Author’s note (I am writing a series of essays about strong women who are or have been an important part of my life. In honor of Women’s History Month I want to celebrate women who have pushed the limits and worked hard to make things happen.)
My maternal grandmother, Helen Louise Smith Brewer, was born 98 years ago today on March 10, 1922 in Chicora, Mississippi. Grandnana was loving, kind, willful, and determined. Nana was a force.
In the 1970s, when she was in her 50’s Paw Paw worked for a while in Texas. Nana thought nothing of driving the 12 to 14-hour drive from Mobile, Alabama alone to visit him. My mother used to say, “Your nana drives like a bat outta hell!” That’s was Nana. A dynamo.
One of my favorite memories is a road trip with Nana and Paw Paw. Nana loved to travel and road trips were her favorite. This trip was in 1978. I was 16 years. Nana and Paw Paw took my cousins, Jay, 17 years, and Kathy, 15 years, and me on a trip out west. We started in Texas then to New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado where we visited popular tourist destinations like White Sands National Monument, Carlsbad Caverns, The Painted Desert, The Petrified Forest, The Grand Canyon, The Mormon Tabernacle, Big Sky, and Yellowstone National Park. We ate dinner in Denver at a restaurant with people on stilts. We even went to church in Pocatello, Idaho because Nana never missed church. She had a perfect attendance record and traveling did not get in the way of this. She even got a church bulletin to prove it.
Nana and Paw Paw took turns driving and we three lounged in the back of the new custom van watching in awe as we traveled the roads of the great American west. We sang songs. Nana led us in her favorites. This Land is Your Land, America the Beautiful, and God Bless America. We always ended with Amazing Grace. No sing-along is complete without Amazing Grace. Jay, Kathy, and I also sang all the songs from the movie Grease which had been released that year. At other times we took turns sitting in the front seat so we could see what was in store for us ahead. Mountains. There were lots of mountains. I can still hear Nana say, “Children, LOOK, LOOK at the mountains!” At her funeral in 2014, my cousin, Jay, opened his eulogy of Nana with this statement, “Mountains! Children, look at the mountains! ” We all laughed.
Nana was always full of wonder. She was also brimming with wisdom. Driving through The Painted Desert at the beginning of our trip, I was amazed because it looked like we were riding in a painting. It took my breath away and stirred my sense of awe. I exclaimed, “Can you imagine living here and seeing this all of the time?!” Nana responded, “Do you realize that when people who live in a desert like this visit us in Alabama they are astonished by the green trees and foliage where we live. This simple moment taught me to think not just in terms of how I see things, but process my thoughts from the viewpoint of others. It was so simple, but it was a monumental lesson for me.
Nana and Paw Paw had 8 children. 6 daughters and 2 sons. My mother was their oldest daughter. When one of my aunts was in her preteens her best friend’s parents died. Nana and Paw Paw became legal guardians of my Aunt Debra and her her teenage brother, Rodney. Nana loved them and treated them like they were her biological children. We all did. This was Nana’s example.
In the late 1950’s, when a woman became pregnant most businesses required women to quit their jobs. There was no maternity leave and employers did not want pregnant women to work in that “condition.” Nana worked at a ladies’ clothing store. She loved fashion and she was a talented salesperson. When she got pregnant she did not quit. She hid her pregnancy for as long as she could and worked until it was showing. She enjoyed working and wanted to work. Nana was devout in her faith, never missed church, was a good citizen, she obeyed the law, but pushed the rules if she believed they were unjust. This was one of those rules.
Nana became a licensed insurance agent in the 1970s. She owned and operated Miss Helen’s Insurance Agency until she retired when she 70 years old in 1992. Nana was an independent woman. An involved mother, grandmother of nineteen, as well as a great-grandmother. Nana taught us all that she could work and take care of her family. It was not so much what she said, it was her example.
Politics were important to her. I remember many discussions during elections concerning the candidates as well as conversations about elected officials. Nana owned her own property. She and Paw Paw were partners who made business decisions together. They were equals. They each brought their strengths to the decision making process.
Nana cooked. She picked vegetables they grew on their farm. She canned foods. She loved being social. Her church was important to her, but she was also involved in clubs and organizations. Nana was a Yellow Dog Democrat and a Baptist.
Nana loved her family. As early as I can remember she hosted the Brewer/Smith Family Reunion. Everyone helped, but there was no question who was in charge. Nana.
As she approached her late 80’s it was determined that Nana should not drive anymore. She would drive her Lincoln Town Car to the end of the driveway to her mailbox and back. She loved her cars. Around this time she began to be a little bit forgetful. One day she drove to the mailbox and got stuck in a culvert. Trying to get out she continued to press the accelerator which caused the engine to overheat and catch fire. Someone ran out to the car to extinguish the blaze. Later that evening my aunt said to her, “Mother, maybe this was God’s way of letting you know that you don’t need to drive anymore. Nana’s reply was, “Maybe it’s God’s way of telling me I need a new car.”
She didn’t get a new car, but she did keep driving to the mailbox in Paw Paw’s old truck she had kept since his death in 1990.
This was my Nana. A woman always thinking beyond the limits set for her. Setting the example that a woman can do anything she chooses to do.