Mother’s Day: A Texas Magnolia Who Finally Faded

[originally published by Politics Daily in 2010; reposting for Mother’s Day 2011]

Sam Houston Memorial Musuem, where my grandmother worked.

My grandmother Grace Crawford Longino came into this world in 1901 and left it in 2002. In mid-century she seemed to be the most important woman in her town of Huntsville, Texas. By the time she died, she was almost forgotten except by family and the few friends still alive.

When she was in her late 80s I’d end conversations with “I love you” because I never knew if it would be our last. In reply, she’d say thank you. One time I teased her about that. “You never say ‘I love you’ back to me. Maybe you don’t love me.”

“Not love you? Why, the very idea!” she said. “I’d give my life for you.”

A proper Victorian lady (by way of a Texas dirt farm) she believed you cheapened words if you used them too often.

When I was born, three of my four grandparents were long dead. All I had was Munnie (nicknamed thus because her firstborn could not say mommy). But that was OK. Munnie was like ten grandmothers.

My grandmother, in costume

On Valentine’s Day my sister and I would get the fanciest pop-up cards of flowers, hearts, wishing wells and kittens. Summers we’d take the bus to Huntsville and stay for two weeks in the same turn-of-the-century house where my mother was born in a downstairs bedroom.

At night my sister and I would crawl into Munnie’s creaking double bed on the screened-in sleeping porch — one girl on each arm — and she’d tell us a story. Every night she’d ask my sister and me, “What was the most beautiful thing you saw today?” and “What did you learn today that you didn’t know before?”

Mornings we woke up to the sounds of birds. After breakfast on hand-painted Italian plates, we’d walk with her to work. She was the director of the Sam Houston Memorial Museum, but my sister and I spent our days in the parkland surrounding the main building. Flowers, streams, a pond, tadpoles, pine cones — for two little girls from a drab Dallas subdivision, it was paradise.

Munnie had to work on Sundays because that was the busiest day at the museum. The most pious women in town did not approve. My grandmother told me, “If church is the only place they can find God, then they’d better go every time the doors are open.”

She was something of a pantheist. In retirement, while working in the garden at dusk, she would look up at the sky, grab my hand and squeal with delight at the colors of the sunset. “Have you ever seen anything so beautiful in your life?” she’d say, with a zeal that would fit right in at a tent revival.

Always up for a challenge, in her 90s she decided to do something she’d never done — read the Bible cover to cover. She began with the Old Testament, and she didn’t get far before she threw it down. “This is a terrible book!” she said. I’m not sure to what she objected, but then I haven’t read the Old Testament either.

My mom is on the left. My grandmother was a master gardener.

In some ways Munnie was a stereotypical southern woman, who looked over the shoulders of men to make sure they were doing what was right. “I’ve never met a man who was not a liability,” she once said.

After her husband, a widower twice her age when they married, died, Munnie had children to support. Her first job was groundskeeper of Sam Houston State Teachers College, where my grandfather had taught.

After her appointment, Dan Rather took her picture, presumably for the campus newspaper. “Give me your boudoir eyes,” he allegedly said to her. Hard to believe, but my grandmother was not one to make things up.

Once I asked Munnie if she ever had any trouble from the men working below her, since it was the 1940s and she was the first woman in the job. No trouble at all, she replied, except for one man who made it clear he could not work for a woman. She tolerated his behavior for a few weeks, but then told him she understood why he could not work for a woman, understood completely, and she was sure the university would understand too when he submitted his resignation.

“I didn’t have any trouble with him after that,” she said.

Being from an entirely different era, my grandmother doesn’t show up much on Internet searches. But we did find out that in 1939 she sang songs for John and Ruby Lomax — the highly respected folk music collectors — as part of a WPA project. The recordings, made at her home, now reside in the Library of Congress. (Listen to one here.)

Lomax’s fieldnotes read: “Mrs. Wm. Longino Grace recorded several songs which she learned in her childhood. Her parents and their large group of children delighted in gathering at night and on Sunday afternoon to sing. They also sang at their family chores. One brother became a cowboy and on his trips home he brought them the songs of the range and trail.”

My grandmother is the intense little girl standing by her mother.

They say you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone. In my family we did know what we had, but there was nothing we could do about Munnie getting old. When she was 93, she got The Speech from her doctor: You’ve had a good 93-year run, and it’s time to wrap things up.

“It’s true that I’m 93,” she replied. “There’s nothing I can do about that. But I want to be 94!”

The doctor suggested hospice. My mother could not bear it when she saw Munnie’s hopeful face, asking, “What’s hospice?”

My mother quit everything, moved to Huntsville and spent the next six years caring for my grandmother. Munnie was truly the matriarch of the family on whom we’d leaned all our lives, and now she was fighting for her own life.

Twice my grandmother had survived broken hips, and, in defiance of every prediction, twice she walked again. Ever since childhood, she’d coped with lungs damaged by whooping cough. The scarring was so bad that a radiologist confessed he’d mistakenly thought he was looking at the lungs of a dead person.

I never saw Munnie take an aspirin or a sip of alcohol, and I’d heard she’d refused Novocain for a dental filling. Texas was largely Baptist in the early 20th century, and Munnie grew up to be a master of Texas 42, a domino game based on Bridge. (Cards, doncha know, are the work of the Devil.)

In her final years Munnie was able to grow flowers, thanks to the dedication of my mother. “Munnie would not have survived in a nursing home,” my mother said. “I knew I could do this. I knew I could give her these extra years. So I did.”

One day two women from church stopped by to give my grandmother a “prayer for healing.” But that’s not what transpired. Instead, they talked about the wonderful place the Lord had prepared for my grandmother in Heaven.

Munnie & me, Christmas

Munnie bristled. “You were supposed to pray for healing,” she said. “So pray for healing!”

Even at 100, she was not ready to go. “I like waking up in the morning,” she told me. “I like seeing things and hearing things.” She was aiming for 106, but four months shy of 101, she died.

I remember, during the last year of her life, I watched a documentary about an aging male dolphin. A solitary swimmer by old age, this dolphin was spotted by a young female. The male dolphin tried to keep up with the playful chasing and nudging, but after a while the young female swam away.

The old dolphin managed to catch one last meal, but he could not get it down. Eventually he dropped the lifeless fish, and then rested on the ocean floor. The narrator said: This is how it will end. He will rest, but not come back to the surface for air. He will drown.

That was not, in fact, how it ended. Instead, the dolphin beached himself, and was burned by the sun. There was nothing wrong with him. He just got old.

I think I cried all my tears that day. When my grandmother finally died, I could only look back and smile at my good fortune.

[originally published by Politics Daily in 2010]


About Quixotic Chick

I write. I take pictures. I survived cancer.
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