I know I have single-handedly destroyed the stereotype that all Gay Men adore their Mothers. But I did adored my Grandmother and my Aunt Goldie. I am far from a misogynist.
I’ll write about Goldie later, but let me talk about Granny first.
My Grandmother- Granny- was my Mother’s Mother. Bertha Quintral Sigmon. Two women could not have been more different. For all the flighty, Southern Belle manipulations that personified my Mother, Granny offset them by being a totally down to earth realist.
She had to be…
She was from the hills of West Virginia. She lost her Mother, who died in childbirth, when she was 7 and started keeping house for her Father and brothers. She married at 13 and was a Mother herself not too many years later. She buried her first child, who died of jaundice, when they had no medical care.
She basically walked down from the hills with my Grandfather for him to find work in the Cotton Mills in Danville. She said it beat the coal mines. She said her hands used to be black from doing the laundry from the coal dust in the clothes. No one worried about “white lung” from the Cotton Mills then…
She had five other children. My Aunt Goldie was the next oldest, the first to live. She gave birth to her alone in a dirt floored cabin near Martinsville on the way to Danville in the 1920’s.
Then came my uncle, Wiseman Lafayette Sigmon. He turned out to be agoraphobic and didn’t leave the house for almost 40 years. That’s another post…
He was followed by Daniel, the laziest man who ever lived. Then came my Mother, Lou, who was the youngest until my uncle Samuel Jacob Sigmon was born when Lou was about 10. He was a surprise- Granny called him her “change of life” baby.
He replaced my Mother as the youngest and the favorite and she never got over it…
As tumultuous as life was in my Family’s house in Temple Terrace, I found grounding, grace and common sense at Granny’s.
Granny was uneducated. She could barely write a Grocery list and could read the Bible and the newspaper, but she said she didn’t really see much point in it. As I said, she was a realist.
But she was a Great Lady. She made everyone welcome and saw to it they were well fed and comfortable. People dropped in to her house all the time. She did not judge people. She rolled with the punches and kept her sense of humor.
She was the epitome of a Christian Lady, but she never stepped foot in a Church in all the years I knew her.
Her tastes were simple. She would wash and wear a couple of her dresses and night gowns over and over until they wore out. She did not see the point in messing up a lot of clothes even though she had new ones hanging in the closet.
She loved to sing and play the piano. Never had a lesson, but played better than I did…
She would stand up to bullies- and my parents- in a heart beat and you did not want to cross her. She could put both my Mother and my Father in their place like no one else I ever saw. She was a force of nature. My Father adored her. He said she was the only sensible woman he ever knew.
She grew a garden and cooked and canned the food she grew. That’s where I learned to respect what we now call “local food” and “sustainable living.”
She had a wicked sense of humor. She asked for binoculars for Christmas one year. We never understood why until she explained the college students renting the house across the street and a couple of doors up had wild parties. She saw people naked on the front porch one night and wanted to get a better look if it happened again.
She slammed the door in the face of missionaries and told them she was Jewish. My Grandfather, who was also a part-time Primitive Baptist minister, would not have been amused.
She took care of her family and her neighbors. She ministered to the sick. She wanted to spring my Father’s Mother from the State Mental Home, where my Mother had placed her, and bring her to live with her. She lost that battle. One of the few…
She thought my Father was a spoiled, only child with a bad temper that was only made worse by being married to my manipulative, pill of a Mother. She thought my Mother was a spineless, silly, social climber and had no patience for her. She thought they were two overgrown, irascible children who had no business being married to each other since all they did was fight and go shopping.
She took care of us- at least as I recall it- much more than my parents ever did.
My parent’s house was in Temple Terrace, a new post World War neighborhood of shiny new ranch houses, but I was far happier in Granny’s little house in the Mill Village. Before my sister was born, my Mother would drop me off there almost every day whether it was when she was working or because she had other things to do.
My Mother strictly forbade me from playing with the Mill Children. She considered them social inferiors-even though she was only barely first generation out. My Grandmother completely ignored her and I met some fascinating people there that I still love and respect to this day. Even if some of them no longer speak to me…
The people in the Mill Village were definitely different. Most of them were Pentecostal Holiness or some similar fundamentalist religion. That means they wore plain, home-made clothes, no jewelry or makeup, didn’t drink and couldn’t go to movies. All of this was absolutely foreign to me. Nothing like my Mother and her friends or the folks in Temple Terrace.
These people never could explain to me why they could watch movies on TV but not at the theatre. That’s when I first realized a lot of things about religion just didn’t make sense.
The plain, humble Pentecostal Holiness woman next door could sew beautifully. Using scarps from the Mill, she made clothes for Barbie dolls that were simply amazing. Strapless Silk cocktail dresses. Skirts with matching capes in polka dots and red velvet trim- perfect for traveling into New York on the train for a day in the City. Silk Barbie Bedclothes. Slinky black velvet evening dresses. Things she and her family could never wear, she made for those dolls and loved to see us play with them. Even if I was a boy…I think she was watching those movies on TV…
Granny loved the Jackson 5- especially the “Shake it, Shake it, Baby” part of, I think it was. “ABC”. She had some moves…
Later on, she would come to our house to cook dinner and stay to be there when we got home from school. She made my Father pay her. She said that it wasn’t her fault my Mother couldn’t keep a maid, so if she was going to be the substitute, she wanted the salary. She wasn’t going to put up with my Mother for free. And she expected to be picked up and taken home everyday. No bus for her.
