Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Hannah remembers "Grandmam"

An excerpt from Hannah Coulter: a novel by Wendell Berry (Counterpoint, 2005) pp. 10-11. . .

Grandmam was still proud of the narrowness of her waist when she was a young woman. When she married, she said, her waist had been so small that my grandfather could almost encircle it with his two hands. Now, after all her years of bearing and mothering and hard work, she had grown thick and slow, and she remembered her lost suppleness and beauty with affection but without grief. She didn't grieve over herself. Looking me up and down as I began to grow toward womanhood, she would say, "Do you know your old grandmam was like you once?" And she would smile, knowing I didn't know it even though she had told me.
She would do a man's work when she needed to, but she lived and died without ever putting on a pair of pants. She wore dresses. Being a widow, she wore them black. Being a woman of her time, she wore them long. The girls of her day, I think, must have been like well-wrapped gifts, to be opened by their husbands on their wedding night, a complete surprise. "Well! What's this?"

Though times were hard and she was poor, Grandmam was a respectable woman, and she knew she was. When there was a reason for it, she could make herself look respectable. But mostly, when she was at home and at work, she wore clothes that many a woman, even then, would have thrown away. Her "everyday" black dresses were faded by the sun and lye soap, and they would be patched and tattery and worn out of shape. For cold weather she had an overcoat that must have been as old as she was, but it was, she said, "still as good as new." In any weather she was apt to be wearing a leftover pair of my grandfather's shoes that were too big. She never gave up on her clothes until they were entirely worn out, and then she ripped them up, saving the buttons, and wore them out as rags.

She was an old-fashioned housewife: determined and skillful and saving and sparing. She worked hard, provided much, bought little, and saved everything that might be of use, buttons and buckles and rags and string and paper sacks from the store. She mended leaky pans, patched clothes, and darned socks. She used the end of a turkey's wing as a broom to sweep around the stove.

She always had one Sunday dress carefully preserved that she wore to church and on her visits to town. For those occasions she had also, during all the years I knew her, a little black hat with a brim and a bouquet of paper violets, which she wore as level on her head as a saucer full of coffee.

My father was not a man of much ambition or, to be honest, much sense about anything beyond his day-to-day life of making do and doing without. It was because of Grandmam's intelligence and knowledge and thrift that we always had plenty to eat and enough, though sometimes just barely enough, of everything else.

And Grandmam, as I have seen in looking back, was the decider of my fate. She shaped my life, without of course knowing what my life would be. She taught me many things that I was going to need to know, without either of us knowing I would need to know them. She made the connections that made my life, as you will see. If it hadn't been for her, what would my life have been? I don't know. I know it surely would have been different. And it is only by looking back, as an old woman myself, like her a widow and a grandmother, that I can see how much she loved me and can pay her out of my heart the love I owe her.

As I'm learning...the lines between Berry's essays, poetry and fiction are fine ones. In my mind's ear his spare prose style is every bit as poetic as his poetry proper, and the values he celebrates as an essayist are consonant with the ones he so sympathetically illustrates as a novelist. Wendell Berry defies categorization, other than to say he is a writer.

I feel like I know Grandmam. She has virtues and traits and quirks that I recognize in my own female ancestors, some of whom I have only a dim memory of. Reading Hannah Coulter's memories makes those memories less dim. Berry invites his reader to look back at the "decider(s) of my fate" and to connect the dots of the "connections that made my life." His novels beguilingly tempt us out of the self-imposed isolation of late modernity into a grateful communion of saints and sinners without which we can't be fully human.

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