“With the temptations so great for the young these days, I hope that your husband will not find you second hand…”
These were the words received in a letter from my great-grandmother during my freshman year at college! Reading them again, twenty years later, I still find myself gasping in surprise. How bold my “Nana Burrows” was!
Born Helen Mildred Jefferson in 1898, my great-grandmother went to college in the days when women didn’t. Nana had always wanted to be a teacher and began her career, at sixteen, in a one-room school house. She boarded with a family in town, drove a horse-drawn carriage to work, sewed her own dresses (ordering fabrics from the Sears and Roebuck catalogue), and filled the pot-bellied stove with wood to keep the students warm. Naughty children were sent to clean the outhouse.
Nana’s beloved work as teacher ended shortly after her marriage to my great-grandfather, Amos Allen Burrows. (Respectable married woman did not work.) Amos was a merchant marine and was away at sea most of the time, as he was on on the day the new school year began. Nana remembers hanging her clothes out on the line that morning when she heard the school bells ring. “Tears rolled down my cheeks,” she said.
I too studied to be a teacher at college, and during my senior year came to visit my great grandmother over the winter break. I was struggling at the time with the desire for independence and with my affections for a very possessive boyfriend who wanted to get married.
“I know how hard it is…” Nana whispered, assuming that my troubles were around the question of sex.
Before your great-grandfather and I were married, we met each other for the day when his ship came into New York. By accident, we got on the wrong train and ended up needing a place to stay- overnight… so we got married. The ceremony was conducted by a minister in an empty church with his cleaning ladies as witnesses. Afterwards Amos took me to a hotel, and I lost my cherry!
GASP!! Honestly, it wasn’t as if my great-grandmother spoke like this all the time. She was a church-going woman her whole life, and never drank or smoked or even cursed. The extent of her admonishments were things like “Landsakes!” and“Fiddlesticks!” or my favorite, “Hot diggity-dog!” At ninety-two she still had all her faculties about her, but somehow had come to consider me a confidante– despite the the sixty year gulf between us.
Nana always said she liked me because I was “ornery.” She’d say that with a smile and wink and add, “Me too!” Early on I learned of her bold spirit.
When I was just a child of five and spending summers at my Grandmother Lila’s house (who was Nana’s oldest daughter), Nana and I would sneak down to the corner store to buy bubble gum. Gum was not allowed in my Grandmother Lila’s house. “Ladies should not chew like cows!” she’d scold with the strength of her large stature (she took after her father).
And so my little Nana and I would return from Anderson’s Novelty store with contraband deep in our pockets. Together we’d crouch down behind the book shelf in the great room and chew like cows! I even taught her to blow bubbles. I can still feel our smiles.
After being widowed for ten years, Nana Burrows married a man who became my beloved “Poppop Davidson.” He’d tease me when I’d refuse to call her by his name, but neither of them made me.
Their autumn love story was a sweet one. As a beautiful young woman, my Nana had many suitors, including the affections of my great-grandfather Amos, the merchant marine. To brag, Mildred would leave Amoses letters around so that others might see their overseas’ postmarks.
But he was out at sea the afternoon when his highschool classmate, Norman Davidson, asked my Nana out for a date. To his delight, she accepted.
But Norman hadn’t arrived on her front porch when who should unexpectedly come strolling down the street… Amos! Returned home from the sea a month early!
Norman bowed out gracefully, and Amos became the great-grandfather I never met (dying just before I was born). Poppop Norman moved south to Lousiana, married another woman, and began his own family. The two never saw each other again until they were both widowed and in their seventies.
They met at church, and as Nana likes to complain (winking while she does), “He wouldn’t stop pestering me until I said, ‘Yes!” And thus began a marriage of almost twenty years- seeing them both into their nineties.
After Poppop Norman’s death, much of Nana’s spunk dampened. She had seen so many pass- two husbands, my grandmother Lila, several siblings, almost all of her friends, and even most of her students- that was the hardest, she’d tell me.
“I’m ready whenever the Lord wants to take me,” she’d say often, seeming depressed, and then the moment would pass and she’d giggle, telling me some story, “You know what I did last night? I slept with my glasses on!”
“He never kissed me you know…” she volunteered one afternoon when I’d come to visit with my own husband. She was speaking of Poppop Norman who had passed away a handful of years before.
He had had an operation… He said that kissing led to sex, and he couldn’t do that anymore. So, I’ve only had sex with one man.
Please Nana, Stop! I wanted to yell. I didn’t want to hear about my great-grandmother’s sex life (or lack of one), or think about my Poppop in that way; but I just swallowed my discomfort and attempted to act as casually as she had.
I had trouble fathoming a marriage without sex— twenty years without so much as a kiss! But then I recalled sweet Poppop Norman Davidson, who patted my hands and told that new boyfriend of mine to take good care of me. “I like her,“ he always said, “Even if she still calls her great-grandmother, Nana Burrows.”
Poppop Davidson was the one who finished all of Nana’s stories- even all the ones that took place before he was around. He was the one who “remembered” for her, and filled in all the forgotten details of her cherished life– that’s how well he listened, that’s how well he loved and waited- fifty years for that first date to come around again, and not giving up the second time until she said “Yes.”