Knowing I would see Mam-ma and Pap-pa saved me from completely drowning in the trauma surrounding me. They provided me with a refuge away from my chaotic home life, a safe place where I could be a care-free child without fear of criticism or rejection. When the fighting between my mother and stepdad became too much or the kids at school bullied me worse than usual, I reminded myself that I would see Mam-ma and Pap-pa in just four more days…two more days…tomorrow. It was my countdown to innocence.
On Fridays during the school year, my mother would pick me up after school and we’d head straight to their house where she would drop me off for the weekend. They had a long gravel driveway on the side of their house leading to the back door which we used to go in and out of the house. The rocks crunching under the tires signaled freedom was in my possession. Mam-ma and Pap-pa always watched for my mother’s car to arrive, and I saw their faces the second we rounded the corner, either sitting in lawn chairs on their back porch or holding their screen door open for me. I could not get out of the car fast enough. With a snippy “bye” from my mother, I would grab my suitcase and run toward their smiling faces. I was always greeted with hugs and a genuine happiness to see me. During summer, I would spend weeks at their house. My visits always came to an end too quickly, no matter how long I had stayed. I’d hear the rocks crunching again, but this time it meant I had to return to my miserable mother. Holding on to my suitcase and holding back tears, I would hug Mam-ma and Pap-pa goodbye knowing I would have to endure yelling and cussing and insults before I would get to see them again. I’d get in the car and my mother wouldn’t ask me if I had fun or what I did or any of those usual parent questions; she took no interest in my time with my great-grandparents. In the healing work I’ve done, I learned that emotionally absent mothers are often jealous of their daughters’ relationships with others because it takes away from the attention she desperately craves. How could I possibly meet her needs if I was having fun with my great-grandparents? Sometimes she punished me by not letting me visit them. Once she told me, “And don’t even think you’re going to Mam-ma’s and Pap-pa’s where they think you’re all good.” Why couldn’t I be all good?
My great-grandfather was a World War II army veteran. He was stationed in the Pacific and developed melanoma on his forearms from prolonged sun exposure while he was an infantry soldier. He went through multiple rounds of chemotherapy but I never heard him complain about medical bills or chemo side effects. He was never too tired or sick to spend time with me playing dominoes, “Go Fish” or UNO—a few of our favorite games we’d play at the kitchen table. And he adored Mam-ma. Their marriage was the only loving relationship I saw growing up. I remember thinking from a very young age, “I’m going to marry someone who loves me as much as Pap-pa loves Mam-ma.” That was a powerful antidote to the messages I received at home where relationships were easily disposable and one’s lovability was determined by external factors.
Mam-ma always cooked dinner: my most favorite was chicken fried steak and my least favorite was beef stew. Pap-pa always cooked breakfast. His breakfasts were the best—scratch-made biscuits and cream gravy, crispy bacon and hotcakes. Instead of syrup on my hotcakes, he would put a chunk of butter and a layer of sugar so thick that I could feel the grittiness from the grains of sugar between my teeth as I chewed. It was downright delicious. They always shared a pot of fresh coffee. Once I was old enough to understand the importance of coffee with breakfast, well I wanted to drink coffee, too. They would put just a few drops of coffee in my milk so I could “have a cup of coffee” with them at breakfast. As I got older, the coffee-to-milk ratio increased dramatically, but I’ve always preferred plain milk in my coffee over anything else. Breakfast always included a reading from Our Daily Bread. Mam-ma usually did the reading but once my reading skills had progressed to devotional-level, they let me read the scripture and lesson. I thought that was just the coolest thing, reading to my great-grandparents, their eyes and ears fixated on my every word. Today I treasure a coffee mug that belonged to Mam-ma. Printed on the mug is the scripture, “He leads me beside quiet waters.” I feel a calm wash over me when I hold this mug, and I feel nearer to God, to my great-grandparents and to my authentic self.
My great-grandparents were loving Christians and set such a positive example, always encouraging me to seek out the Lord. Since I visited them most weekends, I would attend church with them. Their house was in walking distance to the church, so we would eat breakfast and then walk to church. I took delight in watching Pap-pa talk to everybody when entering the church and I loved signing the guest book, proof I was someone who mattered. Their church was mostly old people, if I’m being honest, which meant we’d sing old hymns to the melody of a pipe organ. Sometimes I paid attention and sometimes I didn’t have a clue what the pastor was talking about. The point was we went together as a family.
Despite my traumatic home life, I always had my great-grandparents to hug me and tell me they loved me. Their home is a collection of mementos and activities I will never forget: the cookie jar super glued back together after I accidentally broke it, Mam-ma’s house slippers with heels I’d clink clink around in, their big backyard with pecan trees and a tire swing and vegetable garden. They had a bird feeder and bird fountain I would help fill each morning. Mam-ma had a hothouse where I would tend to the plants, and Pap-pa had a workshop in the back of their garage where I would hammer together random pieces of scrap wood. When it would rain, they let me put every pot and pan and bucket in the driveway so I could collect rainwater for no reason at all. My fondest memories are time spent at their modest lake house catching fireflies, collecting pinecones and watching in awe as Pap-pa grilled the minnows I caught at the lake. These memories are planted deeper than depression will ever be able to invade.
They are both gone now, my great-grandmother since 2007 and my great-grandfather since 2001. I was lacking in so many ways—life with my mother was confusing, unstable and conditional. The amount of patience and dedication and love they gave me I can only fully realize and appreciate today, decades later. My heart aches when I think of them no longer being here, but I know they are living it up in heaven with the Father they always talked to me about. I wish I could tell them thank you and hug them forever for their saving grace. I can thank them and honor them in the present by living a better story, not succumbing to my depression or anxiety, and spending time reading and writing—two things they always praised me for doing.
When I start feeling weighed down with the chaos and confusion of a broken childhood, I have one safe place I can always return to, a place where my sadness and worry is washed away by the Lord, and I’m back at the breakfast table drinking coffee milk with my Mam-ma and Pap-pa.