I’ll never forget Granny was staying at our house in Temple Terrace with my Sister and I when we were young while my parents were in Miami at a convention. A tornado came through and my Grandmother stood in the living room and held the windows shut. By sheer willpower, I think. When my Mother called and she told her about it, all my Mother wanted to know was if the rain had gotten in and damaged her new custom-made drapes. Granny had to remind her she and her children were there also.
As time went on, my Mother decided I was a bad influence on my Grandmother. Especially during my teen years. The first time my Grandmother said: “Listen, Bitch…” to my Mother, Lou somehow knew it was my fault. Later, my Mother tried to make me stop going to the Liquor store for Granny as she said no 80-year-old woman needed that much bourbon for hot toddies for alleged sore throats and chest colds in the middle of the summer.
Granny practically ran a boarding house. Someone in the family was always getting into a fight with someone else and packing up and moving to her house for a while. I did it. My Sister did it. She thought it was no big deal. She already had Crazy Wiseman there, so she enjoyed a little less difficult company who would play cards, checkers and backgammon with her.
As long as you didn’t interrupt her soaps. She seemed to think they were real people and the world stopped when they were on.
When our dog had puppies, I made her take one. She cooked meals for that dog and, regardless of the weather, and walked them down to the dog house twice a day.
Eventually, she started to fail and had to go into the hospital, when she was 83, with congestive heart failure. This was also around the time of my senior year in college.
It was right before Christmas and she seemed to rally. My Mother, Lou, showed up at the hospital with a miniature, lighted Christmas tree and she and Granny had one of their final scenes.
My Mother was bursting with Christmas Cheer and using her phony, cheery, patronizing voice when she asked my Grandmother: “Moma, how are we feeling today?”
My Grandmother’s response was priceless: “Lou, how the hell do you think I feel? Stuck here in this hospital with people poking at me and waking me up at strange times. Not letting me get ready for Christmas. Eating this mess they call food…It’s a good thing you were pretty, because you were never my smartest child. Now get me back to my house!”
Instead, my Mother told Granny she had to come live with her. She put this woman, from the hills of West Virginia, in my sister’s bedroom. White and gold French Provincial furniture with dotted swiss pink bedspreads, pillows and canopy. I’ve only seen one other person look so horrified when they first saw that room and that was my Sister. God, it was awful. Too Sandra Dee for words. After my Father died, my Mother took it for herself…
My Mother went back to work and I stayed with Granny that afternoon. She gave me a two dollar bill and told me to keep it as it might be valuable one day. I still have it. It is.
Then she asked me to go get her some Butter Milk at the Winn Dixie.
I was gone about 15 minutes. When I got back, she was dead. I think she just decided if she was going to be forced to sleep on Princess bed in my Mother’s house, it was time to just move on the only way she could. Quietly and peacefully and with grace. She was just ready to go…
Everyone in the family told me how sad they were I found her. I never was. It just seemed right that I was the one to find her and have that last, special moment with a woman I loved so much.
A woman who taught me so much. A nurturing woman who did not judge. She just loved and lived fully and completely in her own time and place. She was comfortable in her skin and with who she was. She never tried or wanted to be anything other than who and what she was…
I might be much better educated, better dressed, better traveled and a little classier, but I’m still my Granny’s boy. I always will be. See, she’s the one who really knew how to act like a Mother. She’s the one I always ran to with my troubles. She’s the one who supported me and told me I was smart and would do okay.
And my own Mother hated it all so much because my Grandmother gave me what she couldn’t. It’s a wound that will never heal for her…
That’s how my Mother became “Lou” when I speak of her and to her. Not Mother. It just wasn’t her role and I never thought of her that way…And she knows it, or knew it and we could never fix it.
But that is life. We have to be who we are and be okay with both our strengths and successes and our weaknesses and failures. You have to take life as it comes and make the most of it while it’s happening. I learned that from Granny.
I was lucky to have Granny and, in very different ways, lucky to have Lou. And Goldie.
Two of the three were complicated women who didn’t get to play the roles they thought they should play in life.
Only my Granny played the role she was born to play. And was happy to play it…
As a post script: I actually just made a new discovery relating to Granny and the family. While writing this, I Googled Granny’s maiden name to double-check the spelling and it is of Spanish derivation. We never heard of any Spanish influence in the family, but when I had my family history DNA done at National Geographic a couple of years ago, it showed a strain of the family had come from Spain. That was a mystery. Now I know where it came from…and it raises more questions…
I also found that her maiden name means “mistletoe.”
It seems appropriate that she was named for a plant people stand under and kiss…