On Mother’s Day, I couldn’t help but think of my grandmother, too, because she was also my mother. She was, and this remains true for many kids today, my second mother. She lived with us and was my back-up mom – my safety net of sanity when life got crazy. She was a grand-mother.
Her name was Nonnie, which my mom told me was short of Eunice. Nonnie was my nanny until I reached first grade. To the extent that I have any talent as a writer I attribute to her. She taught me to read and write early. She was a role model as a disciplined writer. When she was 70 she bought a Smith Corona electric typewriter – a beautiful shiny blue work of art with chrome trim. To me, it seemed like a sports car for writing. In six years she wrote four novels at the kitchen table during my nap time. The tap, tap, tap sound of the keys was my lullaby most afternoons.
She wrote under the name Sylvester Wimberley. Sylvester because she guessed a man was more likely to get published than a woman. Wimberley because she so loved that Hill Country town.
I wish I could tell you that Simon & Schuster discovered her and she had a couple of best-sellers, but that was not the case. When she died at age 82, in 1969, we found the four novels – and journals and diaries – in her chest of drawers, neatly stacked in manila envelopes beneath the many tablecloths she had crocheted over the years.
They were all moved up to the attic with many of her memories where they were out of sight, but not fully out of mind. When I was in graduate school ten years later, I went up there and found her manuscripts in an old suitcase behind Christmas decorations. The pages were yellowed and brittle, but still quite readable. Over the next few days I read them all. I had hoped to find an Atwood in the attic, but, truth is, Nonnie was more of a diarist than a novelist; more Aurelius than Atwood. She was, perhaps, like her grandson: good in short bursts, but not as skilled sustaining the long narrative.
One journal entry especially moved me; it focuses entirely on her lifelong relationship with her hair:
From my earliest memories my hair has been a subject of conversation. My father was the first to make me conscious of it. He thought it was beautiful. It was long and straight and heavy with a gold cast to it. My father would not let it be cut. Even as the younger girls were getting theirs cut, my father would not let me cut mine because he liked the length of the braid.
My grandmother was on her deathbed and mother had to take time about with her sisters caring for her. So my father took care of us and he had his say about how I should wear my hair. When I went to school the boys would make fun of it saying it was the color of molasses candy that had been pulled. I am not sure the golden tint was still in it then. The boys delighted in sticking the ends of the braids into their ink wells which earned them my angry retaliation.
When I was twelve I went outside with my grandfather McGee one summer’s day. I went out on the front porch with him just after sunup. He turned to talk to me and he stopped and said, “Eunice, I didn’t know that your hair was such a pretty red.” I laughed and said that it was just the sun shining through it and lighting it up like that. I never forgot that moment. I had had so few compliments in my life and I was to remember that one always. My grandfather would sometimes pass behind me at the supper table and run his rough hand over my hair. He didn’t say anything, but I found it as comforting as a compliment.
Many years later, after I had married, I still kept my hair long and braided. It had become strawberry blonde. I wore it as a braid wrapped around my head. I took the pins [out] of my hair and wrapped the braid around my neck. It was as wide as a collar. Once I was wearing it that way when I went to call on Betty Graham and she asked me where I got a collar that so closely matched my hair. I told her it WAS my hair. She had to take it down to see the length of it and was surprised by its weight, too. I suppose that was the longest, and heaviest, it ever was.
Once when my niece Guy Ann was five years old and she and I were standing out in front of the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio waiting for my husband Fred, a strange woman came up to me and said, “Lady, did you know that your hair and that child’s hair are exactly the same color?” I had not thought about it but when we got home Guy Ann wanted to see for herself. So she pulled my hair down and laid hers over it. Sure enough, you could not tell where mine ended and hers began. As the years went by Guy Ann’s hair got a little darker and mine got ever lighter until it was both blonde and white.
In 1963, when I was in my late 70s, I ran into Sam Black, a man I had not seen for fifty years. He greeted me with these words, “Well, Eunice, you have lost some of the gold in your hair!” Indeed I had.
Now that I am 80 years old, my hair is all white. White like new cotton. And I think it is just lovely.
My grandmother wanted all her life to be published. I am happy to know that, now, by quoting her here, she finally is. Happy Mother’s Day, Grandma.