I’ve been sitting on this post for awhile because I know it will make me sad to write it, even as I want to share these memories and keep them for the boys and my family. My grandmother (mom’s mother) died last month at 95. She was amazing.

Mom, Granny, Me (January 2020)

When I was a kid, she was the book fairy. Granny would take me to the bookstore every time we went anywhere, but especially if we were with my Aunt Linda, or if we were about to drive back up to Rough River for a long weekend. She and I would wander the store for at least an hour (and often longer). When she’d decided on her book(s), she’d come find me. “Well, sugar, did you find anything you can’t live without?” And I’d always have two that I was “trying to decide between” and she’d always take both up to the cash register with her. Then we’d spend the next 2-4 days reading.

One summer, my aunt Kathie and Granny took Andrea and me on a trip to Pittsburg to visit great aunt Kathie. On the way up, we stopped at a bookstore, and Andrea and I picked out a couple of books each. We were being very strategic, in that we had to agree to the other’s choice so that we wanted to read that one too. At some point, we got into it about who could read what when, and Granny said, “Oh for heaven’s sake, she’s not going to read the print off of it.” And we were both chagrined.

Anther summer, Granny took my brother and me camping in Tennessee on the way to Johnson City to meet some of her elderly relatives and friends. I have no idea why she thought camping with the two of us was a remotely good plan. I remember that we pummeled each other in the weeds around the campsite, landing a massive case of poison ivy, while Granny serenely cooked up some eggs and pancakes on her griddle. She didn’t even notice that we were itchy. But that’s how she was. Not overly bothered if you weren’t bothering her.

Speaking of pancakes. When my brothers and I would go stay with my grandparents for the weekend, Granny would make pancakes with her own homemade syrup. For years, I thought that syrup was magic. It was that good. Turns out, it was brown sugar, heated up with a little water. She also stocked Crystal Light Lemonade for all times of day and night, and we often snuck around looking for treats. My grandfather was already diabetic at the time, so treats were pretty few and far between. One time, my brothers and I thought we’d struck the jackpot with some pretzels. They were disgusting! No salt.

My grandfather wasn’t actually too keen on kids coming to visit. Once he said, “Doralee, who let these kids into my house?” after we’d messed with his TV/VCR once trying to hook up our Nintendo. She wasn’t beyond using choice phrases, and I think this one earned him a “Damn it, Jimmy, they’re Connie’s kids.” Not “your grandkids,” mind, because I don’t think that would have helped him much. Once, as a tween, I called to find out if they were coming down for a visit, and Jimmy answered. When I asked to talk to Granny, he said, “Your granny doesn’t live here.” and hung up on me! I called back, and practically bellowed into the phone, “I want to talk to Doralee!” Then he called for her. Their house was always loud with energetic political debate and lots of swearing.

Granny loved to travel. Anywhere, anytime, with anybody. She often accompanied us on family trips. We got a pretty big kick out of her as kids. She’d wander around diners looking for the coffee pot. She’d let us stay up too late watching TV (who’re we kidding, MTV, and inappropriate as all get out) in the kids room until way too late as long as she was reading and we weren’t bothering her. Once, she took us to see Home Alone in the theater on a trip to Texas. She bought us some popcorn and Coke and vaguely said she was going to sit in the back of the theater so it wouldn’t be so loud. My brothers and I laughed like loons in that movie. I never saw or heard Granny once. As an adult, looking back, I think she ducked out and went to see a different movie on her own. I don’t blame her.

I was a busy teen and didn’t see much of her in high school, and she was busy taking care of my grandfather, whose health had declined. However, she still made time for trips down for important milestones like plays, tournaments, and graduations. She also did lots more camping, as I found out later, when every time I talked about maybe going somewhere, she’d been there.

In college, I was home on winter break and hadn’t gone back to school because my study abroad meant I didn’t have to return to campus when everyone else did. At the time, it was just an opportunity to try to work a bit more and save up for my program. I’m glad I hadn’t gone back, because my grandfather died right after Granny’s birthday in 2001. We all headed up to the house at Rough River to drink margaritas, bring some food, and share memories. Tyson, Granny’s cat was appalled at the hubbub. I don’t think he ever forgave us and attacked anyone who entered the premises even years later. The last time I saw Jimmy, he looked mournfully at Tyson, and told me, “She loves that cat more than she does me.” He was kidding, but Tyson was a tough old companion.

