“I wish I had more to tell of my grandmothers. It is terrible how much has been forgotten, which is why, I suppose, remembering seems a holy thing.”
—The Red Tent, Anita Diamant
As a lifelong Southerner and book lover, I am captivated by the works of Southern writers. My dream course in college was entitled “Southern Women Writers,” and there I found myself entranced by the words, worlds, and women of Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor, and Kate Chopin among others. When I read Southern fiction, it’s as though the great women of my own story come to life on the page. The matriarchs of my family are revived. They are charismatic and quirky, smart and strong, tested and true.
I recognize these women; I know them intimately. They are my ancestors…my lifeblood and my lineage.
I still remember the creak of their screen doors, the sound of their voices calling me, the particular scent of their homes. I am invited into their kitchens and to their tables. A plate holding a slice of apple stack cake or chocolate icebox pie is placed in front of me, and a weathered hand gently squeezes my shoulder and welcomes me home.
My grandmother, “Amma,” made the best stack cake, baking numerous dainty cakes and then spreading each with homemade apple butter before assembling the layers. Born in Virginia in 1904, Amma was the middle of five children. When she was only six, the family moved to New Mexico, hoping the arid climate might help her mother recover from illness. It did not. The family buried her there in 1911 and returned home, motherless, to Virginia. Soon after, her father remarried and had six more daughters.
I think about the responsibilities she must have shouldered as a young girl. Eventually, she left home to attend Radford, and after earning a teaching degree, she moved to Tennessee, where she taught, met my grandfather, ran a five-and-dime store, and raised a family. What stories are held within such a summary? Thousands, as complex and compelling as any work of fiction. I know several, but I wish I knew more.
I wish I knew more stories about my three aunts, who loom large in both my childhood and my memory. There’s Aunt Rita, Amma’s younger sister, who never married. She taught English and traveled the world. When I think of her, I picture a faded photograph showing her perched atop a camel in Egypt. Her long gray hair is swept up in a colorful silk scarf.
How did a woman from rural Virginia develop such an independent, adventurous spirit? I wish I knew. Aunt Rita would visit us each year, appearing like a gypsy and infusing the atmosphere with beauty, mystery, and adventure. On my twelfth birthday, she gave me a cherished collection of Shel Silverstein poems, which echoed these very themes. The next year she died.
My other two aunts were my father’s sisters—good Southern girls with great Southern names: Avis Novella and Agnes Parthenia.
Aunt Avis was married to Uncle Bo, and they lived in a place we affectionately called “the country.” In the summer, my sister and I would spend a week there, wandering the fields with our cousin. Each morning we’d awaken to the smell of breakfast cooking, and we’d find Aunt Avis in the kitchen, pulling scratch biscuits from the oven. When she wasn’t in her kitchen, she was likely found at the community center, gathered around a quilting frame with her neighbors.
Her sister, Agnes, lived and worked in Nashville, where she cared for my paternal grandfather until his death. Since she never drove a car, Aunt Agnes rode a Greyhound bus to visit us every year. She had a sonorous snore, a keen wit, and a killer sense of humor. Aunt Agnes never married and was skeptical of men. When she met Tim, she announced that “he would do, for a boy.” That was the highest praise he could expect.
As I remember these women, I realize that truth is so much sweeter, smarter, stronger, and—yes—even sometimes stranger than fiction. Certainly, a character on a page may intrigue me, but these women, my maternal line, deeply inform me. I have been shaped by Amma’s resilience, Aunt Rita’s sense of adventure, Aunt Avis’s hospitality, and Aunt Agnes’s wit.
The limbs of my family tree hold these women, and now they extend and branch into my own life. My story is rooted in their stories, my character born of the same soil that once grew them.
In the holy work of remembering, I am rediscovering the faces that surprisingly look a lot like my own.
Who are the matriarchs in your family, and how do they inform your life today?
A lover of story, Susan Tucker has always been captivated by beautiful writing. She is drawn to themes of tension, joy/grief, hope/loss, freedom/shame, which she explores in her own writing. Susan spends her days teaching middle school English, mothering her two teenage sons, and loving her husband of 25 years. She cherishes her first cup of coffee each morning, moments of quiet and solitude, restorative yoga, worship music, and faithful friends.nbsp