Surrounded by 91 laughing, mingling people I leaned into my grandmother, Viola Barksdale, at her 90th birthday party.
Look at all the people you made!” I quipped.
I love getting to see everyone, but I most enjoy seeing how delighted everyone is to see each other.
In 1923, my grandmother Viola Barksdale was born smack in the middle of 13 children. She was born in an itty bitty Mormon colony, Kelsey, hidden away in East Texas, the middle of the Bible Belt, they were religious radicals. The town had a school house, a gymnasium where they held high school and the church that drew newly-converted Mormon families from all over the South. Her mother, Sarah Chevalier, had wanted to move there from Louisiana to be among like-minded believers and somehow she convinced her husband, William, to do it. They had 13 children, 11 lived to adulthood. William died early and Sarah and the children had a hard life. They picked cotton in the Texas heat and humidity until their fingers bled. They milked cows in the middle of the night for a local dairy. They gardened. They scraped by.
They went to church dances to fellowship and court.
I hope you dance, she told the 91 people who came to celebrate her at the party, I missed some opportunities to dance and I wish I hadn’t.
Viola’s nickname growing up was Hoppy, because she loved the baby bouncer. My children have resurrected the endearment, calling her Hoppy rather than great-grandma.
My grandmother was the first person in her family to graduate high school. She almost had to stop going to school to help the family survive. As a teenager she was responsible for washing the clothes of 12 people—by hand.
When she was 19-years-old, she married a 27-year-old faithful man, Arley Barksdale, who owned a dump truck business. It was a love match. They married for “Time and All Eternity” in the Mormon Temple.
He waited for me, she says grinning like she has a little secret. She did. The secret was love and a commitment to shared Mormon values. They would work hard, raise a family and hold to their faith.
Mothering, A Career Path
They moved to a nearby town and he took a job at Kodak-Eastman in the maintenance department, where he was passed over for promotions by men with college educations. This made an impression on them.
While he was at work, my grandmother raised the children and she was profoundly grateful that she didn’t have to keep an outside job while she did that.
They had six children together, four girls and two boys. They lived in a home he built himself, on some acreage in the woods with a creek running behind the house. The girls shared a room, each had one drawer. They dug a well which produced mineral heavy water with a sulfurous aftertaste, but which made the saltiest ice, oddly satisfying to children who would run in from the Texas humidity to suck the salt off. While the house was being built they lived in a barn with holes in the ceiling that let every Texas raindrop soak through. Later they put a horse named Charlie in the barn. Cows roamed the property keeping the brush in check.
Hanging from one of the massive trees, a tire swing, the grass beneath worn away. Generations of children and grandchildren have found exhilarating thrills on this swing. So much play has it gotten that it’s had to be replaced a number of times.
Higher! Higher! Under! Around and around! Faster! Faster! children have squealed.
My grandma lives there today, by herself, keeping the yard tidy, keeping her home neat and welcoming. She still makes the best Southern food in the world. Home grown squash is like a creamy dessert. Every meal is a banquet. As one meal ends, she prepares to make the next one. Her secret ingredients? Sugar and butter.
You eat to keep from getting hungry, is her motto.
One of the most monumental things my grandparents did for our family was to send their six children to college. They sacrificed other things in order to send them to Brigham Young University or Rick’s College in Idaho (now also BYU), private Mormon schools.
You’ve heard the jokes about sending girls to college for their Mrs. Degree. It minimizes the impact of sending girls to college to find husbands. However, statistically this was life changing for future generations. When one parent graduates from college their children are 50% more likely to get a college degree. When two parents graduate from college, the odds increase to 75%.
My grandparents sent their girls to college to give them the best chance at a better life. It would have been scandalous for their girls to join the Women’s Revolution or participate in Free Love and war protests—which were sparked as their girls went out into the world—but, they were given the opportunity to be educated women. They were also expected to marry educated, righteous men who could provide for their families.
I am an educated woman in 2013, think of all the choices I have! The root of which is in my conservative grandparents’ decision to send my mother to college.
I have asked my grandmother what her greatest achievement has been.
Our Legacy, is her simple answer.
Creating a family has been her life’s work.
Some might say anyone can have some babies, who grow up and have more babies. Many people do that, and that would be one definition of a family.
