Matriarch by Alyson Bannister

granmotherly woman hugging young child with ponytail

My mother reads aloud from a book she just purchased, a sort of comedic take on the customs, sayings and mannerisms of Southern women. At least I hope it was a comedic effort.

My mother reads aloud from a book she just purchased, a sort of comedic take on the customs, sayings and mannerisms of Southern women. At least I hope it was a comedic effort. The title boasts of being a “guide,” but silly lessons in manners and a few catch phrases are a paltry substitute for the real deal in front of me.

Grandmother stands at the stove, knotty fingers deftly dredging pieces of chicken in a flour concoction and transferring them to a popping frying pan. I lean against the door frame, as fascinated as ever by her ease in the kitchen. She laughs as my mother reads, hands flying from plate to pan and back again.

I remember being a girl in this kitchen, white 50’s style table covered with baking paraphernalia. Those same hands, albeit less spotted with age, placed over mine, kneaded a ball of dough the size of my head. Sunlight poured through flowered curtains and touched the ruffled yellow apron around my waist. Kneeling on a low wooden stool with my grandmother’s bare, capable arms on either side of me, gently guiding me through my first batch of homemade biscuits, I was happy.

I’m happy now too, but there’s a tinge of urgency that wasn’t here all those years ago. I feel time’s increasing pressure on this scene.

Grandmother’s old sheepdog, Duchess, wanders in and nudges her leg. They are the perfect pair, a vaudeville act in the early afternoon, dancing around each other on arthritic limbs. Duchess is almost completely deaf, yet Grandmother chatters at her incessantly.

“Oh Duchess, you poor old girl! Mama loves that girl! Go on now; stop pawing at me, old thing!”

The dog’s facial expression is nothing short of exasperated. I can’t say I blame her. She can’t hear, she’s always tripping over things and to top it off she’s just received her warm weather shave. Her white fluffy coat, spotted sporadically with reddish brown, is gone, leaving her bare from neck to tail. The hair atop her head has been trimmed haphazardly and stands up in a way that makes her look like a canine Rod Stewart.

Bored with tangling herself between Grandmother’s legs, she ambles slowly back down the hall where she spends several minutes lowering herself to the floor, still managing to look haughty in the process. Duchess indeed.

As we eat lunch Grandmother flutters around the dining room table. Even at holiday dinners it’s impossible to get her to sit down for more than a few minutes. Its part Southern hostess and part obsessive-compulsive disorder. I wonder if there’s a chapter in my mother’s book on that.

“You need to get out in the sunshine, get some good vitamin D in your system.” She says this to no one in particular as she picks up plates and cups. Any offers to help clear the dishes are always rebuffed.

I’m not an outdoorsy person, much to her chagrin, so she takes my daughter out instead. I watch them from the window, wandering around the well kept backyard, stopping often to examine a new bloom. I can’t hear them, but I know she’s saying the same things she used to say to me at that age in her over enunciated southern drawl. “Look at this beautiful flower! I planted this with my own two hands and my little trowel. Wouldn’t you like to help Grandmother plant more flowers?”

Back when I didn’t abhor dirt she taught me how to loosen the roots on a plant before placing it gently in a hole. We wore brightly colored gardening gloves and carried our small tools about in an old strawberry bucket. Her third husband made me a swing out of a wide board and two thick pieces of rope. It hung from the huge pecan tree and I would swing on it for hours. In the summer time, with the flowers and trees in full bloom, you couldn’t tell that it was a tiny backyard in the middle of our buzzing capitol. I would wear my great grandmother’s dress-up beads and a flowy skirt and pretend I was Alice in Wonderland, swinging out over my make believe wilderness while my grandmother, in her wide brim gardening hat, was the Mad Hatter.

When they troop back inside I ask Grandmother if she has any curtains she could spare for my bedroom. I want something long and thick to keep out the light and she has quite the obsession with curtains. She’s always buying them, ripping them apart and sewing them together to fit her current style.

“Of course I do. Check the back room, there should be a zip bag full of them.”

I find them straight away and take them to the front bedroom. She begins pulling them out and making suggestions. In the end we decide to sew two sets together – pale pink cotton for the liner and a light green lace over top. She’s surprised that I want to start on them immediately.

I dig her sewing machine out and we settle at the dining room table. While my daughter watches TV and Mom gently snores in the rocker, we set to work. I rip out the old seams and baste a few gathers to make the two pieces fit and she runs each one through her sewing machine, making a place for the rod to go through.

While we work, we chat about the same old things. She lectures me on being more tolerant and soft-spoken. “Patience is golden,” she says. Rather than rile her up, I just smile and nod in agreement.

She knows anyway, even as she’s lecturing, that I’ll never be patient or soft-spoken. I’ll never be able to breeze around a kitchen quite the way she does, nor will I ever be able to keep any plant other than a cactus alive for very long. I’ll likely never sew anything more than a hole in a sleeve or a button that’s in danger of falling off. She knows I have a foul mouth and a temper that doesn’t become a lady.

And still she’ll keep telling me, and I’ll keep promising, to be the southern woman she raised me to be. Even though we both know the truth: the most southern things about me are my accent and my ability to charm the pants off anything that wears them… “When you want to,” she always adds.

We don’t quite finish all four curtains before it’s time to leave. As I gather my things she promises to have them hemmed and ready for me to pick up after work the next day.

At the door, I kiss and hug her goodbye. Sometimes I’m relieved to get away from the lectures and attention, but not today. Today I’m sorry to go so soon. Today a silly guide for Southern women made me appreciate learning from the real deal, even if I’m not terribly adept at the execution of those lessons.

She cups my face in her hand and gives me a look, one I recognize as mine alone. There’s a touch of amusement, exasperation, pride and, of course, love. Patting my cheek she says, “Behave yourself, you hear? Be good.”

“I will Grandma,” I say with a smile. She chuckles and moves on to my daughter. I watch them hug; Grandmother smooths the hair back from her face.

I’m not the praying kind, not even sure if I believe in God at all, but I find myself pleading with something or someone: please let this woman be around long enough to teach my daughter all the things I can’t.

alyson bannisterAlyson Bannister is currently a glorified secretary, but spends the majority of her time on the clock writing for her blog and sneaking photos of the copy-machine repairman. She writes mostly creative nonfiction and has been published in Eclectic Flash magazine. She also won an essay contest in the fifth grade. The topic was “Why I love my school” and though it was supposed to be a work of non-fiction, there’s a possibility that it could double as one of Aesop’s fables. She lives in South Carolina and can often be found walking reluctantly up the aisle at someone else’s wedding.
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  • This is a beautiful, subtle, moving piece about women and family. I love it and I’m really pleased to see it in Hippocampus where it belongs.

    • Backally3710

      Thank you, Nathan.

  • Mary-Terese Cozzola

    Love the way the details about grandmother and granddaughter unfold piece by piece, so that it’s not until the very end that I have a complete feel for who they are and what the significance of this moment it. Really powerful. 

  • Brett

    Wonderful ending; that last sentence had the tears welling up in my eyes. You built up to it slowly but surely, and then tied your theme together nicely.