Rosa Alice Steele, my maternal grandmother, was born on May 7, 1887. Every year around her birthday I remember her. I think of her a lot at other times, too. You see, my mamaw was my most faithful friend during my adolescence.
I was fortunate to live next door to my grandparents and my Aunt Reb. When the walls at my own house felt like they were closing in, I could go next door to hang out with Mamaw Robinette, and of course she was always there.
I sort of tolerated my grandfather, who was in his 90s and was “off his rocker,” as we described dementia then. He wasn’t the most pleasant person to be around. Papaw was an angry old man who raved (usually random scripture verses that never made sense to me … one phrase I remember was “how great is that darkness!”) and struck out with his cane at anyone who tried to help him out of his chair. Once he got to his feet and his blood was circulating a bit, he’d be okay.
Mamaw, on the other hand, just got sweeter as she aged. When I think of her, I mainly remember her and Papaw sitting in their rocking chairs in the sunny den of Reb’s house. Mamaw made funny remarks about everything. I can’t recall many of her sayings except for one, “Hurrah, Bessie!” which she used whenever anyone made a racket in the kitchen or dropped something on the floor. Whether or not the scenario was true, that saying made me envision her sitting on a stool as she milked her cow, talking to the cow as it kicked over the bucket.
I recall many happy hours spent in that den. It was a place where I could go and feast my eyes on the “idiot box,” as my mother called the TV. I watched “The Brady Bunch,” “Petticoat Junction” (Mamaw loved that one), “Dragnet,” “Jeopardy,” “The Beverly Hillbillies” (another of Mamaw’s favorites), “Gomer Pyle,” “The Partridge Family” (while I drooled over David Cassidy), and the nightly news with Chet Huntley and David Brinkley. On Saturday nights my family gathered in that small den to watch “Lawrence Welk” and his bubbles (and the beautiful women who sang; I loved how cheesy it was) and “Hee-Haw” (perhaps a foreshadowing of my future home, Music City, USA).
To this day my husband of almost 30 years doesn’t understand why watching TV is such a social event for my family. He wants to watch a show uninterrupted, and we usually do at our house, except when one of our young adults enters the room and wants to tell us something. (Thank God for being able to record shows and pause them at will.) My family of origin talks through TV shows, making a running commentary on whatever is going on, especially during “Jeopardy!”
Anyway, back to Mamaw. When I was in 7th grade, she and my grandfather were separated into different bedrooms. At the time, I was told that it was because Mamaw was wetting the bed, and Papaw couldn’t handle that. My mother arranged for me to sleep in the same bedroom with Mamaw. (It was only later, when I was married, that my uncle told me the real reason Mamaw and Papaw slept in separate bedrooms. Papaw had a strong sex drive even in his 90s. He was driving my grandmother crazy, and dementia already ran in her family.) Somewhere during that time she had a “nervous breakdown, ” and I’m not sure what came first, the breakdown or some heart problems for which she was hospitalized. The doctor gave her some medication to which she had a psychotic reaction. She never was the same after that, but it was a happy kind of crazy.
Thankfully, I was blissfully unaware of the real reason I was assigned the responsibility of staying with Mamaw. I would slip into my twin bed at night after she’d been asleep in her hospital bed that my aunt bought for her (to keep her from falling out of bed). I’d turn on the lamp on my bedside table, and Mamaw would wake up and talk to me for a bit. Usually I told her whatever was going on with me that day, and she listened and made witty comments. I knew I had talked long enough when I heard this little puffing sound, signaling that she had fallen asleep and was snoring.
I don’t know how I would have fared during my teen years if it hadn’t been for Mamaw’s patient listening, even when she was losing her grip on reality. I poured out my soul to her, and she received my confused thoughts and ramblings as if they were a gift. Perhaps she could relate to them because her own mind was slipping away.
Mamaw lived to be 96. My grandfather lived to the ripe old age of 101 (he died when I was 16). I was married and living in Nashville when I got my mom’s phone call informing me that Mamaw had died. It came during a Tupperware party that I was hosting. John went into the living room and informed our guests of the news I had just received. All I did was weep that night.
When my family planned Mamaw’s funeral, someone asked me and two of my cousins to sing. I said, “I can’t do it.” I know of many musicians who sing at their relatives’ funerals, but I was just too close to Mamaw and emotional about her death that I knew I couldn’t sing without crying. I wound up playing the piano, and that was okay, because I could cry and play at the same time.
One hymn I remember Mamaw singing was “Farther along we’ll know all about it; farther along we’ll understand why…cheer up, my brother, live in the sunshine. We’ll understand it all by and by.” I don’t remember what hymns I played at her funeral, but I can still hear her singing those words.
Rosa Alice Steele. A teacher in her young adult years. Mother of six strong, opinionated women. Humble, patient, hard-working, loving (though underneath there was some rebellion) wife to a demanding husband who was a farmer and ruled his family with an iron fist. Grandmother to 7, of whom I was the youngest. By the way, she was my namesake. My middle name is Rose.
I am so fortunate to have had her in my life.