This post is for my sister Lisa and my cousin Regina.
I was asked a while back who my female role models were while I was growing up and why I considered them to be my role models. I know a lot of people might have said the name of a celebrity or someone famous for her acts of heroism. I greatly admire women like Eleanor Roosevelt, Alice Paul, and Mother Theresa. These are just a few on a long list. But my gut reaction was my dad’s mom, because she had a quiet strength about her that I always admired. My other grandmother, active, feisty, and outspoken, was the other role model.
Both of my grandmothers were very smart women. They were strong, strong women, each in her own way. They each had a great sense of humor, and both tried to teach my sister and my female cousins and me how to be “ladies”, as well as women. They were both very loving women but could be “mama bears” when they needed to be when it came to any member of their brood, and it didn’t matter who it was they were standing in front of when they did it.
What I’ve come to appreciate about them them most, though, was that they were both pretty rebellious.
My dad’s mom, Helen Gayle Welch, was born into a wealthy family in Chicago on October 25, 1913. The story I always heard was that they went to the Gulf Coast for vacation, fell in love with the area, and decided to stay. She was a young woman who loved good literature and was fascinated by anything having to do with England. She was a tap dancer and performed in local stage productions. When she was in high school she met and fell in love with my grandfather, Edgar Byrd.
In those days, girls weren’t allowed to “go steady” with any one boy and they weren’t allowed to go out with the same boy twice in a row. I think maybe the idea was to keep them from getting too serious with any one person, and my grandmother’s parents were not especially happy with her choice. My grandfather was from “the wrong side of the tracks”, a “hooligan”, a “Biloxi hood”. He was a roughneck and apparently had a mean left hook. One of her earliest acts of rebellion was to tell her parents she was going out with one boy when she was really going out with Edgar. They were part of a huge group of friends who all did that for each other. Her parents would do anything to keep them apart, including sending her away to college in another state for a while.
A story my grandfather shared with me was of him going down to the train station really early on her day of departure and sneaking onto the train to wait for her so they could say their goodbyes. Her parents thought that by going with her and waiting until the train pulled out that she was “safe”. Boy were they wrong – he was already hiding on the train! She was so miserable she wound up coming back home to go to school anyway.
Then, on October 13, 1932, my grandfather sneaked off his college campus in a laundry truck and made his way to where she was going to school, and she left too. He told me they sat on the curb outside of her school and just looked at each other and said, “Now what?” That’s when they decided to get married. They went to his parents’ house first to tell them. His parents loved Helen and were overjoyed. They loaned them the keys to the car, a can of gas, and some cash. When my grandmother called her parents, her father said, “Over my dead body!” and sent the police out after them. My grandfather told me that her father, a politically well-connected man, called every judge but one in three counties and instructed them not to perform the ceremony. Fortunately, Edgar and Helen managed to walk into the courtroom of the one judge her father hadn’t called. Her parents completely cut them off financially but they managed to make their own way in the world. They went on to have seven children, countless grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and were married for fifty-two years, until she passed away suddenly on November 30, 1984.
For as long as I knew her, she was still fascinated with good literature and anything British. She had an amazing book collection and worked in the local library. She would use English versions of words when she could and was finally able to visit England less than a year before she died. She taught piano lessons and I vividly remember her trying to teach me to “shuffle, ball, change” in her kitchen. She was the kind of woman who would listen intently as others spoke and, when she finally did speak, people really listened because she spoke carefully and with purpose. My grandmother, Mama Byrd, as we all called her, quietly lived her life her way and she made no apologies for it.
My maternal grandmother was Edythe Susanne Davenhall. She was born on November 25, 1922. Or so we all thought. After she passed away it allegedly came to light that she was actually born in 1923. The only reason anybody could come up with for this difference was that she wasn’t quite old enough for either nursing school or the army, so she lied. Maybe she didn’t know, either. Who knows. But if she did, it just tells me that she was a determined woman very early in life, and I love knowing that.
