A Mother’s Day Reflection: Great-Grandmother Grace

Grace Stephenson Sullivan

My Great-Grandmother Grace was born in 1899, died in 1991, and lived her entire life, as far as I know, in Knoxville, Tennessee. She was not so much a Southerner as an Appalachian, a flavor of Tennessean native to the eastern region of the state known as ‘hill country’ (hence ‘hillbilly’) because of its proximity to the Great Smoky Mountains—the particular stretch of the Appalachian Mountain range that straddles the Tennessee–North Carolina state line, and serves as home to the eponymous national park. It is a singularly beautiful part of the world (I have heard it referred to as “God’s country” more than once), but the early settlers had a harder time of it there because the cherty, clayey soil didn’t lend itself to cultivation like the loamy, loess type of soil in West Tennessee did. And depending how deeply rooted a family within that mountainous terrain, extreme poverty was possible and at times even typical.

That was not the case with Gracie’s forebears, the Stephensons, who enjoyed relative prosperity as apple growers in the Tuckaleechee Cove area of the Smoky Mountain foothills near Townsend. Still, she had a grit about her that did not arise from easy living, and often told stories (again and again) of a childhood fraught with peril in what is now an emphatically urban area of Knoxville.

But that was before my time. The Gracie I knew—Granny Grace—was a fearless, chain-smoking, black coffee-swilling woman teetering on an invisible line that separated the hardcore hillbilly from the educated professional, with some degree of refinement distinguishing her from the few surviving family members in the hills. (Were you to thumb through the clothing hanging in her closet, for example, you’d find an assortment of 1970s-era polyester pantsuits and fancy cocktail gowns still pinned with sparkly broaches in coordinating colors, and even one beady-eyed mink stole. Later on, I bequeathed some of these pieces on her behalf to the Clarence Brown Theatre on the University of Tennessee campus—it is entirely possible some of Granny’s clothing lives on in stories that unfold on that stage.) Educated-professional Gracie had attended finishing school out of high school, and then worked as a librarian at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory during the war years. Hillbilly Gracie was a yellow-dog Democrat, a devotee of Harry Truman who shook her fist at the television pundits and cussed like a sailor and often, but most especially when she had an audience.

The Cigarettes

Gracie was unapologetically a heavy smoker, as was her daughter Bobby. It is a miracle my own mom was raised in the same household with the two of them and never had a single desire to light and smoke a cigarette. Granny Grace would insist that smoking was not harmful; she’d point to her age as proof positive…at 80, at 85, at 90. The truth is, smoking made her life exponentially more difficult as time wore on, first in the guise of emphysema that at times rendered her dangerously short of breath during terrifying coughing spells that turned her lips blue, and later with detached retinas that left her blind, almost certainly linked to her lifelong tobacco habit. And smoking is what led to the heart disease that killed her daughter, my grandmother Bobby, when she was only 48. When we visited Gracie in the last house she’d live in, for a week each summer and sometimes at Christmas, my mama would shake her head and furrow her brow with worry every time she found a new burn mark—in the vinyl flooring, the carpeting, the upholstery on the wicker sofa where Granny spent most of her time, and even in her bedsheets. It was a miracle also that Gracie did not die of involuntary self-immolation in her own bed. But the cigarette was an extension of her hand, part and parcel of who she was.

So were her paper-thin nighties. On good days she pulled on stretchy pants to go with whatever cottony top was handy. But as often she was happy to stay in her nightgown all the livelong day. ‘Shorties,’ she called them. But her favorites were so threadbare they left exactly nothing of Gracie’s underlying person to the imagination. She did not care. My well-intentioned mama would send her new nightclothes at Christmastime, or even take her on shopping excursions to a particular high-brow clothing store in nearby Maryville to choose them herself. But on our next visit, hanging next to those cocktail gowns and pantsuits, we’d find the new nighties with price tags still affixed at the sleeves. This in fact was true of almost any new piece of clothing we ever bought for her.

trying on a bothersome new Christmas gift, 1981
with my mama; the sweater would find its way to the bottom of a drawer

When you live through every horror of the twentieth century and survive into your nineties, you get to wear threadbare shorties all day long, even in winter, if it makes you happy.

