In a region that values the past and tradition in mythic ways, our elders – grandparents and great-grandparents – serve as sources of love, knowledge, even inspiration. Few of us are fortunate enough to know our great-grandparents, but those of us who do get to encounter the narratives that constitute family history and generational habits. In this essay, we get one such glimpse into a Tennessee family’s deep roots.
Out of Many, One
by Maddie Rhodes
My Great Grandmother was immortal. Until she wasn’t. There’s a photo captured in 1996 of Mom sitting in a chair, holding me only a few days old, and standing together behind the chair are my Grandmother and Great Grandmother, all three women smiling proudly, four generations in one frame. Great Grandma’s dark hair has turned silver with streaks of black showing through still in this captured moment. She has not one wrinkle on her face, but her cheeks and eyelids have begun to droop. Her thin lips part to show crooked teeth and dimples still punctuate her smile, as do mine. She is sixty-six years old.
As we both grew older, I noticed her hair whiten and her earlobes hung lower from decades of clip-on earrings. Visits to her were a given— first at her old farmhouse off Highway 79, then her apartment in town, and finally her room at the assisted living facility that had the smell of cafeteria food and the unexplainable scent of aging bodies. When I reached my twenties, visits became less frequent as college required the bulk of my attention. That was when her years began to dawn on me— ninety-five, ninety-six, ninety-seven.
“Great Grandma isn’t doing well,” Mom called one day.
She told me that she was going up to Paris to visit. It was understood that this could be the last. I wondered if I should come too, but Mom assured me that she would be fine going alone and I needed to stay in school.
It happened practically overnight. Great Grandma was fine, as she always had been, then she was in the hospital. Two months later, she was gone. We delayed her burial for a week because the day after she died the biggest snowstorm Paris, Tennessee had seen in decades blew through, leaving five inches of snow and freezing temperatures. I once heard it said that when large souls depart their bodies, the atmosphere reacts with an usual weather event.
Saying goodbye to her in hospice the month before she passed was the first time she ever looked like an old woman. Her face was sunken and cracked with wrinkles. She hardly held her head up or eyes open. It was a bad day, my great uncle said. The next day, she acted like herself, and I missed it.
Sometimes, when I concentrate, I can still hear her voice. It’s warm and full of love. Every word somehow encapsulates the tragedies she endured over nearly a century of living in Henry County. I remember the way she always shared news from extended family during our visits and the way she spoke honestly. Once, Great Grandma said to Mom, “Amy, it looks like you gained weight,” which she hadn’t. And when she laughed, joy bounced gently in her chest.
As every visit concluded, disappointment saturated her voice, “Love you. Y’all come see me again soon.” And I swear every time there was a crack in her voice, but we knew it was never the last goodbye.
I don’t like to remember the days we spent visiting her in assisted living, though according to my brother those are the only memories he has. I prefer to remember her old red brick farmhouse, on the hill off Highway 79, when we were all young. The house had three bedrooms and just one bathroom. Grandma tells me that the house was built while Junior, the Great Grandfather I never knew, was sheriff. The inmates of the jail built Great Grandma’s house in the late 1960s. Junior was sheriff for two terms, and during that time Great Grandma was their cook, cleaner, and jailer. The inmates loved her. Her mother, Mama Kate, was famous in Henry County for cooking the best fried chicken. According to Great Grandma’s siblings, the Baptist preacher almost always found a way to invite himself over to the Bucy house on Sundays for lunch. Great Grandma learned simple Southern cooking from the best, and when I got old enough, she and Mom coached me as I fried corn-meal coated okra rings in sizzling canola oil.
We visited her farmhouse often when I was a child, and sometimes even stayed for the weekend. We’d turn left off the highway and drive up the hill on the long gravel drive to the back of her house. We always came in through the back door. On the back porch, there were two handmade porch swings that originally belonged to Mama Kate where Mom, Grandma, and Great Grandma would spend hours catching up and swinging to the rhythm of tree frogs and cicadas while my brother and I would hunt for lime green tree frogs in the woods out back.
Just inside was Great Grandma’s kitchen where she’d almost always have a chocolate fudge pie waiting for us, cooling on the stove, the richly sweet smell wafting through the musky house. The kitchen had linoleum floors, a white refrigerator with colorful and dusty crocheted butterflies attached to wooden clothespins with magnets on the back so she could pin photos and grocery lists to the fridge. I’m sure she made them herself because she loved to crochet. Also in the kitchen hung a hanging fruit basket full of fake fruit. I remember looking at the glossy bananas and apples and pears, wondering why they were there. I still don’t know.
