Memories of grandmothers

Published 6:34 pm Friday, May 10, 2019

Both of my grandmothers are now gone, so I’m reprinting this old column in honor of Shirley Reeves and Pauline Horton on Mother’s Day.

My grandmother once grew muscadines in a small plot just behind her house. I don’t remember eating the grapes as a child, but I spent plenty of time playing among those shady vines.

There are dozens of varieties of the grape, and I’m not sure which one she grew. But whatever it was, it grew well.

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Those same vines were dug up so my sister could build a house on the family farm. Her family moved the plants to a new spot, and I expect they’ll continue to produce half-dollar size fruit for generations to come.

That’s the beauty of a plant like muscadine. It will outlive you — and probably your great-great-grandchildren. In North Carolina, the Mother Vine is thought to be more than 400 years old. The muscadine vine on Roanoke Island survived the colonization of the New World, a Civil War and even an accidental poisoning by a utility worker in 2010.

Muscadines, much like memories of grandmothers and great-grandmothers, can last for generations. But only if they’re watered, pruned and cared for. .

My children are fortunate to know some of their great-grandparents. I knew mine growing up as well.

My maternal great-grandparents were farmers, like most people in those days. They survived the Great Depression and both lived a long, simple, happy life. As a child, I remember watching my great-grandmother wash used tinfoil and put it back in the kitchen drawer.

I was told that Mamaw Reeves didn’t know how to waste something. Everything that could be reused was. I imagine most people who lived through the Depression had the same habit. She was a tiny woman and her husband was a huge man. He must have been two feet taller than she was, especially when gravity began pulling her small frame back toward the earth.

I expect my children will have similar memories of their great-grandparents. They were once farmers and also loathe to waste anything, including muscadines.

Those grapes typically become jam, and those jam jars typically become tea glasses once empty. From there they become marble holders, rock collectors or any number of things that my children imagine them to be.

I now live a couple hours from the family farm, meaning I get fewer jars of muscadine jam. And my children get fewer memories of great-grandparents. But with a little care, those memories will sprout, grow and take root.

Just recently the entire family gathered at my paternal grandmother’s house for her birthday party. We hadn’t planned on going, but drove up on a Sunday to see her, even though she no longer knew us and never knew my children. Alzheimer’s and a stroke had taken her years before God got around to it.

She died four days after that Sunday visit. My oldest two children will only remember her emaciated frame lying motionless in a bed. They won’t know how sweet she was, or how hard-working, or how generous. My youngest three will only know her in the stories we tell.

And we told plenty at her funeral. How she used to rattle off the names of at least three or four cousins before she got around to getting your name right. Maybe we should have known Alzheimer’s was coming. Or how she cooked her heart out every Sunday for the entire family — and burned the rolls without fail. Or how she’d threaten to “get your goat” if you misbehaved at her house. We never learned what that meant. Like most grandmothers, she was more bark than bite.

I’ll pass those memories to my children, who will one day swear they are their own. At first, those tendrils of stories will fail to take root. But after enough tellings, they’ll be established and unmovable. That’s how memories and stories go. At some point, you no longer know if you actually witnessed the thing, or just remember the telling of the thing. Or the photo of the thing.

That’s the beauty of memories, really. Come to think of it, I don’t know if I ever saw my great-grandmother wash tinfoil. But that memory is firmly planted in my mind. And I’ve passed it along to my children, who can one day tell their children about their great-great-grandmother, who survived the Depression, planted a garden and lived a good life. The same goes their great-grandmother. They will hear stories of milking cows and working a garden. And if they’re lucky, they’ll taste a muscadine grown on that same vine I knew as a child.

And when they bite into those grapes, the memories will be just as sweet.

Email publisher Luke Horton at