I moved back to Kentucky after college, and it gave me a chance to develop my own, more adult relationship with Granny. I’d go up and visit, or she’d come visit us in Bowling Green on her way to Franklin. We went to shows at WKU or at the Capital theatre together. She was always up for a trip to Louisville, where we’d hit the movie theater for whatever weird thing she wanted to see was playing. Once, I lost the movie pick and my mom and I had to sit through Quills with Granny. At least she was liberal enough that sitting through a feature length film on the Marquis de Sade, wasn’t too awkward (until the end, when he started writing his essays in feces on the wall of his cell….) I wanted to watch Best in Show, which I’m sure we can all agree would have been a better (funnier) choice. We’d meet up with my cousin at Ramsey’s afterwards. My friends Bonny and Amanda and I went to the Speed Museum and met up with Granny after. For a while, she and I had a tradition of going to an art museum, or botanical garden, or historical house in Louisville or Nashville for the day. I drove because, while she still could drive in the cities in her 80s, it wasn’t optimal.

Thanksgivings were always fun then. We would bring around whichever Colombians were living with us at the time, and my brothers and cousins would show up with friends or partners. Patrick and I had brought cheese for the Thanksgiving appetizers… One of the cheeses was soooo stinky none of us could eat it. We debated tossing it. I said, “Leave it out and we’ll see if Granny eats it.” She came in a few minutes later and started in on that block of cheese. No cheese was too stinky for her!

It was hard on her when she broke her leg at Jenny something state park in eastern Kentucky. She wasn’t able to drive for some time, and my mom and dad and I went to fetch her and the car. She’d been with my aunt Linda’s mother on that trip, so I was put in charge of driving Florence back to Hardinsburg. That was a trip. Poor Florence wasn’t happy to have her time with Doralee cut short, and I’m not sure she thought I was a better driver than Doralee. Granny did not let that leg get her down or slow her up.

Sometime in the early 2000s, Granny decided Elderhostel trips were too tame, and she wanted to go to Ecuador with the University of Kentucky. So she did. By all accounts, she had a great time, but the best part for me came a few weeks later. Patrick and I had gone to Lexington to visit my friend at law school. We were out at a bar with some of her friends, and one of them was talking about the summer study abroad program he’d been on to Ecuador and the Galápagos Islands. I said, “How cool! I think my grandmother may have been on that trip!” My friend said, “No way, Leigh, this was trip for students.” And her friend said, “Oh, yeah? Who’s your grandmother?” “Doralee” said I, and he whooped, “Doralee ROCKS!” I guess she charmed everyone by being probably exactly like she was with us, non-judgemental, didn’t ask too many questions, and mostly minded her own business. Meanwhile, Patrick was laughing like crazy and my friend was completely incredulous.

In 2006, Patrick and I moved to New Mexico for my graduate program. Granny came to visit a couple of times with my parents, but we all agreed it would be more fun if she just came out for her own visit and stayed with us. We prepped. We bought the box wine. We stocked up on coffee. We researched some places to go. Granny came, she saw, she conquered us. We went places I’d never even heard of in New Mexico, including some Pueblo ruins. We also went places I’d wanted to go but hadn’t made time for like Museum Hill in Santa Fe, and finally, I took her to the Bosque del Apache to see the amazing fly-in fly-out of the sandhill cranes. She had a way of opening my eyes to the excitement and novelty of whatever was around. When she left, Patrick and I slept for two days straight. Not really, but we felt very prepared when Seamus came along, because we’d been worn out by someone with a lot more energy. She drank coffee all morning, some water mid-day, and box wine after 4:00.