Next to the kitchen was the dining table and then the den, where I remember spending a few Christmases all dressed up in green and red and plaid, opening presents with cousins, some who were my best friends and others who were practically strangers to me. When she died, she had nine grandchildren and fifteen great grandchildren.
The furnace was in the living room, which Great Grandma fed wood throughout the winter for warmth. Manually heating one’s own home was one of many of her daily chores that are lost on me in my house with central heating and air. The burden of this chore was just one of many reasons contributing to her decision to move to a smaller apartment in town as she aged.
Down the hall were the bedrooms, the sole bathroom, and the living room. In the living room, there was a couch whose colors are debated among my family. I remember it as dark— burgundy, beige, navy, forest green. Mom and Dad remember it as white and gold, and they’re probably right. This couch was often made into an extra bed when the house was full.
On a side table next to the couch, sat a wooden carved box. The top was carved with a floral design, the specifics I can’t quite remember. I’ve tried for a year to hunt down this box, contacting all my relatives who sorted through Great Grandma’s things when she passed and no one knows where it is. When I asked my Grandma, Great Grandma’s only daughter, about the box, she sarcastically exclaimed, “Of course you’re the one to remember something like this! Funny the things a young girl notices. I was slow to think of this box but after some ‘pondering’ it did come to mind.” She recalled that she and Grandpa bought the box in the Philippines in the 1980s when they were stationed overseas. Grandpa was in the Marines for thirty-three years. Great Grandma filled the box with pennies like she did with so many other vessels including plastic baggies, porcelain boxes, lipstick cases, and purses. It seemed that any bag or box I opened in her house was full of change. I never thought to ask why.
The wooden box of pennies served as one of my main forms of entertainment during visits to her house. I would scatter the box of pennies on the beige carpet and sort them by decade, examining each one carefully to memorize its year of mint. Some were so scuffed or green from the oxidation of the copper that the year was illegible. Others were fairly new and shiny. I always thought maybe there was a reason, greater than just lightening a coin purse, for this box of pennies. Grandma says it was that simple— lightening a coin purse, but my great Aunt Cathey says that Great Grandma saved every penny she had. That’s how she was able to pay for her own funeral at nearly ninety-eight years old.
When Grandma was growing up in 1950s Paris, she remembers the school bus dropping students off at the country store to buy a Coke and candy bar for a nickel each, if they could afford it. The bus would pick the kids up again to take them home, treats in hand and belly. Grandma often tells us stories of their poverty when they were young. Where their family of seven lived in a one-bedroom farmhouse across the street from where Aunt Cathey and Uncle Joseph live now. When Junior and Great Grandma subsisted on farming their small plot of land that our family still owns in pieces divided between the siblings, and working other local government jobs to bolster income. Grandma remembers the day the Coke went from 5 five cents to 6 six cents. Suddenly, the penny was an invaluable asset, a necessity to obtain the coveted after school snack.
To Great Grandma, the pennies may have been frivolous change weighing down her coin purse, or a stock pile ready for the next economic crisis. I wish I asked her more questions while I could.
I purchased a little grey ceramic bowl on a trip to Argentina in 2018, the year she left us. It has been filling up with lucky pennies ever since— first on a shelf in my New York apartment, on a side table in a house in Tennessee, and now my desk in Colorado. Today, a few pennies won’t buy you anything. Instead, picking up a penny off the ground has become a symbol of ironic luck. Good fortune to find a stray coin, but does it really mean anything if it’s of no value? Out of all the pennies I have picked up and added to my collection over the years, one memory remains: days spent at Great Grandma’s house, entertaining myself with the objects of her home. With each penny I add to my bowl, I crane to hear her voice say, “Please don’t forget me.”
Maddie Rhodes is a Southern writer based in Colorado. Her passions include writing, coaching and playing golf, cooking, running, hiking, skiing, and spending time outdoors. Maddie is pursuing her MFA in Creative Writing at The Mississippi University for Women, where she is the creative nonfiction editor of Ponder Review. Growing up in the South informs all of Maddie’s work from creative nonfiction essays, to short stories, and even recipe development. Maddie received her BA in English Literature from Rhodes College and is a Certified Holistic Chef, having graduated from The Natural Gourmet Institute.
Lesson Plan: NH-MSF Lesson Plan Personal Narrative