My mother-in-law was a strong and independent woman before women were supposed to be strong and independent.
Tennessee Pitts — isn’t “Tennessee” the best name ever? — passed away last week at age 95. She was born in 1918 — a year when folks used horses to get around, electricity was an out-of-reach luxury and World War I ended as an equally devastating flu pandemic began.
And American women couldn’t vote. Or, in many states, own property, keep the money they earned or divorce their husbands. And while American law and culture began to accept and acknowledge (shamefully, only white) women as Tennessee and the 20th-century grew older, a woman who wanted her own career faced plenty of challenges.
That was my mother-in-law, who lived a remarkable life of her own choosing in a time and place when most women couldn’t. Growing up in a large family on a middle Tennessee farm as her parents and their parents did before her, she married straight out of high school. But then the story gets interesting. When she discovered her young husband had been unfaithful, she made three decisions: To get a divorce, to get a job so she could support herself and to become a nurse. She did all three, taking classes in sheet metal to secure a “Rosie Riveter” job building fighter jets in Nashville and enrolling in the newly formed Cadet Nurses Corps. that the U.S. government organized to fill nursing shortages. As a registered nurse, she worked almost 30 years at the Veterans Administration hospital in Murfreesboro, Tenn., where she met Roscoe Pitts. They married in 1949 and eight years later, my husband was born. After her husband died in 1984, Tennessee moved from the family farm to a condo in town and indulged in her loves of traveling, reading and baking “treats” for friends and family. She loved her son and was fiercely proud of him. Self-sufficient and practical, she was not pleased when a stroke slowed her down in 2003. And although her doctor suggested in 2007 that we plan her funeral after a kidney infection, she — as usual — stuck to her own schedule.
I didn’t know her well. My husband and I dated in college but I only met her a few times then. And he and I reconnected a couple of years before her stroke, although a friend of hers told me this weekend that Tennessee had said she liked me and thought my (then-teenage) daughters were sweet. By the time she had to live in a nursing home, she’d forgotten I was her daughter-in-law and saw me as a nice friend who stopped by to visit. But I’ll take it. High praise from a woman who pretty much faced down a wandering husband, World War II and the health-care industry — and won.
Only a 5-year-old boy would have the good taste to request his mom’s Perfect Strawberry Shortcake Pancakes for his birthday dinner — accented with Star Wars decor, of course. Older Daughter obligingly whipped up a batch while Younger Daughter sliced the berries and made sweetened and real whipped cream. Family and friends sat down to the feast, even husband JP, who although he’s successfully sticking to a low-carb eating plan, cheerfully made an exception for Older Grandson’s birthday party. It’s what grandparents do. And only a 5-year-old boy would request the following for his special day: A trip to a nearby state park to explore a cave, a visit to the local children’s science museum, a pogo stick, Legos (always on any list he makes) and a dinosaur model that includes bones, muscles and a pink squishy stomach and other mysterious parts. Of course, all requests were granted.
My phone conversation this morning with Older Daughter, mom to our almost-5-year-old and 14-month-old grandsons, went something like this:
Her: Guess what? We got a new cat.
(Background noise of chairs screeching and children running.)
Me: A new cat?
Her, in a slightly raised voice, to the boys: You all let Tootsie go in Mommy and Daddy’s room to rest for a minute.
Her, to me: Yup, a new …
Her, to Older Grandson: Please take the laser pointer out of your nose.
Her, to me: … cat. She’s black and …
Her, to Older Grandson: If you point the laser at your brother, you’re going to your room and I’m taking it away.
Her, to me: … and white and 3-years …
Her, to Younger Grandson: No-no. Pulling the kitty’s tail is not nice.
Her, to me: … old and very friendly and ..
(More background noise of chairs screeching and children running with addition of frenzied meowing.)
Her, to Younger Grandson: Maybe the kitty cat doesn’t want to be chased anymore.
Her, to me: I think I need to call you back.
