My childhood involved two grandmothers as different as blue and red. My maternal grandmother lost her husband while raising five children, two in single digits. My mother’s three older brothers were working early to help pay bills. The oldest, my Uncle Kay, enlisted in the military for that same reason.
The Gentry offspring were a devilish bunch. Joe was three years older than me and the nearest thing to a big brother I experienced. The only one lacking an outrageous sense of humor was my mother, and she may have hidden one to protect her integrity as Mother.
The most outrageous was Estelle, my mother’s mother. She refused to allow her grandchildren to call her any semblance of a grandmother moniker. She demanded first name basis with each of us. Estelle was a gravelly-voiced chain- smoking woman with a laugh that made even innocent young boys think something off-color was happening.
Her exact opposite was Jesse Ella Cox, my father’s mother. Mama Cox was a tiny woman with white hair pulled into a very conservative bun and the Spirit of the Lord in her heart every day of her 95 years. She was not a somber woman; she laughed a lot and could cook as well as anyone that ever lived. Still maybe the best chocolate pie I’ve ever tasted. She channeled every thought through her devout Baptist beliefs but smiled while doing so.
Her children, including my father, were all deeply influenced by that strong faith, and the entire family absorbed it, but it made for a strong contrast when compared to her counterpart. We saw much more of Mama Cox, who lived nearby, than Estelle who moved to Texas in the early ’60s.
I thought of my grandmothers last summer while sitting in a place called Willie-T’s on Duval Street in Key West. The landlord and I were there to replace precious bodily fluids and listen to live music. The folks sitting behind us were having lunch during what appeared to be a large family vacation.
I first noticed two teenage girls, maybe two years apart, sitting between two ladies that had to be grandmothers. One was quiet and seemed concerned about appearances. The other was laughing and enjoying the company of young people while sipping on a Corona.
Someone else started grouping them for a phone picture and one of the girls grabbed Grandma’s beer, ready to pose. Grandma No. 2 quickly took the offensive drink away and saved the family’s good name for posterity.
This was a quick snapshot of a family dynamic that I probably misread. But it made me think of my own grandmothers, especially Estelle. She was a true original who continues to be embodied in her living offspring. I talk with Uncle Will when I can and always think of a chain-smoking, fun-loving Grandmother who refused to be labeled as such.
I fondly recall Estelle especially at Christmas. She mailed presents from Texas well before the actual holiday. She knew exactly what we wanted most. Never sent lame underwear or socks like our parents. I was grown before I figured that one out.
Talk about a wicked sense of humor.
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