by Michael Neal Morris
I spent a lot of afternoons with my grandparents as small boy, especially in the years between my mother’s divorce and the beginning of her marriage to my step-father. They often took care of my brothers and me while my mother worked double-shifts at a nearby Kip’s. They even dropped us off and picked us up from catechism classes, where I was preparing for my first communion. At their house, I spent most of my time with my grandmother. She, of course, made and served the requisite cookies and helped us with homework. But she also kept us busy with things to draw and color on, or she took us outside to show us her marvelous backyard garden. I loved playing in that backyard, especially when play really meant sitting under the bushes with a book, smelling honeysuckle while watching a lizard’s throat change colors on the fence, or watching my grandmother in her big sun hat prune the flowers she had coaxed to grow in the odd mix of soil found at Dallas residences. It was here she showed me how to peel and eat a pomegranate from a tree she had taken care of.
My grandfather was an electrical and engineering genius and loved to buy and build all sorts of gadgets. His interests meant my grandmother indulged his buying all sorts of “new” devices and equipment. One of the devices he bought and played with was a reel to reel recording contraption he had fairly much abandoned before I knew what it was. One lazy Saturday, my brother John and I ran across it and asked if we could play with it. After securing his permission, my grandmother said that I could only do it if I planned what I was going to do. She wouldn’t just let us record burps and farts and kindergarten jokes. So with her help, I wrote a story we could turn into a radio play. It was a silly little thing about a car race. The story was contrived as only a boy could do, and the jokes were cheesier than Wisconsin. My grandmother and my aunt Kay provided voices, including a hilarious yokel my grandmother made up for a fake commercial. It took most of the day, and when it was over I had a cassette copy of the story I would listen to and play for friends for years.
I also got to go with my grandparents when they drove to my grandmother’s childhood home in Linden. I spent several weeks during Christmas, Spring Break, or summer holidays being kept out of my parents’ hair and put to work helping my grandfather with such chores as mending barbed wire fence or cutting dowels (both of which I failed miserably at) or shelling peas (which I’m pretty sure I failed at as well). Once, while with my grandmother at the kitchen table, I heard my grandfather come in and bark (it seemed) some orders to her. She rose from the table with a sigh and began to gather whatever it was that he requested. She must have seen the sour look on my face, because she asked me what was wrong.
“I don’t like the way Granddad bosses you around,” I told her.
She lay her warm hand on mine. Her eyes were twinkling, and I could not help but think of the mischievous elves in some of my stories. “Oh boy,” she said through a chuckle. “That man does not boss me.”
“But he always tells you what to do,” I replied.
She sat back in the chair, and pressed her palms against the table. “It looks like that, I guess. But he knows what he needs to get done, and I like to plan. So we work together to do what we have to do. I guarantee you: he’s had me tell him plenty enough to keep from thinking he’s in charge of anything.”
As I would learn later, my grandmother did not believe that marriage (or any relationship) should be 50/50 endeavors. You gave 100%, period. She knew there were times when one partner could give all, and good relationships meant you took up the slack when necessary, but you also stood up for yourself when you could see you were being taken advantage of. She saw no need to raise her voice or to manipulate, and she saw no need to make a position clear right away. One did not obey her as much as realize in her presence that if they wanted to be or do what right, they’d damn well better listen.
She believed in love and romance, but only to a point. When I got married, she knew that my degree would help me get a job, and that my very young wife wanted to be a stay at home supporter of my presumed genius. But she told me, “Two can live as cheaply as one if one of them doesn’t eat.”
This was my grandmother: a feminist before feminism was cool. In the seventies, she had her doubts about a lot of feminists, wondering if many really wanted equality or just a chance to hurt their oppressors. But she was the first church-going person I knew who openly supported a woman’s right to an abortion. Before my undergraduate professors challenged my lazy use of pronouns, my grandmother was encouraging me to think about what I meant when I said “he” or “it” without considering the human beings I might actually be referring to. She was not a marching, yelling activist. Instead, she volunteered to listen to and counsel troubled people who called a crisis help line, saving lives of suicidal people of all kinds– people she would never meet.
Once she, with my mother’s permission, took me out of school for the State Fair. Now every year, kids were given free tickets to get in and often got the day off. But my grandmother was not about to just take me to ride roller coasters and play rigged games on the midway. For the whole day, we walked to look at things I would never have chosen on my own. I saw prize winning pigs and cows and listened to my grandmother tell me about how such animals are raised to become my food. We strolled through the Hall of State, and I heard her talk about Texas leaders and famous people who shaped the country and state. I am pretty sure she took me to see the “new” cars on display, but I doubt I was very interested. My mechanical ineptitude and lack of enthusiasm for the wonders of tools would frequently baffle my grandfather, but my grandmother never minded. She seemed to believe it important to be exposed to many ideas and explore whatever the world had to offer.
Long before Ancestry.com, my grandmother’s interest in family history brought her to do painstaking research, first on her own family, and then of her husband’s. The result of this were two books she privately printed and distributed among family members. It was a particular source of pride that when I saw one of those books in the special collections section of our college library (I chose to go where my grandparents had met forty years prior to my freshman year.). She collected poems written by her great-grandfather and father into a small volume I treasure. She also wrote a small book of memories of her life as a young mother and bride. For my grandmother, every subject was connected to family.
Her love of books and desire to support whatever pursuits I threw myself into meant that she was my first patron. I had taken it upon myself to print a handful of my sorry poems into a little book. I wanted her to have a copy because she was the only adult who actively commented on my verse and encouraged me to read and write it. She insisted on giving me money for the book, though I wanted to make a gift of it. “An author should get paid,” she said. Of course, as a teenager, I wanted to write and have the world shovel money at me for my holy efforts, but I never expected her to be the one that understood I was entering a world where only a handful of people would actually feel artists should be compensated.
Above all, I think she expected all people to act civilly, if they could not be loving. She did not speak meanly of anyone, but I also cannot imagine anyone having the guts to gall or offend her. A couple of times, I was particularly unkind to my brother Steven, and he “ran away from home,” walking from our house in Irving to my grandparents’ home in Dallas. My grandmother would comfort him, give him cookies and a coke, and after a bit drive him back, but never give me grief about my cruelty. When teenaged me complained to her about my parents, assuming that this sweet lady would not stand for her grandson to be “mistreated,” she listened to my complaints, told me a story or two about growing up in East Texas or got me to play a card game to take my mind off my woes, and delivered me back to my “oppressors” with the realization that they were doing the best they could in difficult times.
My grandmother understood the subtleties and nuances of power so much better than my professors in college, or the activists and thinkers who would also eventually shape my own philosophies on life. The more I look back at her active love and care, the more I see a woman who, without having to invent something or compose a manifesto, was ahead of her time. I rarely saw her angry, but I nearly always saw her passionate. I kick myself sometimes for not soaking in more of her wisdom, particularly in how she was able to focus her energy toward positive action. Because there was so much to shape and reshape in me as I grew up male in an era where so many of our ideas about women were being challenged, I think she would laugh to know I would ultimately have four strong, smart, and determined daughters before my sensitive and beautiful son was born. And I am still proud to tell those now grown children about the woman whose life and stories connected me to the world.