If my New Year’s resolutions were to watch football and stake out the coziest corner of the couch, then Jan. 1 was a success — although my beloved SEC took a hit as both LSU and Mississippi State LITERALLY dropped the ball(s), leaving Georgia and Vandy to represent so far. Now, since I am lazy lucky enough to work part-time in places that sensibly close during the holidays, it’s back to work for me after a two-weeks vacation. My family had a super Christmas. Hope yours did the same. I did discover that my children are sneaky — Older & Younger Daughter conspired to give me an iPad for Christmas and kept the secret (after bringing husband JP into the loop) ever since Black Friday, when my son-in-law apparently was conscripted to stand in line for it after Older Daughter came down with the flu. And you know I try not to be materialistic and to believe in the simple things of love and laughter, but the iPad is THE BEST THING EVER. Ever. It only leaves my hands when it’s time to finish leftover Christmas cookies. Also, husband JP took note of my Amazon wish list and I now have a gorgeous Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired business-card holder and a lotion warmer that is the most luxurious thing ever and makes me think that perhaps a towel warmer is next. And then my mom gave us a monogrammed doormat, not knowing that JP only tolerates the open-scrollworked metal one we have now because although I think it’s the coolest doormat ever and totally says who we are as soon as you come to our front door, it does leave rust marks all over the porch’s concrete floor. So everybody was happy. And that’s a pretty good start to 2013.
Husband JP and I were lucky enough to be invited to Thanksgiving dinner with Older Daughter’s in-laws, who pretty much set the standard for Southern hospitality and generosity. Not to mention incredibly good food — melt-in-your-mouth smoked turkey, Older Daughter’s signature corn casserole, homemade sourdough rolls and that broccoli salad with onions and grapes I love but never make myself were only a few of the highlights, along with JP’s favorites of deviled eggs and green-bean casserole. After we rolled ourselves away from the table, it was time for after-dinner entertainment — which, predictably, seemed to split along gender lines. Those who were planning upcoming shopping trips — this group seemed to be mostly women — settled in to scan the ads and make a schedule. Outside, another group — and this one was mostly men — tried to outdo each other with feats of strength, skill and endurance chopped firewood from a lovely old cherry tree and fixed a balky chainsaw. But then we regrouped for a late afternoon hike. And I got to take some banana pudding home! So my Thanksgiving started out with precious grandbaby hugs and ended with a bowl of leftover goodness. Hope yours was full of love and sweetness, too.
Our younger grandson turned 1 year old this past weekend and my son-in-law’s family hosted a joyous party on a perfect fall afternoon. Older Daughter, mom to the birthday boy, asked one of her friends who’s a super photographer, Danielle McCann, to come and take photos. This was the best idea ever, because that meant we adoring relatives could simply stand around and admire instead of stressing about preserving precious moments for posterity. Well done, Older Daughter! And well done, Danielle (Or “DeeDee” as she’s known at our house) for these wonderful photos. And well done Younger Daughter, too, who couldn’t resist the creative forces that were unleashed and so wrote this caption for the photo above: “As he stood from the ashes of the dying trees, the Young Child suddenly realized his camouflage had failed him. He froze. But the game was over. ‘Curse you, Robin’s Egg Blue!! CURSE YOUUU!!!'” My family …
Happy Birthday to my mom, also known in our family as “Grommy” — although I’ve forgotten which grand- or great-grandchild named her that. We gathered to celebrate her day along with other fall family birthdays a couple of weeks ago, and I started the thing I’ve been threatening to do for years: Wrap all presents in plain brown paper and then decorate accordingly. I have to admit that my mom’s birthday present was my first effort, and I think worked pretty well. It was fun, anyway. Her present was a wooden plaque making fun of celebrating her preference to have a little coffee with her cream and sugar. I wrapped it up and then my 4 1/2-year-old grandson, Nolan, and I collected fall leaves from the yard — he liked the crackly brown ones best while I went for the pretty red and orange ones. We then carefully and meticulously taped the leaves to the top of the wrapped package and wrote our birthday message directly on the brown paper. Okay, that’s a big fat lie. The “careful and meticulous” part was purely Nolan, who scorned my haphazard design approach and spent several minutes A) planning a template for the leaves (“No, Kacky. The little red one should go HERE.”) and B) unrolling the tape edges that had folded back on themselves so we would have smooth and wrinkle-free strips. Plus, his handwriting on the “happy birthday” was better than mine. Obviously, one of us has artists for parents, and it’s not me. But I have a beautiful, talented, strong, loving, kind and smart mom — who always A) makes detailed plans before attempting a project and B) reuses and repairs things instead of throwing them out. Happy Birthday, Grommy! We love you!