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Remember Who You Are

My grandmother said that her grandmother often reminded her, “Remember who you are.”

My firecracker of a grandmother, Daisy, must have had a firecracker of a grandmother herself. Eleanor Buchanan Trant had several older brothers who all got educations (their father was a lawyer), but Eleanor was not allowed that privilege and Daisy said she resented her father her whole life. Whenever she told me that story, Daisy seemed a little proud of her grandmother’s rebelliousness. Eleanor married into a fun but less educated family, the Snellgroves, who were hard to miss in Coffee County, Alabama, being a very fertile and populous clan of folks. Maybe it was to get back at her father, maybe it was to be guaranteed some fun, maybe a little of both. Daisy said all her uncles, Eleanor’s sons, played instruments – fiddles and washboards and assorted kitchen utensils and would start up a party at the drop of a hat, or after working in the fields all day. Twenty years after the Civil War, having twelve children and at least half of them boys helped keep the farm going, but it was not easy and no one was awash in money, they just got by.

When Eleanor’s husband died when Daisy was eight, Eleanor moved with her oldest son’s wife Jessie Frances and Daisy’s three sisters to Columbus, Georgia, to work in the cotton mill on the Chattahoochee River. They joined Jessie Frances’ brother Handy Bryant and his wife, Daisy’s namesake aunt, to live in what my Daisy later recalled as idyllic conditions in the mill town Bibb City. The way Daisy remembered it, they did not have to work in the mill. Her semi-invalid mother – who really was a skilled seamstress – got work making clothes for the mill owners and their friends, and they rented rooms in a two-story clapboard house swaying with the moss-covered trees on the bluffs overlooking the river. The 1920 census told another story. Jessie Frances worked as an inspector in the mill, and Daisy’s oldest sister Mae Agnes worked as a spooler. Later her younger sister Gladys worked thirty years in the mill.

Daisy also kept afloat for many years the story that her father, Jessie Frances’ missing husband, had died in Florida while on a painting trip. LaFayette Snellgrove or “Fate” worked as a steeplejack and part-time Pentecostal preacher in south Alabama and northwest Florida, wherever he could find work. But he did not die. He ran off to New York state, married and had another family, along with getting himself put in prison for arson and then getting himself out because of “mental instability.” But that’s another story. The thing with Daisy’s versions of her family history is that I could never be sure they were entirely accurate. In fact, I could be sure there was some exaggeration in there somewhere and it just had to be ferreted out.

Two stories that seem true enough made me think that Eleanor was a firecracker – or at least very headstrong. One was that on Sunday mornings, Daisy had to make her tea in the good teapot (from the Trants) and bring it to her in the bed. Daisy said she also used strange words like “piazza” when she was talking about the porch. It seemed as if Eleanor were reenacting some wealthier, more leisurely past on those mornings. The other story was when Eleanor took Daisy with her to the polling place in Bibb City as soon as women got the right to vote. Eleanor’s name appears in the voter registration lists for 1920. What Daisy enjoyed telling the most was that as they were going up the steps to the voting hall, a man, obviously running for something, handed her a card. Eleanor looked at the card, threw it to the ground, and stomped on it with her little black lace-up boot, and said something that made the man move quickly out of their way.

Although she had three other sisters, Daisy was the daughter that Eleanor chose to wait on her on Sunday mornings and to take with her to her first vote. Eleanor was probably the one who made sure Daisy went to nursing school on scholarship so that she would have a career outside the mill.

Knowing Why

The Time I Met My Son