Sunday, March 14, 2010

I am Thankful for my Great-grandmothers

In this age of transience, many younger people know little to nothing about their ancestry. I am blessed to have known two of my great grandmothers: Martha Lee Nettles (1863-1963) and Arilla Crews Harris (1881-1974). I can’t say I had a relationship with them and I doubt they knew my name. I was one of Speck and Teen’s boys. I can say I was in their presence multiple times and I felt the touch of their hands on my head. Both were strong women who were widowed early in life.

GGM Nettles was my paternal grandmother’s mother. Her early life was spent on Billy’s Island in the Okeefenokee Swamp where she was adopted into the local Indian tribe (although family tradition held she was a descendant of Chief Billy Bow Legs). She was a foot-washing, shouting Primitive Baptist. Primitive Baptists are hyper-Calvinistic. The elect are predestined to salvation and should have some spiritual confirmation of their election (often a dream) before presenting themselves for church membership. They only had church services once a month, but they had home prayer meetings often. On the Sundays they did not have service they visited other churches in their Association. Every spring after the crops were planted each church in the Association had an “Early Meeting” followed in the fall after harvest with a “Latter Meeting.” These were week-long times of fellowship and worship. Members of other churches would stay with host families for the meetings. My Grandmother, who was not one of the elect, hosted large groups for the closest congregation. Of course many of the guests were relatives.

Grandmother Nettles loved her church, the Corinth Primitive Baptist church, but they disfellowshipped her a few years before she died. She had moved some distance away to live with a daughter and could not attend services. It was reported she was listening to gospel singing and preachers on the radio, an offence to her church family. When she visited my Grandmother, my Grandmother always arranged for a prayer meeting. Her church concluded that if she was strong enough to travel to my Grandmother’s house and lead singing at a prayer meeting she was strong enough to come to church services. They disfellowshipped her for non-attendance. She was received into the Bethlehem Primitive Baptist church shortly before her death. That is where her funeral service was held on a cold day in early February, 1963. Corinth did allow the family to be bury her next to her husband.

Dad loved to quote her. My favorite quote was from when he asked her why she never remarried; Her husband, Martin Nettles (1870-1927), died 36 years before she died. She responded, “Son, a woman only needs a man for two reasons. You don’t need to get married to talk and I’m too old for the other.” As a child I wondered what the “other” was, but it had to be funny because Dad always chuckled when he told the story.

GGM Harris had the appearance of a granny from Li’l Abner. She was stooped, wore an oversized sun bonnet, and a long, calico dress often covered with a white apron. She didn’t smoke a pipe but she did dip snuff. Her husband, King David Harris (1878-1921), was reportedly a heavy drinker who physically abused her. He died fifty three years before her. Once we went to visit her when Darlene was still a preschooler. It was a cold day with a fire in the fireplace of the little shanty where she lived. We were listening closely to hear her soft voice across the small room when Darlene, standing next to Mom, blurted out, “Momma, why does Granny Harris have chicken poop in her mouth?”

GGM Harris was a little superstitious. She called tomatoes "love berries" and kept them as flowers in her yard but wouldn't eat them. My Grandmother O’Quinn told me that when she got saved, her mother, GGM Harris, told her to not go back down to that church anymore, “they’ll put powders on you, mesmerize you, take your snuff away from you and you want never be the same.”

Granny O’Quinn, with a grin from ear to ear, continued, “It weren't powders; it was oil. They didn’t take my snuff away from me. I threw it away. But she was right; I ain’t never been the same.”

My great grandmothers were strong women who were widowed young in life and raised large families. They not only survived, they thrived. Both took charge of their lives and left their children, grand-children, and great grand-children the example of an overcoming spirit. The thing that most stands out to me is that they were loved and respected. Deference was given to them. In an age that caters to youth I witnessed first-hand what it means to honor your elders.

Their presence put me in touch with my history. They knew and remembered well the 19th century. Granny Nettles was born when Robert E. Lee was leading the fight against northern aggression. In their lifetimes automobiles, electric lights, telephones, and airplanes were invented. To know them was to better know from where I came and to believe I can endure; I can overcome.

Cleveland, Tennessee
March 14, 2010

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Such rich history and poignant stories. Love to read your daily blog. I think that a book is in order after you finish the "I Am Thankful Series." Title of the book "I am Thankful: (something really catchy here).