I’m about to write a eulogy for my grandmother. First, I need to write this. (I wrote about the renewal of her marriage vows here.)
My 85 year old grandmother (Winca Jewreen Graves Waltonen, who always went by Jewreen) died on Tuesday. She was married for 63 years, has 4 children, 9 grandchildren, and 14 great-grandchildren.
Growing up, I only had one grandmother–her–though I had two great-grandmothers. My grandmother was more like a mother in my childhood, however, as she raised me for three years when my mother couldn’t and had me for every summer and school break thereafter. Granddaddy (whom I call “Daddy” since that’s what he’s always been to me) had just retired from the military when I went to live with them. They were building a house–all by themselves–on the land my grandmother’s ancestors had claimed in Bay County, Florida, before Florida was even a state. (She has certificates for being both a descendent of Florida pioneers and of the confederacy.) Although she had moved with her Air Force husband to various points in the US and Europe, now it was time to go back home. I was the first extra child to move in with them in a small, round, two-bedroom house in a Florida forest, but not the last. They have only rarely lived together without a child or grandchild who needed a soft space to fall. When I had nowhere else to go after Alexander was born, Daddy picked us up from the hospital and took us home.
My grandmother was a unique and strong-willed person. Granddaddy often teased her about being a savage, based on a homestead without paved roads, childhood pets that included a deer who was allowed in the house (and even to eat off the dining table), and a strong desire to never wear shoes (this is where I get it, people!). She met my grandfather on a blind date and married him the same year. When her first daughter was 2, she gave birth to triplets. She often had to raise them alone for long stretches, as my grandfather served in both Korea and Vietnam. Grandma is still angry about Vietnam protestors (she has no pity for the Kent State students)–she won’t watch movies with Jane Fonda or anything by The Smothers Brothers. (It was my grandfather, though, who introduced me to The Smothers Brothers via audio cassettes he was hiding on the porch.) Although she’s traveled, she never lost even a bit of her Southern accent, but would get mad at waiters who would bring her ranch instead of french dressing, even though what she said was invariably “franch.”
She was a great cook, a solid disciplinarian to her children, a sewer of matching clothing. By the time I lived with her, though, she didn’t do much sewing. She seemed to retire a bit when Daddy did, so she would mend, but not sew. She stopped canning and baking. When I was very little, she and Daddy would visit friends and go square-dancing, but, fairly quickly, they retreated deeper into the forest. The few friends who hung on had to visit them, as they only left the homestead for groceries and doctors’ appointments. Grandma, who was a great lover of nature, spent more and more time indoors. Daddy continued to work outside, to farm, to master computers so he could do extensive genealogical research, to read a variety of texts. Grandma read romance novels contentedly.
Her family became her whole life (instead of the maybe 85% they were before). She worried about us, prayed for us, praised and chided us to each other.
She was not as hands-on as Daddy with the grandchildren. He would read to us and play with us. She wanted us in her lap. I became a Daddy’s girl, following him around the property, having him teach me rhyming games, teasing and being teased lovingly. Grandma nurtured me with food. When I was very young, I was under weight, so I was plied with small amounts of beer to increase my appetite. When it was discovered that I would eat almost any part of a pig and any fish that was fried, they were produced in abundance. We shared a belief that the best thing about a fried chop was gnawing on the bones (Daddy didn’t do that with us). My trips back home always included fried fish–both from her kitchen and from my favorite fast food fish place–and lots of fried okra.
When I was a teenager and started becoming interested in cooking, Grandma and I were really able to bond. Her recipes were not written down, nor did she ever use a measuring cup. I followed her in the too-tight kitchen, writing down what she did with the most loved recipes. A few I adapted later, but most remain the same in my kitchen. Measuring cups are still unused.
She has not been happy with my life choices–I shouldn’t live in California, I should be married with more children, I should be a housewife, I shouldn’t like The Simpsons because it’s an immoral show since Bart talks back–but she has always been very proud of me because I can cook. It is what she brags about with me and what the men in my life who’ve met her always brag about to her.
I have to admit that it hurts to know how unalike we are. Our tastes differ in entertainment (except TCM), in politics, in social policy, in intellectual pursuits, in beliefs about equality/race relations, etc. There’s no way she would have liked me if we hadn’t been family.
It hurt her very much when I moved to California to pursue my PhD and, more importantly, my place in the world, which, frankly, was just not in Northern Florida. She wanted me to give up Alexander, so he would be raised apart from California values and in the bosom of the family. She said, when it was clear that I was leaving, that she might as well die. It was only a little easier when some of the younger grandchildren followed my example to be beyond a few hours’ drive away.
Even though I was out of her physical orbit, however, I was never out of her heart. And even though we were so fundamentally different, there were some very important things that link us: We both believe the moment when Yul Brynner puts his hand on Gertrude Lawrence’s waist in The King and I is one of the sexiest moments in movie history. We both know about the pleasure of a pork chop bone. We both laugh more than most people, especially when we’re in pain. We both know that the first thing you should do when coming home is removing your shoes. We both know that she is lovable–when she turned 80, I gave her a list of the 80 reasons why. We both know that my last meal will include fried okra if I have any say in the matter. We both give people recipes with vague measurements because we just “know” how much of everything there should be. We both believe her husband is the best man in the whole world.
I’ll put up some recipes of hers over the next few weeks. First, want to share her BBQ Meatloaf. It is the only meatloaf I’ve ever had. When I was younger, I didn’t understand why people spoke of meatloaf with derision, as it was one of my favorite things. What it was, of course, is that they hadn’t had my grandmother’s, which was never dry, never flavorless. When I first saw someone else’s meatloaf, I decided to stick with what was great. Here it is; measurements are approximate.
Grandma J’s BBQ Meatloaf
1 lb. ground beef
1 tsp onion salt
salt to taste
1/2-1 c. bread crumbs
1 8 oz can tomato sauce (my change in the recipe is to use a 16 oz can so I can have more sauce)
2 TBS brown sugar
1/2 tsp dried mustard (Coleman’s)
2 TBS vinegar (I use a bit less)
a few ounces of water
Mix the ground beef, onion salt, salt, egg, and 4 oz of the tomato sauce. Form a loaf. Place the loaf in an 8 oz greased baking pan.
Mix the remaining tomato sauce (in the can) with the sugar, mustard, and vinegar. Add enough water to reach the top of the can. Pour over the meatloaf. Bake in a preheated 350 degree oven for 1 hour. (No need for ketchup on your leftover meatloaf sandwiches–the sauce will be even better!)
PS–I tried for over an hour to insert a couple of pictures into this post. It’s just not working. However, you can see pictures of my grandmother at the link in the very first line.