My grandmother called me a feminist while we sat at the dinner table at her country club when I was 21 years old. It wasn’t a compliment. She said it in the same tone she used when she told me her neighbor, Mr. Hughes, was a Democrat. She said it after I showed up five minutes late with my hair in a ponytail and asked the waiter to bring me a beer instead of the wine list or a scotch, neat. This was feminism, apparently.
I loved my grandmother with an unfathomable passion—from the three strands of pearls around her neck to the tassels on her driving loafers. This was the woman who made me take piano lessons and attend etiquette school every Monday night. Who turned her nose up at being called Nana or Granny or any variation and insisted we think of a unique title that wouldn’t annoy her—Annie. Who made me promise when I was eight years old that I’d name my first yacht after her. I’d honor that promise to this day—if I could find someone to buy me a yacht. She was also the woman who helped elect every Democratic governor in the state of Kentucky, cursed like a sailor when she watched a Kentucky basketball game, and who never admitted to a single person that she couldn’t stand the taste of sweet tea. A walking contradiction.
She lived through the Depression, more than a few wars, hard times, better times, women’s rights, civil rights, a new millennium, a black president, and on and on. She used to talk to me about what the world would one day expect from me.
“Be smart, be kind, be calm and accepting,” she would say. “There will be times when you’re tempted to take, but you shouldn’t. You should always give. Give advice, give knowledge, give second chances, give opportunities and forgiveness. And for heaven’s sake, give compliments but don’t ever, ever ask for one. Beautiful things don’t ask for attention.”
Annie taught me self respect, discipline, and manners. She taught me to hold expectations for myself and for others.
In many ways, my father’s mother is Annie’s complete opposite. Granny cooked omelets in cast iron skillets with cheese she bought at the commissary, taught me how to make sun tea on summer afternoons, pushed me out the door every sunny morning and wouldn’t let me back in the house until the crickets came out. She measured things in bales and shitloads, called every boy “Junior” and every girl “Honey Boo.” And that was before the famous one. Where Granny and Pa lived, there were a million Honey Boo Boos. I played with many Honey Boo Boos in the summers I spent on my grandparents’ tobacco farm, except instead of spouting adorable sayings, they mostly just ate push pops until their whole faces were orange and threw rocks at animals.
Granny was one of nine children. In her day, people produced off spring for the sole purpose of gaining an extra hand on the farm. She began picking cotton not long after she learned to walk. The hulls of the cotton plant were hard, sharp, and rough. Much like she turned out to be. Granny taught me to work hard, to stand up to people, to have thick skin. She taught me to hold expectations for myself and for others.
As different as my grandmothers were from one another (one preferred Billie Holiday, the other Johnny Cash hymns), their foundations were the same. At Annie’s and at Granny’s house, respect for elders was the most important thing ever. Talking back to an adult or not calling someone “sir” or “ma’am” was a one-way ticket to being punished into another generation. If you couldn’t respect a grown up, you must have no home training, my grandmothers believed, and life was going to be a struggle for you. To this day, even as an adult, I struggle to call other adults by their first names. I’ll likely default to Mr. and Ms. until I’m dead out of force of habit. And honestly, I’m probably a better person for it.
My birthday is rapidly approaching and with it, another year of experience? maturity? life experience? knowledge? or just age. One thing is for certain, I’m definitely another year of expectations older.
Of my four grandparents, only my cotton-picking grandmother is still alive. I’ll never really know if I’m that feminist Annie accused me of being (or what feminism truly is, other than differentiating yourself from a doormat or a prostitute). I won’t know if she considers me disciplined, respectful and polite, determined or successful like she wanted me to be. After all, I still don’t have that yacht. In her old age, Granny rarely talks to me about hard work anymore, but I often wonder if she things I’m lazy compared to the life she had already lived at my age.
I suppose I’m officially a full-blown adult these days, though I don’t like to think about that too much. It’s been a long time since Annie tsked me for pulling at the collars of my dresses or Granny hollered at me for throwing rocks out of the gravel driveway, but their lessons live on.
From birth, parents and grandparents worry about what the world may do to their children. But few stop and think about what they might do to them. Or for them. Hopefully for them.