From time to time, I’ve been known to share a reflection or two about my Southern and rural family roots. Strangely, with the passing of Robin Williams, I’ve found myself remembering my father’s mother. I called her Grandmama, though the rest of her grandchildren called her simply, “Momma.” It would be easy to wonder how Robin Williams’ death might cause me to reflect on a woman born Evola (what a great Southern name) Cox in 1901. Bear with me. I’ll get there.
Grandmama was a smallish woman, not much more than 5 feet and 4 inches tall. You could always find her in home my father grew up in if you paused and listened quietly. She was always whistling softly, serenading herself and others with the comfort of the practice. She could make cakes and pies without a measuring cup or spoons. The palm of her hand, some flour, sugar and an assortment of other ingredients were all she needed other than a hot oven and a proper pie or cake pan. She fried chicken. Apple pies. She was a woman of great faith and practicality.
My father tells the story of flying home with her from Maine to Alabama after she’d returned with us from a Christmas visit. She was probably in her sixties and it was the first time she’d been on a plane. My father sat quietly beside her in what was regrettably a bumpy flight through a thunderstorm. Lightening actually struck the plane. My Dad says his mother did not flinch but simply opened her purse, took out a bottle, removed a pill and swallowed it without water. She never said a word. Nor did my father. Oddly, she’d never been able to take pills without a large glass of water in the past, but in this moment her sense of practicality apparently overtook her.
I remember many things about my grandmother, Evola Cox Owens. I remember her taking me fishing in a pond on family property. And her digging the worms near the barn for us to fish with and tossing them in empty tin can, for this is the proper way of a Southern woman. I remember she could sew anything from dresses to shirts. I still have a collection of handmade shirts she made me in the 1970s with intricate hand stitched embroidery and snaps rather than buttons. Yep. I was country when country wasn’t cool. I was an urban cowboy before John Travolta could do the Cotton Eyed Joe. My Dad says she could go to window shop in Birmingham and sketch outfits on mannequins in a notepad, then return home, and make her own patterns for sewing the outfits she had seen.
When Grandmama died in 1991 it was after a long journey with what may have been Alzheimer’s, though I don’t know if it was actually diagnosed. We just knew she didn’t always know us and got confused a lot. With her funeral came the sadness, renewed visits with distant family, and the encouraging of memories of my grandmother. I cannot recall who said to me but the single greatest tribute I recall was, “In all the years I knew her, I never heard her say an unkind word about anyone or to anyone.” This person was probably in her Sixties and 50 years of memories of Grandmamma. The sentiments about her kindness and gentleness, her unwillingness to judge others, and her generosity were overwhelming. Many came from people who’d “bought” groceries in the country store Grandmamma owned. Buying in that store meant mostly using “store credit.” And when the store closed, the credits “owed” to my grandmother became gifts to the people or a rural Alabama community. Her legacy was uncommon kindness in an unkind world.
So back to Robin Williams. How could these two be connected? I’ve been dismayed with some of the callousness of the media and public over the despair that lead my generation’s poet-jester to take his own life. Rather than simply be grateful for the laughter inspiration, or tears Williams gave us, or to reflect on what pain we have been spared, or simply mourn his loss, many have thought it their place to judge his final act, or condemn his daughter and family. Such obscenity proves Ron White’s maxim, “you can’t fix stupid!” and “the next time you have a thought, let it go.” Grandmamma probably knew Williams as that fellow who played “Mork” and wore the funny shirt and suspenders. She might not have thought he was funny. I’m sure she never saw any of his movies. But I’m also sure she wouldn’t have had an unkind word for him just as she never did for anyone else.
R.IP. Grandmamma. Say hello to Mork for me. I miss you both.