Southern Comfort

Most of my earliest, sweetest childhood memories revolve around my father’s mother, my grandmother, Vesta May Parker. In my mind’s eye I can see a six year-old me, by her side, at the kitchen counter, rolling out dumpling dough for Sunday supper’s chicken and dumplings. She was an incredible cook, and I loved being able to cook with her. My mother’s lack of the patience kept her from letting me “help” in the kitchen, but Vesta May actually enjoyed having me there, even when I spilled things and even when I talked entirely too much. In fact, little seemed to bother Grandma Parker, really. I’m not sure if it was just her natural born temperament or her Southern upbringing, but she was always easy-going and cheerful. Her laugh was exactly what you’d imagine a Southern lady’s laugh might sound like – high pitched and bubbly. She laughed often, and she hummed a great deal. I couldn’t tell you what the tunes she was humming were, but they sounded happy. Grandma was a welcome contrast, in my life, to my stressed-out, high-strung mother. She loved having all her grandchildren, the children of her beloved only son James, around her. Just as she had for him, Vesta May would’ve done anything for her grandchildren. I distinctly remember, after hearing me complain about not having enough clothes for my Barbie doll, she surprised me with a set of dresses she’d sewn from remnant cloth. I accepted the heartfelt gift, at the time, but I am ashamed to say that I did not appreciate it. To the nine year-old me, the clothes just weren’t as cool or nice as the store bought stuff. The adult me, however,  recognizes and finds the gesture deeply touching. To be perfectly honest, all three of Vesta May’s grandchildren were complete assholes to her. We made fun of her Southern accent, laughing uncontrollably at her pronunciation of the word “envelope,” which she pronounced “en-velop” and how she called me “Chris-say.” Sadly, at the time, we saw her as a backward hillbilly rube. Of the few regrets I have in my life, this is one.

Of the three grandchildren, I think I was the luckiest. I got to spend the first few years of my life living upstairs from Grandma and Grandpa Parker, in one of the three apartments of the apartment building they owned. An interior staircase connected our apartment to theirs, so I always had easy access to Grandma, and she was an integral part of my early childhood years. It was Vesta May who cared for me while my parents went to the hospital for my sister’s birth. I was sick at the time, and I remember rousing in the early morning hours, in a half-wakeful state, to see Vesta May refilling the vaporizer. “Now just go back to sleep,” she whispered as she stroked my feverish brow. Feeling better that evening after Vesta May’s homemade chili for dinner, I remember talking on the phone to my mother while she was still at the hospital. I would come to need Vesta May’s time, attention, and love even more once my mother came home with the baby and struggled to balance her time between a demanding five year-old and even more demanding newborn. In case you were wondering, crying newborns trump whining preschooler every time. It’s nature. It also makes sense, however, that a child who spent the first five years of her life as an “only” might feel brushed aside and neglected, and I did.

While I often had reason to doubt my parents’ unconditional love, I never had to wonder about Vesta May’s. She made certain I didn’t just know she loved me but that I felt it – always. Displays of affection my parents avoided were a certainty with her – hugs, kisses, sitting on her lap and being rocked in the rocking chair, her holding my hand. Some of the sweetest of those “sweet memories” include me, at about the age of five, sitting on Grandma’s lap as she rocked me and gently brushed my hair or the time I fell asleep with my head on her lap as I sat at her feet on the passenger side floor (this was well before the time of child safety seats) of her and Grandpa’s brown Ford LTD while we drove the eleven or so hours to visit “the relatives” in Vesta May’s hometown of South Pittsburgh, Tennesse. Yet another fond memory is of dancing with her, music from Guy Lombardo’s New Year’s telecast playing on their color console television and with my feet on hers, as she babysat me and my siblings one New Year’s Eve. I could go on and on. Vesta May Parker was simply an abundantly nurturing person, most likely as a result of her upbringing.

Vesta May was the eldest of five kids and the only daughter of Kate, “Fat Mama,” and Ewing Smith Sr. My father loves to tell anyone who will listen about how he was responsible for Great Grandma Kate’s uncomplimentary nickname. He explains that, when he was very young, it was how he differentiated between his two grandmothers – one was skinny and one (Kate) was fat. It apparently stuck. In 1927 Ewing was the police chief of South Pittsburgh, Tennessee. He made a good living, well enough for Fat Mama to be able to employ a nanny to help with the children. Then one Christmas Eve, a conflict between the Marion County Sheriff’s Department and the South Pittsburgh Police Department escalated and erupted into a gun battle so serious that the National Guard had to be called in. Ewing was a casualty of the incident. My dad actually has the notebook, complete with bullet holes and bloodstains, that Great Grandpa was carrying in his breast pocket that night, as well as an article about the event from the South Pittsburg Hustler. Yes, hillbillies do seem to love their macabre souvenirs. To me, though, it is a chilling artifact and a sobering symbol. Ewing’s death changed everything for Kate and her five children. Gone was the comfortable house. Gone was the nanny. Gone was Ewing’s good salary. A teenage Vesta May had to quit school and get a job at the nearby pencil factory. The family moved into a tiny one-bedroom house – one that didn’t even have an indoor bathroom until the early sixties, when my dad and grandfather built one for it. But poverty can be a good teacher. Vesta May learned to sew. She learned how to grow vegetables and can them. She and Fat Mama would pick wild blackberries and raspberries to make jams, jellies, and pies. She learned to clean and cook the fish her brothers brought home in the summer. She especially, though, learned to be frugal and to never let anything go to waste. She carried all these skills into adulthood, and they served her well as the wife of a poor foundry worker and as a mother.

