena was having nothing to do with that. As a matter of fact, she told her doctor that she felt like she would "die in this place if I have to eat anymore of that mess yore tryin' to pass off as food. Somebody around here needs to go to jail for impersonatin' a cook."
She got herself home.
Grand Mom looked up and said, "Elizabeth, go look in my bag and git me that red ball and bring it back here to me. And stop all that cryin. We hadn't got time for no crybabies now. And Adrian, same goes for you. Look at yore grandson here. Only 9 years old. He ain't cryin'. Butch, come over here and sit down with me for a little bit."
That was my family nickname. My siblings still call me Butch.
Elizabeth returned with a red rubber ball, a little smaller than a baseball. She handed it to me. Grand Mom said, "Elizabeth, could you get me and Butch a peanut butter and blackberry jelly sandwich? And a glass of milk, Lizzy. Take Adrian with you."
When we were alone, Grand Mom asked me to place the ball in her right hand. As weak as she was, there was a twinkle in her eyes. She began to squeeze the ball. Miz Lena asked me, "Honey Baby, do you know how to count to a hundred?" I did. She told me, "Well, we're gonna squeeze this ball hundreds of times a day, and sooner or later, I'm gonna get up outta this bed and git back to work."
Prior to the accident, Miz Lena purchased a farm, subdivided it and had begun to build "spec houses." She threatened Grand Dad with "no supper" if he didn't draw up the blueprints of the houses for her.
A few months passed. She had Clarence and Ole Tom, two black men who had worked on her farm for years, carry her on a cot down to her construction sites.
With her flat on her back, her one good arm and the muscle of Clarence and Ole Tom holding her up high, she belted out instructions and warnings to her builders, She said, "Looka here, you call that a straight line? Who the Sam Hill put this Sheetrock up in the guest bath? That's gonna cost somebody to be workin' this weekend."
She was some kinda lady. A little thing, about the height of my wife, Jana. Not quite 5'2". Just a little over a year after the accident, Miz Lena was up on her feet and with full use of all her limbs. No telling how many times she squeezed that red rubber ball. She moved a little slower and had a slight limp. Still, she was out of bed and mobile.
Miz Lena ended up building over 100 homes in Middle Tennessee. From the day my grandmother returned home from the hospital up until right now, I decided that it would take a lot to make me cry. If my grandmother could deal with the pain, so could I. Those who know me well know that I don't cry much.
But, I must admit, as I write this piece about my dynamic little grandmother, it chokes me up a little. Miz Lena taught me a lot about fighting back and never giving up. I can still hear her say, "If you quit, you lose, and then all of it was for nothin'."
I doubt heaven has changed her that much. I bet she's got her to-do list out and keeping a flock of angels on their toes and very busy.
God bless all grandmothers.