The Hair

Gracie was of a generation of southern women who went to the beautician once weekly to have her hair shampooed, set, dried, and then fluffed and sprayed into its final helmet-like shape. This phenomenon was a curiosity to me as a child. When Granny Grace visited us in Memphis, she’d bring her special satiny pillowcase to help “preserve” her hairdo for the week. There was no shampooing between visits to the beautician—only a special net fitted over the hair before bedtime, and then some touchup (and more hairspray here and there) the following morning. The rendering of Granny’s hair as a separate entity—not as an organic part of her being, but almost as an accessory she wore, like a necklace or sunglasses—was so foreign and somehow fantastic, second only to her bourbon nightcaps and racy paperbacks.

Later in life, declining health made it all but impossible for Gracie to wear her hair like anything approaching her erstwhile superglued coifs. She attended my wedding in 1988 wearing it in what I believe was its most natural state, which was grey and curly. In her youth, I was told, she had a fetching head full of red hair that must have looked stunning around her soft, oval face and sparkling blue eyes; I am absolutely sure she must have been a sight, one that made her husband Albert’s pulse quicken. Albert, the man she stayed married to until his death, which was not at the hands of Gracie despite her threats, on occasion, to stitch him up inside a sheet and beat him with an iron (pronounced “arn”) skillet. So she said.

a young Albert Edward Sullivan

The Matriarch

The hardcore hillbilly matriarch—that is the woman who generated so much family lore that lives on some three decades since she left us. Family lore tends to render people larger than life, a phenomenon especially true, I think, after they’re gone. I know this is the case with my great-grandmother, but because she lived until I was almost 30, I witnessed firsthand some of the events in the stories that made her loom so large, and so I can corroborate them.

She once whapped my 16-year-old mama over the head with an umbrella on a routine occasion, in fact the weekly visit to the beautician, because she didn’t like how mom was driving. This is a story I grew up hearing and so I believe it is likely the truth; my mother said she had been dispatched to carry her grandmother to have her hair done on an especially rainy day, at a tender moment when she was still uncertain behind the wheel. Much later, probably when I was about sixteen, mom and I drove Gracie downtown to take care of some banking business at her request. We parked in a lot on a busy corner across from the bank, and then struck out to the opposite corner. It’s fair to say Gracie was unsteady on her feet, and so we each had a hand wrapped gently around one elbow to guide her at the crosswalk. Roughly halfway across the street, she stopped and angrily yanked her arms free of us both. And so, the head whapping continued into her golden years. This is absolutely the truth.

There is another bit of lore that is so delicious, it is worth sharing, but I cannot authenticate it without the help of other family members. Gracie liked to tell the story of being hit by a car crossing yet another downtown street, as a much younger woman. As she told it, the impact sent her airborne for just a moment before she landed ass-side-down on a manhole cover, and was somehow unharmed, save a spectacular bruise on her bum. The manhole cover was embossed with the letters K U B—for Knoxville Utilities Board—and Gracie insisted her bruise, which lingered for quite a few days, was shaped as an exact and clear replica of those letters. Who can say, but seems plausible enough.

Gracie was deeply connected to her grandchildren and great grandchildren, because she lived with and among them, and so her role as a mother to generations of babies defined her more than anything else. I moved into her house while I was attending the University of Tennessee as an undergraduate, but by then it had stood vacant for three years and was in a state of decline, a situation I was able to reverse in due course. But I was tickled to open a dresser drawer one afternoon early in my tenure there to find one of Gracie’s favorite T-shirts, now yellowing within its clear plastic bag, with the image of an elderly woman printed across it, her middle finger proudly erected in the foreground.

Occasionally, I hear her in my own son, who was born only a little over a year after her death. The two of them never met. Our mothers, and their mothers, and even their mothers, wield a powerful influence over us in ways we may realize only much later, or even never. I marvel at the notion that that particular mother, though, lives on at least a little in each of us who survived her, even four generations later.

Hat tip to you on this Mother’s Day, Granny, wherever you are. Well played.

2 thoughts on “A Mother’s Day Reflection: Great-Grandmother Grace

  1. Oh how I miss Granny! Every time I drink Whisky or Bourbon, (which I love), I think of her! I remember her bottle and orange slices in the side table of her room in the nursing home. I also will never forget her explanation (at every visit) of a mugwump – a bird sitting on a fence with its mug on one side and it’s wump on the other. Finally, her cheers…Ra Ra Shish Kum Ba!!

    Liked by 1 person

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