Vesta May met and married Calvin Edward Parker, Ed as he was known to most, in 1930, when she was seventeen. Ed made a meager wage as a foundry worker, so the couple lived with Vesta May’s family. She continued to work at the pencil factory. The couple had difficulty conceiving. They’d been married six years when they finally had my Dad. Vesta May was twenty-three, which, at the time and for her social status, was considered an “advanced” age for a first pregnancy. He would be their only child and the center of Vesta May’s world.

The Depression led Ed’s five brothers, most of them also foundry workers, to move north with their families, to Michigan, looking for work. Ed, Vesta May, and James followed. The brothers, their wives, and many of their children all lived together for the first few years. Ed and Vesta May eventually bought the three-unit apartment building they lived in until they passed. Like his brothers, Ed went to work in one of the several foundries in Kalamazoo. Once Dad started school, Vesta May went to work in a bakery. I have many fond memories of sitting on the high stools at the counter of Jake’s Bakery, eating my favorite cream filled donut while watching Grandma pour coffee and serve donuts, humming and laughing the whole time, just like she did at home. At the time, I didn’t think there could be a cooler job. Interestingly, I ended up following in her footsteps, at one point in my life, doing that same thing at another local bakery, though not quite as cheerfully as she did it.

Though she worked full time at the bakery, she always had time for her family. She’d come home smelling of baked goods and yet walked right into the kitchen to make dinner for my grandfather. It was only after she’d put a home cooked meal on the table and cleaned up the kitchen that she’d roll her hose down around her ankles, slip on her “house shoes,” and allow herself a moment’s rest to watch the local news. Work never came before her family.

When I was sixteen, Vesta May got sick. She was diagnosed with cirrhosis, a disease normally associated with alcoholism. The irony is that, unlike her recovering alcoholic husband, Vesta May never once touched alcohol. Her compromised liver functioning was the result of a terrible bout of scarlet fever she had suffered as a child. Over the years, her liver slowly deteriorated until she began to suffer the full-blown symptoms of the disease. The final days before she died were excruciating to watch. I visited her in the hospital a few times, but she was unaware of my presence. I worried that she was in pain, but the hospital staff reassured us that the meds they were giving her were keeping her comfortable. My father and grandfather sat with her every day as she neared the end. It was fitting that she was alone with my dad, her prince, the morning she took her last breath.

The visitation, the funeral, and the burial were all a blur to me. As an introverted, antisocial teenager that had just lost what she perceived as the only person who truly loved her, it was all I could do to simply endure that time. The day of the funeral was a sunny but cold day. I remember the dress I wore. It was the only one I owned. I remember the big, navy blue sunglasses I wore in an effort to keep my pain private. I remember riding in the limousine to the cemetery, and thinking, “Wow, this sure is a shitty way to have my first limo ride.” My parents were uncharacteristically understanding of my grief. They knew how close I was to my grandmother. They let me miss school for an entire week, though it took me years to adjust to the loss. One afternoon, about a year after Vesta May’s passing, I came across one of her headscarves. She’d always worn a scarf when she went out, except when it was hot in the summer or when it rained and she wore a “rain bonnet.” I held it to my face. Her scent was still in it. The smell somehow triggered something deep within me. I wept and wept.

I still miss her. I miss her, and I wish she could’ve been here for the important milestones in my life. They would’ve been meaningful to her. I wish she could’ve seen me graduate from high school and from college. I know that, in her heart, she wished she could’ve finished school. She would’ve been so proud of me for what I’ve accomplished in my education. I wish she could’ve met my children. For as good of a grandmother as she was, she would’ve been an even better great-grandmother. What’s more is that my children would’ve adored her…and she would’ve adored them. Every child needs the adoration of a grandparent or great-grandparent. I also wish she could’ve met my husband (well, my second husband, that is). He’s the one person that makes me feel as loved as she did, and she would’ve loved him for that.

I like to believe that Vesta May was there when my daughter Sarah passed, waiting for her on the other side, even though she’d never met her. I imagine Vesta May introducing herself to her great-granddaughter, comforting her, and gently guiding Sarah’s confused spirit, telling her, as she so often did to me, “Everything’s going to be alright.” It’s my hope that Sarah and Vesta May are together now laughing, humming, dancing, and cooking – making Chicken & Dumplings and cornbread for Sunday suppers. Vesta May’s gentle Southern comfort soothed me as a child and continues to sustain me as an adult. If I ever find myself blessed enough to be a grandmother, my wish is that I might be the kind of comfort that Vesta May Parker was to me.




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