I am a 43-year-old woman, and all four of my grandparents came to my daughter’s birthday party three weeks ago. Simply based the numbers, that is shocking! I am the oldest child of a first-born (my dad) and a second-born (my mom). In my family, people often get married soon after graduating from high school. One of the major benefits of this way of doing things is four-generation birthday parties on the regular. I realize how blessed I am. Almost no one my age has any grandparents around. Not only are mine here, but they are still partying with us, and I couldn’t be more thankful. They would never dream of showing up empty-handed to celebrate a birthday, but their real gifts to me have come slowly, over a lifetime.
Marian Jones, my mom’s mom, is hilarious in that delightful, self-deprecating way her generation embraced and ours knows nothing of. She is so, so funny. She is also so, so smart. When she discovered she was going to be the Millington High School valedictorian and would therefore be asked to give a speech, she intentionally made a few bad grades and was demoted to salutatorian in order to avoid any podiums in her future. She is deeply connected with the earth and always lets me know if there’s a special moon worth looking at or how her hydrangeas are doing this year. I have a snowball bush in my yard that came from clippings kept from her childhood home.
When I was little, we would share an armchair and watch Mama’s Family while eating popcorn and cut-up apples after the news. (Grandparents don’t know a thing about bedtimes.) Something would inevitably make us laugh until we were crying, and she would say, “We got our giggle boxes turned over, didn’t we!” She has a strong connection with words and images and—she probably doesn’t know it—she greatly influences my voice on the page. “Show. Don’t tell,” is a well-respected principle among writers, and it is intuitive for her. She has effortlessly linked me with the generations that came before her by making their biographies come alive with descriptions that captivate the senses. If I can muster up even a fraction of the gift she has for crafting stories, I will be quite happy.
Frank Jones, my mom’s dad, is a quiet man. He worked the graveyard shift at Kimberly Clark for over 30 years. On Sunday nights after church, we would pick up Krystal’s and go to their house for dinner. I remember my grandmother ironing his white, short-sleeved, button-down shirt for work just after the opening act of Johnny Carson. He read encyclopedias for fun when his four children were growing up, which led to a decades-long streak of undefeated Trivial Pursuit rounds with the family.
When I was 14, he would take me to the Bellevue Baptist Church parking lot and let me practice driving his little, red Toyota Corolla. Brave, brave man. “Keep your eyes on where you do want to go, not on where you don’t,” he would tell me. Even in that moment, amidst 8,000 empty parking spots in my 14-year-old skin, I remember thinking, “I bet that applies to more than just driving.” Life has taught me that he was right.
Ruth Williams, my dad’s mom, is the grandparent I am the most like. She is an opinionated mother of five, just like me. She cares what people think of our family, and I often do, too. She likes to get out and do fun things. So do I. Sometimes she can be afraid of situations that are out of her control. Same here. She has a child who developed a neurological issue as a toddler. I have one with the same issue. Last summer, when my child’s health challenges came to light in a very traumatic way, my grandmother was the one who talked me through it. She knew every single itty bitty emotion that I was feeling like no one else could. After listening to me sob on the phone over and over, she spoke tough love to me and said, “Candace, your girl will heal from a bump on the head, but not from a hovering mother. You must give her space to live normally and not smother her.”
That’s good advice for a mother of any child. I never knew how strong my grandmother was until I called her in my own desperate weakness. Now I see her beautiful courage, and knowing her blood courses through my veins makes me brave enough to mother like she did.
Robert Williams, my dad’s dad, has never met a stranger. He’s handsome and strong, with a man’s handshake and a calm spirit that makes anyone feel safe in his presence. He was a Boy Scout Leader for years and years. Even with all that toughness, he is perpetually ready with a joke on hand to put everyone at ease. He built their home thirty years ago with his own two hands, and he raises chickens on that acreage now. He is 83 and still does auto body work at Joe Stewart’s on Summer. He is the oldest son of eight children (six boys) and the stories they tell make me long for a life of that era.
This past Christmas Eve, I pulled up to my grandparents’ house and parked my car among the 30-ish others that were already there. Standing right out in front was a gorgeous nativity set—almost life size! “Get next to Mary!” I said, as I made my kids pose with the set. “I want to take your picture!” It was all aglow like something in a store-front window. I complimented my grandfather on it and he said, “Oh I just made that out of some old pallets and twisted hangers I found! We already had Mary and Joseph in the attic.” The man makes things. He always has and he has taught me that whatever your creative gift is, bless God and others with it until your breath runs out. Don’t stop making things new, even as you grow old.
This column is about wisdom. It’s not always explicit in the wording, but it is forever hovering in the shadows of my mind as I write. I can think of no better way to plumb the depths of wisdom than to observe the lives of four people who have lived a long time, and who still love and fear God. They’ve walked through some heart-shattering things in life, and yet, they’ve not lost their faith, their senses of humor, or their love for their families. They’ve hung onto who they are as individuals and as couples. They love nature in their own unique ways, and they allow it to remind them of their own smallness.
I could not possibly be more thankful for them and the legacy they have gifted me. Each of them has poured their lives into all of their children and grandchildren both through nature and nurture, and every time they take their seats at my dining table to celebrate another birthday, I am thrilled with their presence.
And humbled by their gifts.
Candace Echols is a Midtown resident, wife, and mother of five. She has written for StoryBoard’s Page One Writing Workshops, and writes in quiet moments from her yellow chair. Candace recently published her first book, the children’s book Josephine and the Quarantine, and now writes a column for The Daily Memphian.