I lost my grandmother yesterday evening. I was very lucky to be at her bedside when she passed, because she meant a lot to me, and after everything she did for my family, I was honored to be able to offer this one small favor in return.
If you’ll indulge me, I’d like to tell you about her. This won’t be a depressing tale, because Lillie Mae Cummings was an awesome woman. A lady, truly. But a lady with a steel backbone and some real nerve hidden under a sweet, shy exterior.
Grandma Lillie was born in 1919, and was a school-aged child during the Great Depression. She told me stories about how her packed school lunch was frequently a hard biscuit, water gravy and a sugar fried pie. She liked the pie…but that kind of makes cafeteria food sound good, right?
She met my grandpa at a taffy-pull when she was in her late teens. When she turned 19, he asked her to marry him, and they planned to meet at the JoP soon after. The morning of her wedding, her aunt came to wake her up to come work in the cotton field. Grandma said, “I’m not working today.” Aunt asked, “Why not?” Grandma’s answer? “I’m getting married.”
That’s right–she didn’t tell her family about her wedding until the day of, probably because they wouldn’t approve, and when her aunt told her she’d never be allowed to come back, Grandma packed a bag, went to town and married my grandpa.
She was kind of stubborn like that.
When Grandma had my father at the age of 21, she and Grandpa were sharecropping cotton and living in a little, 2-room house on their farm. It was the last day of April, so she’d taken down the stove to clean it…at 9 months pregnant. When she went into labor, she walked down to her in-laws’ house (Grandpa was helping out there) and told her MIL, who sent her home to bed and went for the doctor. Grandma had my father right there in that little 2-room house and that night, a blue-norther (as we call it) blew in. Weird cold fronts aren’t atypical in the Plains, but she’d taken the stove apart, and hadn’t had time to put it back together before going into labor, so she and Grandpa spent their first night as new parents huddled under quilts, holding the baby and hoping he wouldn’t freeze.
From that 2-room house, my grandparents worked hard enough to buy a modest home in town and send my dad to college. My uncle went to college, too. My dad even went on to earn his Ph.D in American History after retiring from a long career with the federal government. My grandma took to introducing him as Dr. Cummings after that.
Over the course of her life, Grandma picked cotton (from the time she was six), learned to wash dishes so young she had to stand on a box to reach the sink, cooked countless meals, cleaned house meticulously, worked in the Haggar Slacks factory sewing seams on men’s dress pants for 8-10 hours a day, raised a family back when it was uncommon for moms to work, and taught me to bake amazing pies.
When my mom died (I was almost 18), Grandma moved in with us to help dad take care of me and my sister, who was 16 and still living at home. Because that’s what she did–Grandma helped people. She was there when I got married, and there to help after I had both my children–never mind that she was 84 when my daughter was born. She was coming to rock the baby, cook the meals and do the laundry and I wasn’t allowed to argue about it.
Grandma suffered a number of setbacks the last 7 or 8 years. Dementia, frail bones and general aging slowly took her away from us.
But I’ll never forget her.
Lillie Mae Cummings
February 3, 1919 — January 10, 2013