My grandmother – Grammy – told me that when she was little she had some serious medical issues and that she had had some pretty awful experiences with surgery and doctors. But it was the nurses who helped her through; their compassion and expertise seemed to make it all less painful and less traumatic. She wanted to do the same for others when she grew up, to give back, so she went to nursing school to become a Registered Nurse (RN). During nursing school her dad would give her pre-addressed, pre-stamped penny postcards, each one with “I’m fine” written on them. When he handed them to her he just asked her to drop one in the mail once a week so her mother would stop worrying and would get off his back about her not writing home. Neither my grandmother nor I were ever much on letter writing but we were okay with that. We understood each other and we both thought it was funny.
As soon as she was able to, Grammy joined the Army and quickly rose through the ranks to become a Lieutenant. She never asked permission to enlist because she knew her parents would say “Absolutely NOT!” Grammy just wanted to do her part to help in the war effort. She went on to run a MASH unit in the Philippines. Hers was an osteo ward and she cared for survivors of the Bataan Death March whose bodies were battered and broken. She refused to talk about her experiences, including how she earned a Purple Heart. The only story she ever told me was about the time one of the enlisted men came back from weekend leave with body lice. In an osteo ward that is bad bad bad news because everybody in there is wearing a cast of some sort, including some soldiers in full body casts. She needed the whole place scrubbed down, which included moving beds and patients, and she needed extra hands to do it. So she sent for a prisoner to help. This individual showed up, stared blankly at her as she explained what she wanted, and responded with “no English.” They continued this dance two or three times until she’d had enough. This tiny little lady, all five feet and one inch of her, stood on her toes and said, “Okay, then I’ll have you taken back to the prison camp, order my men to shoot you in the back, and put in my report that you were shot while trying to escape. How’s your English now?” She said his response was, “I go clean! I go clean!” I realize that would be shocking and unacceptable nowadays, but at the time it seemed necessary because not only did he not respect her as an American, his culture didn’t exactly encourage taking orders from a woman. I think that was a pretty gutsy thing to do.
When she got home from the Philippines Grammy became a career RN. By the time she retired she was working in the operating room at the local Veterans’ Hospital. She had a special sign she’d put in the front dash of her car that said, “OR RN on call” that let her get away with driving as fast as she want. She didn’t only use it when she was on call. When she quit in 1980 or 1981, she had had enough and she actually threw her keys across the desk at her boss and quoted a popular song at the time, saying, “Take this job and SHOVE IT!”
She taught me to rebel, too. Our first act of rebellion together was to crawl under the stall door in the bathroom at the Atlanta airport when I was little. I really had to “go” and she wasn’t going to waste time digging through her purse for a quarter to open the stall door to do what the rest of the world could do for free. I was so nervous we were going to get in trouble but she said not to worry and glared at every woman in the restroom who looked at her, aghast that she would cheat Atlanta International Airport out of their twenty-five cents.
She got herself in hot water more than once with my mother by allowing my sister and me to do things my mother didn’t think we should do, and we were always just fine. Grammy was always on our side.
Although it may not seem like it, her final act of rebellion was her death. She had been sick off and on and toward the end she decided she was done suffering. She had a DNR and one of those “don’t force me to eat or drink” orders and she decided she it was time. She refused food and water and, not long after, she quietly slipped away on October 10, 2006. My sister and I were absolutely devastated by her loss, the way most people are when they lose a beloved parent. But I take comfort in knowing that she ultimately did it on her own terms.
I’m very proud and humbled to be a product of these two amazing women. Mama Byrd gave up everything to follow her heart and she never looked back. Grammy did what she needed and wanted to do whether anyone else though she should or not, because she knew it was right for her. What I learned from them is that my life and my spirit are my own, and that I have to do what’s right for me. Perhaps living my life for myself and the way my life is meant to be is my greatest act of rebellion, who knows. But I think Mama Byrd and Grammy would be very proud to know that I am.
** Update: I received an e-mail from my dad telling me his parents had been married by a Methodist minister. When my grandfather said to me, “He missed one,” I assumed he had meant a judge. Daddy also said that she was #3 in her class and was told that she’d need to ditch her best friend in order to join the high school sorority and be more socially accepted. She put friendship first: She never joined that sorority! Finally, he wrote that her parents refused to speak with her for about two years, until just after my aunt was born. Her mother had gone out of town so my grandfather invited her father over for dinner. Once my great-grandfather saw the baby they just kept on going back! And, as a side note, my dad tells me that my great-grandmother actually marched for women’s right to vote in Chicago. Strong, rebellious feminists go way back in my family!!