By Barb Hampton
That Kind Of Grandmother
I have a lovely little book at home called "Grandmother's Memories". The pages are filled with the beginnings of sentences. It starts: "These memories were written by Barbara Jean Keehler Hampton especially for Kaylin Renee Hampton, my cherished granddaughter, in the year of my 42nd birthday, l996, and after your birth on July 20, 1996."
Then follow the author's thoughts: "I have so many memories that I've collected through the years, dreams and thoughts and feelings and favorite family times. I share them with you now as a legacy of love, a personal connection with your past."
I was eager to start filling it out. I'm an avid journaller, so I started a journal the day I found out Kaylin was going to be born, and thought "Grandmother's Memories" would be a good companion volume. One quiet afternoon, I quickly recorded the events of my birth, with dates and places, listing family names so I could move on to the pages with more lines where I could express myself more freely. Things went along fine until I hit the page that started "When I was a teen..." I laid down my pen that afternoon to formulate in my mind what I wanted to say.
I was flooded with memories. It was my freshman year in high school. The bus from behind the lake had arrived and I asked my best friend, Ruth Anne, who that cute guy with the brown hair was. She said "David Hampton? Good grief, look at him. He's got a big butt."
All I saw were strong shoulders in a light blue shirt with dark blue stripes, and the way the world seemed to shift when he walked. I was fourteen years old. Fast forward, but not too far. It was the summer between my sophomore and junior year. I was fifteen. David and I got married August 21, 1970.
In November, our first child, Kathryn Michelle, died at birth and David was whisked off to Fort Polk, Louisiana, to serve with the Illinois National Guard so he didn't have to go to Vietnam. I returned to my junior year. Before my senior year started, David was home and I was pregnant again, this time with Kaylin's father, Shawn. He was born in March, and I was back in school two weeks later, so I didn't get behind.
Even though I am proud of the fact that I graduated with my high school class, a feat never before accomplished by a new mom in our small southern Illinois town in 1972, I wondered just how I would answer the inevitable questions, and feared that my answers would be seen as "do as I say, not as I did".
With all that on my mind, I turned to the next section. It didn't get any better. This section was "Your Grandfather and I", and it started with how we met. Truth is, I met him in front of the high school, and after we danced together at a local fair a few days later, we went parking. As I thought back about what was a typical date, remembering clearly the back road to the exclusive spot we shared with one other "serious" couple, I closed the Journal and decided maybe this book was for a different kind of grandmother.
I often feel the pressure of being a different kind of grandmother. The phrase I most often hear when I mention my granddaughter is: "you're not old enough to be a grandmother". The person who offers those words is consistently embarrassed, so I've become adept at saying "Well, when you start as early as I did, you get to the grandmother stage early", while I pull out the big envelope of pictures because I've also noticed that embarrassed people will look at all the pictures you hand them.
They are right, of course. At my age it is disconcerting to be a grandmother. Do I take up the traditional role? Do I put on the apron and bake cookies like all the Norman Rockwell paintings depict? And when presented with books like "Grandmother's Memories", what do I do? No wonder it was so hard to pick the pen up and continue what I had started. I returned the book to the shelf for another time.
Several months later, while cleaning out some old papers, I came across one of my greatest treasures. I have a photocopy of the handwritten journal of my great-great grandmother, Elizabeth Johnson Howell Harris Frank. Written in her later years, it summarizes her life, from her birth in 1848 in London, England, until sometime in 1909. I started reading her words and realized that I hadn't looked at the journal since I was a much younger woman.
I pulled out the picture I have of Elizabeth. She's standing in front of a dilapidated shack, and the edge of the porch is sagging. As I looked at the stern lines in her face, I could see she still had the inner strength that put her on a four-mast steamer heading from England to the United States so she could marry a man her father had forbidden her to see. If Elizabeth had been in the room with me at that very moment, even knowing she might have been embarrassed at my questions, I would have asked her to fill in between the written lines. Her answers would tell me more about this woman I had come from, and what kind of woman I might be likely to turn out to be.
Later that evening, I got out my "Grandmother's Memories" book and started to write the no-holds barred, straight-out honest truth. I don't know what kind of grandmother the author of this little book had in mind, but I know what kind of grandmother Kaylin has. She has me. A grandmother who made mistakes, who struggled and who, without knowing, drew on a heritage of strong-willed, bull-headed women who weren't afraid to get on big boats, fight with their husbands, or stand up to traditions that held women down.
If I'm lucky, there will come a day when Kaylin and I will be able to sit down together. She'll ask questions and I'll tell her my story. When she asks me how I met her grandfather I'll be able to smile and say "the band was playing this really sweet slow song, and he took me in his arms, and from that moment on I would have gone anywhere with him...even to the parking lot in front of the old Presbyterian Church."
Barb Hampton is a lady who wears many hats. In fact, she has so many hats that she carries a hat rack with her at all times. She describes herself as: Wife and Companion, Assistant Trust Officer, Empress, Grandmother, Mother, Friend, Minister, and Writer, although not necessarily in that order. "My goal is to be more than a figment of my imagination.".
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