On sunny spring mornings, the sun would shine on grandma’s face, highlighting the inward smile she permanently wore on her dark, pleasant face.
As she knelt over the hard patches of dirt, she took joy in her efforts, knowing that soon there would be flowers, tomatoes and peppers that would produce food and smiles for her and her grandchildren.
Although the landscape was troubled, crime-ridden and dangerous, grandma always took pride in her colorful neatly planted flowers in her front yard and systematically fenced vegetable garden in the backyard.
These were things grandma could control.
She also took joy in providing, mending and welcoming the broken into her home–the people who were often left behind and tossed out by either a mother, father or rejected by society.
A lot of the times these were her grandchildren or even neighborhood drug dealers, which would often intersect. She was the one to cry with, fuss with, celebrate joy with and someone with whom to whole-heartedly share flaws.
She was as flawed as anyone, yet her values and overall persona never wavered. Her Northern migration to a once mostly Polish middle-class neighborhood in Chicago never took away the Southern girl who knew the value of family and struggle.
Grandma grew up in Marigold, Miss. As a child, I remember visiting Marigold and meeting her mother, who had worked in the cotton fields.
Amid the unfamiliarity of the Southern breeze, I caught glimpses of my grandmother’s childhood as I raced with my cousins to see who could collect the most pecans that had fallen from the pecan trees.
I remember her mother sitting still in a chair as we galloped past her. At the time – more than 20 years ago – the landscape in Marigold was rugged, shabby, especially to a city girl.
My great uncle’s prized Juke Joint in Marigold was small and modest but a place I never forgot. The melody of “Mom’s Apple Pie” ringing from the antique juke box as I walked in as a child is a sound permanently implanted into my mind–a sound that later in life gave me an appreciation of the blues.
My visits to Marigold were always fun. There were never fancy gatherings; the people and places were always modest, but everyone always seemed to be happy and willing to make due with what they had as long as they had family.
One of my last trips to Marigold was when I went to see my great grandmother for the second time, except I wouldn’t see her alive. I sat in a small church surrounded by family mourning loudly; her casket lay in front of me.
Although I had only met her once, I could not fight back the tears: One reason being that she looked exactly like my grandmother, and I could not fathom seeing my own grandmother that way.
As a child, I didn’t realize that I would be in the same position seeing my own grandmother in a casket. Just as my great grandmother went away, my time with the pecan trees also went away.
My landscapes remained mostly urban but not without a little piece of Mississippi that my grandmother brought with her to Chicago.
It is now three years after my own grandmother has passed, and it often saddens me to visit the house she once decorated where my mother now lives.
In the spring, there are no flowers in the front, just scattered grass with patches of dirt. The backyard has no vegetation. My grandmother’s proud toiling in the soil is only a memory etched in my soul.
The family is now scattered around the city left with no common ground–no one to bring a little Southern warmth to the sometimes uncomforting environment and the unsettling world. These were and are things she could not control.
Even still, looking back, appreciating and instilling in our children some of grandma’s values – those that are often thrown by the wayside with each generation – is something we can all control.
Fountain teaches at Richland Community College. The former Austin resident graduated from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and has taken graduate courses at Illinois State University, where she plans to continue her studies.