Written by: Tammy Hopper, Chief Strategic Initiatives Officer, National Safe Place Network
It would be difficult for me to think about or discuss the holidays without remembering my paternal grandparents and the influence they had on my life. As my mother’s parents had passed before I was born, my only experiences with grandparents were from a couple who were courageous, hard working, simple and very different from each other.
My grandma can best be described as a gentle soul who wanted to take care of everyone. She spent much of her life in a rocking chair, staring out a window and waiting for one of her children or grandchildren to come through the field to the back door of the kitchen. Regardless of the time of day, there would be something cooking. Chocolate pies (using a recipe that allowed her to stack them 3 high) would be in the pie safe and she would already be taking home grown vegetables from the stove before you could stomp the red clay of Mississippi from your feet and crack the screen door. Her desire was to care for each of her children by meeting very basic needs: food, love and knowledge of the Bible.
My grandpa was at work when he wasn’t waiting for grandma to serve a meal. Although he insisted that I was too young to help in the picking of beans in a field near the farmhouse, my memories were of watching him, my grandma and the other members of my family clearing row after row of vegetables in efforts to complete the task before the sun rose above the magnolia trees at the house. Grandpa was a no nonsense man who collected treasures from the castoffs of others and stories of his neighbors with an equal sense of purpose and passion. Quick to temper, he was also quick to defend and to encourage each of his children to stand up and be accountable for their actions.
My love of my grandparents deepened as I grew older and while we lived many miles apart, there was a strong emotional tie. However, this was not always the case. Love was shadowed by uncertainty and insecurity.
To be clear, as a young child, I felt isolated and different from not only my grandparents but from almost all of my relatives on my father’s side of the family. I don’t recall how I became aware of the differences between us. I just remember incidences of not ‘fitting in” and feeling as if I was living a life filled with broken rules.
I had two first cousins – one 11 months older and one 10 months younger – and we would come together on Sunday afternoons. While the adults conversed about whatever matter was most important that week, grandma would prepare dinner and the children would play outside. I remember attempts to play house that were never quite successful because we could not agree on the contents of our desired home. At the age of 6, it seemed quite important to me that we have a television, a record player and other items that were in my home. My cousins’ views of a proper home were of a stove and table with dishes set for the entire family. While this difference seems trivial now, at the time, I became lost in why there was a difference at all and what the difference meant.
I became increasingly aware that the conversations I attempted to have were challenging and that few commonalities exited between my experience and theirs. Once my older sisters and brothers were able to explain the difference, I understood but was still unsure of myself and how my grandparents could accept me.
My grandparents and the rest of my father’s family were members of a fundamentalist Pentecostal church. In the way they practiced their spiritual beliefs, they could not watch television, they could not listen to popular music, women could not cut their hair, wear pants or make-up, etc. Because my parents both came from previous marriages, neither were allowed to practice in the Pentecostal church in my home community, and therefore, my siblings and I were raised in a different church with different beliefs. I grew up knowing that the people I loved best in the world did not believe as I did and in my childish imaginings I wondered who was right and if I was “less than” because of these beliefs. I started looking for, and so easily saw, slight differences in the way that our branch of the family was treated. I became sure that these differences were proof of an insurmountable divide. This awareness brought hurt to my inexperienced heart. Was the look that I received from my grandma one of love or tolerance? Was she proud of me for what I knew and for the dreams that I had? Was it o.k. that I knew about Elvis and could do the twist? Would she be disappointed if she knew I wore shorts and played softball every weekend? Was it o.k. to be me?
Christmas was the time when we could all come together and exchange gifts and appreciate that another year had kept us well. My grandma’s care-taking and love of the holiday meant that the stove was always hot and oranges, apples and walnuts could be found on every sideboard. My grandpa’s stubbornness and final authority meant the Christmas “tree” was a small branch cut from a larger tree and decorated with a single string of lights and a star. To him, it was important that the tree be high enough on a table so that he could walk without running into it. So we would gather around the table and open presents. While every child has wishes, I knew that my wishes were different from what my grandparents would see as appropriate gifts. So, I would receive a purse or a scarf or mittens and I was always happy because it was the one time of year when my cousins and I were alike because we would all receive the exact same gift. It was at those times when it felt as though perhaps it was grandma’s way of saying that we were all the same in her eyes.
The year that I turned 10, the gifts yielded an unexpected surprise. We came into the room and as I walked around the large wood stove that covered a substantial part of the floor, I saw three large boxes. I knew immediately they were for my cousins and me and unless there was a pair of mittens for every day of the year, there was something unusual inside. Not knowing what my grandma would select that was so big, it seemed as if I were going to explode as we finished dinner and took turns opening packages. When it came our turn – my cousins and I, with no regard to waste of beautiful bows or paper, ripped into the packages. The room was quiet as I studied the pink on the package and examined the pictures on the outside. I remember feeling across the top of the package for sealing tape because for a split second, a thought crossed my mind that the box may have been one found by my grandpa and put to use by my grandma for the present. However, the box was sealed and as I looked at my cousins, I was pleased at their smiling faces as we realized that we had all received Barbie Dream Campers. Well, even if no one else understood, I knew we had received a mighty gift. Barbie and her large residential road warrior were very much a part of my dream world.
How did Grandma know? Did my parents say something? If so, why would she go along with it? I didn’t state the questions out loud. I just laughed and felt an immediate and lasting joy.
Looking back, the message that I took from the gift was simple. I was o.k. Even if I knew about different things and had different hopes and dreams for my life, I was just as important in my grandma’s eyes as the other members of my family. What I wanted and hoped for and dreamed about was just as acceptable as what they longed for in their lives. Years later, my grandmother shared with me that she had gotten the gifts because she had been in a store and had heard a woman talking about how the camper would allow little girls to make believe and imagine traveling and seeing what was beyond their own door.
As we celebrate a season that is filled with different beliefs, hopes and expectations for the world, I am reminded it is these differences in points of view and experience that make our world brighter. My life is fulfilling not because I am the same as everyone else but because I am different and because I embrace the differences in others. The truth in giving lies with the acceptance and love that is shared with a greeting or a kind gesture that says my world is better because you are part of it.
My grandma passed away in 1997 and a few weeks later, her husband of more than 60 years followed. I still return to that place and travel through that field, toward her home place and imagine her rocking in her chair, looking out the window and waiting for us to return. Now, I know she was not only waiting for us but she was also imaging those places that existed outside her door, over the hill and just beyond her reach.