When we moved to the DC area, we decided to try another visit with Granny, but by now, she’d become G-G, for Great Granny. Seamus and Gilbert were little (3 and 2), and it was December or November when she visited. We took a trip to the FDR Memorial. Here’s a recap of that visit. It was funny, she was still really spry, but she couldn’t do as much with the kids. Instead of worrying about that, they simply asked for what she could do, and she read them book, after book, after book while they cuddled around her. I’m appalled now by what I did, but not overmuch. I couldn’t face the rush hour drive to Baltimore, so I LEFT my 87 year old Granny at the Greenbelt Metro station to catch a bus to the airport on. her. own. It seems shocking now, but you have to know that I had no doubt she could manage that on her own. I’m not sure it pleased her, though.

When we had Porter, we were pleased to discover that Porter had some family name connections to Granny’s family. However, we learned that for much of her childhood and even into her relationship with my grandfather, people called her Waggy, as a nod to her last name. Chalk that up to things I didn’t know about her. And that’s the thing, I knew her well. We got along great, but there’s so much I didn’t know and won’t. I think that’s okay in some ways, because I knew the things she wanted to share with me.

In the last five years, most of our visits have been when I take the kids to Kentucky. We had a wonderful time in Lexington, visiting Boonesboro, and later, when it was just she, Harlan, and me, we checked out a hidden spring in Lexington and went to Bardstown via Frankfort. She was still living with my aunt Shirley at the time, so she was getting around well, but not driving. Those were some of my favorites, when I knew I could make her happy by just driving her past something she was “kind of interested in seeing.” It was like the books of my childhood, all she needed to tell me was what she wanted to see, maybe. That day it was the Frank Lloyd Wright house in Frankfort and the view of the statehouse.

Seamus says his favorite memory of G-G was one of our recent trips to Franklin, where she was excited to show us the fork in the road, which was stuck in the fork in the road. Her world had gotten smaller when she moved into a room, but she still had independence, and always, always there was something new to see. We all got out and took pictures and laughed. Gilbert says his favorite memory is when he told her about his Galapagos trip. Harlan’s says, “She gave me peppermints” and Porter says, “She smiled a lot.” When I told the boys she had died, Porter was very worried and asked if Granny and Grandaddy (my mom and dad) were going to make sure no vultures got her. Gilbert was deeply sad, and wanted to know about how we were all feeling. Seamus was betrayed by the fact we hadn’t told him she was getting close to the end. Harlan doesn’t understand, because he asked me yesterday when she was coming back to life.

I’m so grateful that my family was able to gather and celebrate her 95th birthday in January of this year, before pandemics kept us apart. She was so happy at her party, mostly because of the adorable Piper-doodle my cousins brought. It was a busy day, and full of love and laughter. But my favorite memory is the next day, when I asked her if I could visit around 6:30 on my way home from Nashville. My parents thought that was crazy, “Let her get her rest!” but she was up for it. We had a wonderful evening, she with her box wine, cheese, and pretzels, Harlan with her pretzels and some milk, and me with my beer. I don’t remember what we talked about (knowing us, it was books, travel, politics, more books, and why people today have too much stuff), but it was comfortable and warm and felt like she’d always be just like that.

My last visit with her was through the door at her assisted living place in June. She’d dressed up in a dress she made herself (probably in the late 70s from the pattern and print, but as we know, style comes around, and she looked fabulously vintage). We talked on our phones through the door, about camping in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan (she’d gone to Isle Royale in the 90s) and Charles Booker’s chances against Mitch. When we headed out to go camping in Tennessee the next day, it was raining, so we had to forgo a visit. I texted her a picture of our campsite with us all huddled under the rain shelter. Ever the optimist, she texted back, “The weather is supposed to improve!” And it did.

I miss her presence. I have these memories and more. She lived a long life with lots of family, adventure, and love. Yes, of course, hard times too, but that’s what made her even more impressive.


1 comment

  1. When this pandemic is over we all need to get together and sit around telling granny stories. My first introduction into the family was being invited over for supper in early 1967. It was SO LOUD! Everyone talking at once. It was a political argument. It took me awhile to realize everybody was on the same side! Several years later at that same supper table all five of us young people were biology majors from WKU and Doralee a chemistry major and Jimmy an ag major — we we all describing quite graphically medical school topics including dissections. No body batted an eye. Any stranger would have left the table for a quick vomit. It is a special family and I give all the credit to Doralee’s influence. Everyone is intellectually curious, ready to try new things and pretty non-judmental.

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