Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Honest to God: Sister Hamby

When you are the youngest of your grandparent’s grandchildren, and the only one of them to have reproduced, you can count on at least one thing. One day, several boxes will arrive at your house. Boxes of stuff. Stuff that your cousins believe should be passed down to future generations of the family. Two weeks before Christmas in 2012, this happened to me. I thought my cousin had gone overboard on Christmas presents for my family until I opened the boxes. And there it all was. Photos and letters and yearbooks from my grandmother’s side of the family. There seems to be a genetic tendency in my family to attach emotional value to inanimate objects, and these boxes were filled with supporting evidence. There was even a yellow wire hanger with a note from my cousin attached: “Meemaw took this with her to college in the 1920s, and I took it to college with me in the ’70s. I wish you could have taken it to college with you so the tradition could have been continued.”

A wire hanger. I’ll never know if my grandmother intended for this object to become a cherished family heirloom when she hung it in her dorm room closet in 1925.

Annie Bryan Whittington Hamby, my grandmother, died in 1996. I knew her as a physically-frail, but mentally-sharp, white-haired wisp of a woman. She weighed 88 pounds the year she turned 88, which made her the only person I ever knew to weigh her age. After my grandfather died, Meemaw spent her last years in a retirement center, where she made a host of friends and even had a couple of boyfriends. The Old Testament speaks of the woman who “… laughs at the days to come” (Proverbs 31:25), and that was my Meemaw. A sweet, devout Christian woman who wore white every day to honor my late grandfather, who had loved that color on her, she also had a wicked sense of humor. My dad and I took her out to lunch one day, and, when she tried to tell us about something funny that had happened at the retirement center, she dissolved into a fit of giggles that rendered her teary-eyed and breathless as my dad and I stared at her from across the table—unsure if we should join in laughter or administer CPR.

In the spring of 1996, Meemaw went into the hospital with complications from congestive heart failure, which she had fought for years. She nearly died during that stay, and when hospital personnel ignored her DNR and revived her, she was mad. She had been blessed with a good life and, like my Peepaw, she was ready to go. That August, she returned to the hospital. As she began to slip away again, my aunt called out to her, but Meemaw would not let anyone stop her from dying again. This sweet, funny, and determined Christian woman opened her eyes, said, “You talk too much,” and was gone.

As I lifted large brown envelopes out of the boxes and slid their contents onto the floor in front of me, I didn’t see my Meemaw. I saw Annie, a young, optimistic woman—one for whom becoming a grandmother was a lifetime away. In these photos, Annie and her three sisters are children growing up on their farm in Glenmora, Louisiana. Then they are teenagers who wore the shorter dresses and bobbed hairstyles of the ’20s. Annie’s smile shines through the grainy quality of the aged photos. She had been the first young woman in their rural Louisiana town to cut her hair short, a decision that prompted the family’s preacher to visit her parents out of concern for her soul. Her sharp eyes and knowing smile reveal that, while she did all the “right” things, like going to college and marrying a good Christian man, she didn’t mind shocking people now and then. Her college photos are my favorites. At Louisiana State Normal School (now Northwestern State University of Louisiana) in Natchitoches, Louisiana, Annie edited the campus newspaper and seemed to have a myriad of friends. Her father died during this time, and one of her yearbooks is full of notes of sympathy from her classmates. I knew her father had been an alcoholic, and that his death may have been related to this, but there was no mention of his drinking problem in the contents of these boxes. During these years, her eyes were bright, her hair was short, and her smile was daring and genuine. Within the next several years, she would become the wife of an accountant/preacher and the mother of two just as the Great Depression strengthened its chokehold on the economy. But in the late ’20s, her future was a crisp, blank page.

I think Meemaw was proud to be a preacher’s wife. After she and my grandfather settled at South Park Church of Christ in Beaumont, she was known to everyone as “Sister Hamby.” Traditionally, preachers’ wives are expected to be fabulous cooks, but this was not Meemaw. She had suffered from a number of illnesses as a child and was kept out of the kitchen so she could rest while her sisters did the work. So she never really learned to cook, and she did buck the minister’s wife stereotype in that way. But with her high moral standards and careful attention to her family’s image, she clung to it in other ways. Meemaw believed the families of church leaders should set examples for parishioners’ families.

This was a common school of thought in mid-20th Century church culture, and not just in the Church of Christ. As the nation thrived in post-war prosperity, pastors’ wives were upheld as ideal wives, mothers, and supporters of their husbands. In 1946, San Francisco Theological Seminary hosted a Presbyterian ministers’ wives’ conference that concluded:
… a foremost qualification of a minister’s wife is that she should preside over a well-ordered attractive home. Furthermore, she should be a woman who takes the time, forethought, and care necessary to insure good health for her husband, her children, and herself (Boyd and Brackenridge 83).

While I’m relieved—and somewhat surprised—that this edict includes the admonition for the pastor’s wife to take care of herself, the rest of it is troubling. It’s natural for wives and mothers to take care of their families, so I’m not sure why this had to be spelled out for ministers’ wives by a convention. And the “well-ordered attractive home” was not limited to the minister’s wife’s physical dwelling. Implied here is the idea that her family and life should be well-ordered, clutter-free, and—what no one had to say aloud—perfect.

People seem to find security in these stereotypes, so they have staying power. In the 1970s and ’80s, the ministers’ wives I knew outside my family during my childhood still seemed to fit these expectations. There was Sister Stevens, who always appeared at church with everything in order—from her hair to what her four children wore. At another church, there was Sister Tyson, who doted on her pretty teenage daughter and opened her immaculate home for youth group events. Another church was led by a preacher whose wife, Sister Cauley, was a sweet, loving soul who would let me sit on a barstool in her kitchen while she shared sunflower seeds, her favorite snack, with me. I never saw her without a smile. But looking back, I know now that these women’s families and marriages were far from perfect. Sister Stevens’ husband was controlling and insisted his wife have dinner on the table by a certain time every day. Sister Tyson’s husband had remained in his pastoral role past retirement age, and the church members were getting frustrated with his refusal to step down—criticism that had to have reached her ears. And Sister Cauley’s husband shocked everyone when, after 30 years of marriage, he left her for his secretary.

As for Meemaw, I know her life wasn’t perfect, either. There was tension and pressure and arguments—just as there are in every family. I guess I’ll never know how she coped with the pressure. Even if she were still alive, I doubt I would have the nerve to ask her.

The last time I spoke to my grandmother, she was in the hospital and nearing the end of her life. I pulled a chair up next to her bed and took her hand in mine.

“Meemaw,” I told her. “Chad has decided to become a minister.”

She managed a weak, but classic, Annie smile. She was proud.


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