Leaving Salem

Artie Whitfield Bearden. My maternal grandmother was a woman like no other I have known. She died four years ago this weekend, New Year’s Day, 2003. She owned very little; a smattering of furniture; her clothing; a few gardening tools. When her “estate” was liquidated, she had less than $500 to her name.

Some of my most vivid memories of her center around her kitchen. It was a Southern paradise: Apple and chocolate pies, homemade biscuits, red velvet cake, sawmill gravy, fried chicken in an old iron skillet. On any given day all of these could be found on her kitchen table.

But there was a lot more to this woman than her culinary skills. She had a quiet resolve, a peace and strength about life and circumstances that seemed to transcend her surroundings. Conversations and interactions in that kitchen could have served as graduate courses in resiliency.

This came into sharp focus after a college history professor assigned my freshmen class the task of interviewing someone who had lived through the Depression and World War Two. Grandmother, as everyone called her, was the obvious choice.

Her mother had died when she was barely weaned. As a child and teen she heard the stories of the Great War and a few of the farm boys she knew even went away to Europe to fight the Germans.

She married my farmer grandfather at the height of this country’s economic collapse, but she had no historical appreciation for the Depression. In her words, “Somebody said there was one, a depression, I mean. But I don’t know about that. All I know is that it was bad before the thirties and bad after that too.”

She gave birth to eight children, and only one, my mother, was born in a hospital. Electricity and indoor plumbing were luxuries that didn’t arrive to her sharecropping home until this country and one of her sons was involved in a small Asian country called Vietnam.

In the course of her lifetime she witnessed the advent of the computer, space travel, the television, air conditioning, disposable diapers, crossword puzzles, penicillin, Tupperware, cellular phones, McDonald’s, satellite radio, 8-tracks, and MP3s. The changes imposed upon her otherwise plain life boggle the mind.

Through it all she was married to a man who could only be described as wretched. Floyd Bearden was plagued by the demons of depression, addiction, and alcoholism. He was given to violence and abuse. She was victimized by him and his wayward ways for decades.

But for a southern woman living in the middle of the twentieth century with seven children on a cotton farm, escaping such a marriage was impossible. It was a prison. While she refused to speak ill of my grandfather, she often intimated that it was after his death that she experienced the most peaceful days of her adult life.

That college interview on an October afternoon was a sentinel event for me. I grasped the true metal of this epic woman. Sure, I had eaten at her table more than my own. I had spent every summer in her house. I had listened to her stories and heeded her instructions. I loved and admired her more than any other person on the planet.

Now I understood why. She was more than a blood relative, a doting old woman with an eighth grade education. She was heroic. She had survived the death of her mother, Reconstruction, two World Wars, the Depression, poverty, the burying of a child, years of primitive living in the Georgia hills, abject abuse and marital exploitation, and the dispersion of her family to far away places. Incredible.

At the end of the interview I finally asked, “How did you do it? Raise these kids by yourself with no money, no help, and the world against you?” She stared out the window of her living room for a long time. It seemed she was consulting with that massive oak tree in the front yard; the only thing on the property older than her.

Finally, she chuckled, and her round belly shook beneath her pastel dress. With the light of life in her dark brown eyes she said, “I just did what I could. God Almighty took care of the rest.” Could there be a better mantra to live by?

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