My grandmother had knotty hands and a fat billfold filled with dollar bills and pictures of her grandchildren. When we shopped at the village store together, she sometimes gave me money for Chiclets, pulling a dollar out with her crooked fingers.
She said things like, “My lands I pray!” and “Great garden peas!” – a phrase that always stopped me, because to my grandmother all garden peas were great. Field and black-eyed and green – she and my grandfather grew them all in the garden beside their house. She taught me to shell, working until I thought my fingers would bleed, sitting there in the glider on a gnatty summer afternoon.
I was raised on the notion that we inherit favor and behavior from our kin. Would I one day wake with fingers too knotted to open a pickle jar? I bet that came from shelling too many peas.
I am named for my grandmother, but other than a bad case of bunions I am nothing like her. Warm but not cuddly, she laughed quietly but never really giggled like my grandfather. And she didn’t know what to do with me when I cried just looking at my mother’s wedding portrait hanging on her wall.
(When I was 9, my father was gravely ill and my grandparents came to stay with us. I remember one night my grandfather sat by my bed, the two of us hobbled in sobs as my grandmother stood at the door. My lands I pray! What crybabies we both were.)
My sister looks as if my grandmother spit her out. Pictures of them at similar ages bear the same face, and they share a pragmatic, get-on-with-it personality. It is what it is so you do your best with it, and for Pete’s sake, self-pity is unbecoming.
I’ve been thinking about my grandmother this week after sorting through old pictures with my mother. Among them were snapshots of Hazel Estelle Hooks and her family that I’d never seen. There she stands in the middle of a country road – a young woman in her early 20s, a fox fur wrapped around her neck. A dark, large-brimmed hat pulled down over her forehead frames the face I recognize, her shy smile looking so much like my sister’s high school portrait. Her leather-gloved hands rest on a box of some kind – a carrying case? No sign of knotted knuckles on this ingénue.
She was the only one in her family to graduate from college, earning a degree in math in the 1920s. Great garden peas! Perhaps she was on her way to catch the train that would take her to her future, teaching high school math in Sunbury, the small village tucked in the corner of northeastern North Carolina, hours away from her Wayne County home.
There she would meet my grandfather at a picnic. She wore a white dress, ate fried chicken, rode with him in a boat, and though she didn’t say, I’m certain he tried to make her giggle. When she told her father she wanted to marry William Graham Byrum of Sunbury, N.C., he said: “I thought I educated you to teach school.” (She would have to leave her job if she married.)
When her memory began to fade, I gave her a Grandmother Memory Book, which I still have. On visits, I’d ask the questions and she’d answer. I wish I’d known about the picture then, to ask her about the hat with the wide brim and where she was going that day.
There were other pictures: My grandfather in ice skates, my father in grade school, looking much like my son. My great-great-grandparents, sitting on the front porch of a house surrounded by their family – all 21 of them, babies and girls in laced dresses, boys with bicycles, and not a single one of them smiling.
In the final picture – mother, father, three boys and a girl – the mother, Ida Estelle Garris Hooks, my great-grandmother, unsmiling, stares off camera. That face: my grandmother’s, my father’s and my sister’s, as if she spit them all out. My grandmother was not yet born. My lands I pray!
To see such resemblance in a photograph taken in the late 1800s is remarkable. I study the faces of my family and wonder what, if any, part of them is also part of me. And I wonder, too, if in another 100 years, a child I’ll never meet will see my picture and wonder the same about me.
Susan Byrum Rountree is trying to embrace her bunions and her inner Estelle. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org