To understand my grandmother Doris, you had to know how Southern she was. Born in 1920, she spent her entire life — until she died last week at the age of 95 — in Birmingham, Alabama. Doris didn’t love the South for its controversial past or the riots she lived through in the 1960s. She loved it because it was the only home she’d ever known.
My grandfather, Big Jack, was a historian and studied the Civil War. Until he died in 2000, Doris often took sides with the North just to spite him. She may have ironed his pants every morning, but he’d pay for it later when she angrily recounted how Robert E. Lee sat on his horse and ate a peach while his men were dying around him.
Once Big Jack was gone, however, Doris seemed to express her love for him by defending the South. Any time I asked Doris about our heritage, she’d say, “Honey, we’re Southern, that’s all you need to know.”
When Doris’ third great-grandson, my son Lindell, was born, my husband, Dustin, called Doris at 10 p.m. to share the news. Doris was already 86 by then.
“The baby is here,” Dustin told her, “and we named him Lindell Grant.”
“Well, good for you,” Doris said, and she hung up the phone. Doris could pout better than anyone, and she had no problem putting people, especially men, in their place. She once told Dustin he was in her Top 10 but that she wasn’t afraid to demote him.
The next morning, Doris talked to my brother Will. She was angry and hadn’t slept. Dustin’s call in the middle of the night had bothered her.
“Imagine the nerve of those two naming the baby after a Yankee general,” Doris told Will. She thought we’d named our son Gen. Grant.
By the time Doris was 90, she had rocked and sung all of my boys to sleep, and she’d held their hands as we drove up and down the interstate. You see, Doris wasn’t someone I saw occasionally. Doris and I traveled together. We argued like mother and daughter. And every significant memory from my childhood includes her.
When I was little, Doris slept in my trundle bed when she came to visit. She’d hold my hand as I slept, sing “In a cabin in the woods” and tell me “God is love.”
Years later, I lived with Doris and Big Jack while I was going to school in Alabama. No matter what time of day or night I came home, Doris was there on the couch and would ask the same thing: “Can I make you something, darling?”
I knew if she was anxious because she’d fill up blank envelopes with the words “God is love” and leave them strewn across the coffee table. Over and over again she wrote those words: “God is love.” She’d say it to me when I was anxious, too.
Doris loved the mornings, birds, sand dollars and the sound of the ocean. She said daffodils bloomed in February for her birthday, and she ate cookies to “settle her stomach.” Uncanny in her observations about people, she once guessed Dustin’s friend was an only child. She was wrong about that, but when he asked her why, she said, “Well, you’re just a little spoiled, that’s all.”
I don’t remember Doris wearing makeup, and she never dyed her hair. She aged at the exact pace that nature forced upon her, and watching her gave me peace about beauty. She was the most beautiful person I’d seen in old photographs, and she was still beautiful with white hair, moist wrinkles and an old sweater slung across her shoulders.
Doris’ wisdom was simple and profound. No matter what hurt, she’d blame it on your sinuses. Have a bruise on your knee? It’s just your sinuses. Got a rash on you arm? It’s sinus. Having trouble sleeping? Sinuses, darling.
But in between the random Dorisisms were lessons like “Don’t be afraid; I wasted so much time being afraid,” and, of course, “God is love.” She ended all of our phone calls with, “I do love you.”
It never mattered what the world threw at me. I knew that in my grandmother’s eyes, I was smart and beautiful, not in the physical sense, but on the inside.
The piano in my living room was Doris’. I inherited it because I was the one who played for Doris while she rocked and hummed along. I played “In the Garden,” “Amazing Grace” and a song called “Great Smokey Mountains.” Doris always said she wanted me to play that last one at her funeral. I did one better: I played it for her on her last day on Earth.
Every time I play the piano, Doris surrounds me. She is in the pictures on the walls and on the side table. It’s hard to understand that she is no longer physically here, that she’ll never again sit in the backseat and argue with me about modern clothes or look me in the eyes and say, “You are Sarah Herren,” a name no one else calls me.
Except, as the days pass, I have renewed peace that Doris is indeed with me, not just in the pictures on the wall but in the rocking chair by my piano, humming along and listening to me play.
God is love, Doris, and now he is with you.
Maine author and columnist Sarah Smiley’s writing is syndicated weekly to publications across the country. She may be reached at facebook.com/Sarah.is.Smiley.