But my grandmother’s pride doesn’t rest in the mere existence of these people. It rests in who they are. She really loves us, individually and collectively. She grew a family that loves each other.
Her work didn’t stop when her children grew up and started families. When possible she attended births, staying during early infancy to help with the other children or allowing the new mother to get some sleep.
My grandparents made regular treks to Utah, the home of the Mormon Saints, where many of her children made their permanent homes after college. My grandfather died on one of these treks, after attending three grandchildren’s weddings that summer.
Even after her husband died, she continues to visit regularly. Even for her own 90th birthday party. Despite the fact that driving for 24 hours straight or navigating large, confusing airports has became more difficult, her pilgrimages continue.
She has attended baptisms, weddings and graduations of her many grandchildren when she could and still does as much as she can. She attended her family when they were sick. She cooked, cleaned and managed entire households for months at a time when her children needed her help.
Her Life’s Work
She is proud, and delighted, that 91 people would drop their lives, change their busy schedules, drive many miles, arrive with delicious food and greet each other with genuine affection and love.
The room fills with laughter. How are you doing? What are you doing? isn’t just chit chat between strangers. We look into each others’ eyes and want to know, How are you really doing? What’s really going on in your life?
Shared experience can’t be underestimated in creating life-long bonds. Neither can a sense of humor. Through my grandparents annual visits we gathered. Her children continued her efforts, gathering for Thanksgiving, eating and laughing. For many years there was an annual New Year’s Eve slumber party with still more eating and laughing. When family comes in from Texas, there are more gatherings. To be together is the celebration.
The highway between Texas and Utah is a road much traveled. Her children are dutiful, committed to continuing a bond with their parents, continuing a bond between generations.
Rare and Effort-ful
When I was young, I thought all families had this. By now I’ve met people with some crazy stories about lunatic relatives who do terrible things to each other. Even more shocking to me are the stories people have told me about their parents not even bothering to meet their grandchildren. Or families that let squabbles turn into decades-long falling outs.
Now, I’m painting a pretty picture of my family. I’m not going to lie and tell you it’s all roses and smooth sailing. It’s not. Many people in my family have gone through really hard things. Many of them have made embarrassing mistakes, and somehow these feel all the more embarrassing in front of this group of family than they do in other social situations. I’m not going to pretend there are never any squabbles, never an ideological disagreement and never someone who makes a complete ass out of themselves or that no one ever holds a grudge.
This is a family after all.
But, this family is my grandmother’s life’s work. This is her purpose. This is the driving force of her life. Within this family are over 100 people who consider her, and her late husband, their personal heroes.
What I know for sure
There is no a single person in this family who has not felt the power of her unconditional love. I, personally, have found myself in some pretty dicey situations in my life and she has always been a soft place for me to land. Her home, nestled in the East Texas woods with its open door, a safe place for me to hide and regroup. I have never had a moment in my life where I did not feel her love stretch across the vast Universe, enveloping me.
Family lore has it that my grandmother and my Aunt Laree came to help my mother give birth to me in June of 1973 when I was expected. They waited. They waited. They waited. Finally I was born in August. Two months late. My grandma says we had plenty of time to get to know each other as she waited for me.
You always did march to your own drum, even before you were born, she once wrote to me in a card. She is mystified by half of the things I’ve done in my life, and I know I’ve kept her awake more than one night, worrying about me trekking across the globe, often by myself. Still, I know she enjoys the rhythm of my drum.
My grandmother takes great pride in the fact that the majority of her lineage are faithful Mormons who have gone on missions and marry for “Time and All Eternity” in the Mormon Temple. I, myself have taken a different spiritual path. First, this was out of shame and rebellion. Now it’s that I’m on a different, spiritual path to which I am fully committed.
There is truth in all religions, my grandmother says.
Still, she has asked me to return to the religion of my origin. One day, while in her kitchen, she was expressing her heart-felt desire that I return.
Grandma, I said, I’m not the only one who has left the Church, why are you being so hard on me?
Tracee, you’re special.
This never leaves me.
Oprah has a column in O Magazine and she often asks her guests the question, What do you know for sure?
That my grandmother loves me.
There have been low points in my life where this was all I had.