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Friday, September 28, 2007

"Granny" Roberts was born 100 years ago today

Granny and me,
just before my high school graduation in 1992.

One hundred years ago today, on September 28th, 1907, in a tiny house amid the hills and valleys of Patrick Springs in south-central Virginia, Elsie Wimbish was born.

She was my grandmother.

She was, to me and to countless people who weren't even related to her, always "Granny".

Few people have played as big a role in my life, and who I wound up becoming - and am still becoming - as did Granny. I learned so much from her. How to laugh. How to love. And if need be, how to fight and more importantly why to fight.

In other words, she taught me a lot about how to live.

Elsie Wimbish, almost from the beginning, came from a humble background but had a colorful life in spite of it. One thing I didn't know until toward the end of her life was that when she was a young girl she met R.J. Reynolds several times (Reynolds' wife Mary Katherine was a close relative of the Wimbish family). When Elsie got a little older she moved to Rockingham County and worked at the American Tobacco Company in Reidsville. And it wasn't long afterward that she met and married Arthur Stiers. Together, Elsie and Arthur would have three children: Glendora, Michael, and Frank.

A few years later however, Arthur Stiers died. Elsie did her best to provide for her three children. Then she met a fellow named James "Duck" Roberts: my grandfather. They married and had five children: Kenneth (alias "Nub"), Jesse James (named after the gunfighter? I've heard stories...) AKA "Jack", Ruby (my mom) and Wayne. There was also one baby boy who died in infancy.

All told, there wound up being nine people - Elsie and James and the children - living in the small house on Pecan Road just outside of Reidsville (now inside the city, no thanks to the treacherous annexing of 1989). And from all accounts it was a pretty raucous affair. From the time that Frank was arrested in Reidsville driving a car with no lights, no horn, barely any brakes (the headline in the next day's Reidsville Review screamed "Franklin Stiers: Caught Driving Nothing But Motor and Tires") to the night that my mom almost killed Nub with a shotgun after he forgot his key to the front door and tried to come in through her bedroom window, to Jack's stunt at Lake Reidsville when he mounted a rocking-chair on a pair of water-skis, stories about life at the Roberts house have come to be pretty legendary in our family.

In spite of it all, Elsie (who was being called "Granny" by a lot of people not long after the birth of her first grandchild) kept the place in order, and maintained a house built around love for each other.

Central to everything in Granny's life was her fierce - and very sincere - faith. In fact, I would say that "mystic" wouldn't be too inappropriate a term to describe her relationship with God. She was always a churchgoer (she was one of the founding members of Evangelical Methodist Church in Reidsville) but seeking after God wasn't something that was a once-a-week affair with Granny. It was a constant, never-ending chasing after God and His will. It wasn't until years later, after she had died, that I really started to understand the kind of intimacy she had with God. It was a moment-by-moment thing that freed her to live as full a life as anyone on this Earth could possibly have. Some people, I hate to say, go through the motions of "worshiping God" and end up embittered because of it. That was never Granny. I don't know if she was ever bitter with anyone.

As I said, she was full of life. Part of that was that Granny was a notorious practical joker. I've heard dozens of stories about her wild youth and crazy pranks she would pull: usually on guys who were trying to woo her. Even after I was born, she went for the laugh. And sometimes her jokes would last for years... like how she had me convinced that she used to be a lawyer. It wasn't until I was sixteen that she came clean about that one.

Granny was a cook. Was perhaps famous even for her skills in the kitchen. That was her domain and she was the absolute mistress. There was nothing that she couldn't come up with. Her homemade biscuits: delicious beyond belief. Fried or barbecue chicken? She was amazing at both. Green beans and fried okra and baked potatoes and whatever else you can think of that's "country cooking". She was also adept at hamburgers, hot dogs, and pizza on occasion.

But don't think that Granny was somehow all "old-fashioned" either. She had a peculiar grasp of culture and new trends. And new technology even. I mean, my cousin Frankie could explain something to her that they were doing at NASA with the space shuttle, and she would listen with rapt attention and even ask questions about it. Whenever we all got together for dinner on Christmas night at her place, she always marveled at the new toys that the kiddies had got from Santa.

And then about a year before she died, I found her watching a movie on television via the recently-installed cable and it turned out that she was looking at - and enjoying - Fargo.

Yes, Granny was watching Fargo! And she thought it was hilarious!

Who you were, or where you came from, didn't matter to Granny. One of my cousins said on the night of visitation for her at the funeral home that "there was no telling how many people here put their feet under her table." He was right, too. It wouldn't be a stretch to say that the entire "rainbow coalition" wound up in Granny's house at some point or another. Every color. Every creed. Even some who practice what are called "other lifestyles" that many Christians would readily condemn.

But that wasn't Granny's way. She knew that every person was loved by God, and that meant that she was going to love them also.

There is so much that I could say about Granny, that I would probably have to be here until nightfall to write it all. She really was one of those rare "larger than life" figures that you meet during your time in this world.

And then on a Saturday morning in March of 2000, Granny had a heart attack. She was rushed to the hospital in Greensboro. She held on strong for a few days.

The following Tuesday morning, Mom was in her room and Granny looked up at her and smiled and said "I love everybody."

Mom was summoned by one of the doctors and had to step out of the room.

Two minutes later, on March 28th, 2000, Elsie Wimbish Stiers Roberts passed away.

I've never doubted that she wasn't alone in those final moments. There was a reason why Mom was made to leave the room, right just then.

Don't ask me how I know this. But I believe, as much as I am sitting here writing these words, that something happened in Granny's room in the last minute of her life... and she was the only one with earthly eyes who was allowed to see it. It was something meant for her, not for us. Something that Granny had earned during her long life of faith in God and love of others.

I can't begin to imagine what happened in that room in those fleeting last moments of Granny's life. But it was something made manifest as beautiful as her kind and loving spirit.

A few nights later we had the wake and visitation with the family at the original Wilkerson's Funeral Home in Reidsville. Someone told me that it was extremely rare to have as many people stretch around the block to pay their last respects to a person, as had come to see Granny one last time. I'm hard-pressed to remember anything like it myself: maybe two other people that I knew had lines anywhere near that long going out the door and down the sidewalk.

The next day was Granny's funeral. It was also my birthday. And I spent part of it as pallbearer for her casket: for the person that I had come to love more than anyone else in this world. And there's a lot more about that which I could probably talk about, but not here.

Granny Roberts lived to be 92 years old. Among her grandchildren and great-grandchildren there would be: teachers, ministers, a doctor, a renowned golf player, a prolific fashion model, a NASA engineer, armed forces personnel who served in two wars, business executives... and me. But I guess every family has to have a black sheep somewhere, doesn't it? :-)

So today would be her one hundredth birthday. And that seems like a very long time to most people, but is it really? I mean, one hundred years is a mere tenth of a millennium. And there have been only two of those since our Lord walked the Earth. When you think of it in those terms, our time here really is, as the apostle James put it, "a vapor".

But Granny knew how to pack in as much as you can into that time. She understood the things that really mattered and she made the most of them.

Do you think I'm here remembering her death? Certainly not! I'm here to honor her life and how she used it.

And what an amazing life it was.

Happy birthday, Granny. And we still love you.


qemuel said...

This is a very sweet entry. My granny would've turned 100 on November 1st of last year, and I still think warmly about her endearing stubbornness and those wonderful made-from-scratch biscuits...