Had she lived, January 11, 2o1o would be my Granny Wham’s 90th birthday. Mrs. Martha Ellen Willis Wham missed her nonagenarian years by two when she passed away just a month after her 88th birthday. She was a pretty awesome woman.
Granny was the poster child for a woman of Tom Brokaw’s Greatest Generation. She grew up on a small family farm in the rural Upstate of South Carolina. She had a younger sister (Aunt Mary) and two older half-brothers (Uncle Gordon and Uncle Henry) but as she said, “We loved each other wholly and no halves involved.” Her teenage years were in the brutal heart of the Great Depression and even an already poor area like post-Civil War South Carolina wasn’t spared.
Granny brought home the real trials of the era when she told me how her daddy, Papa Willis, had gotten a WPA job for the princely sum of $9 per week. As she put it, “we thought we were wealthy.” Like many of her co-sufferers, the deprivations of the Dust Bowl ’30s left their mark on Granny. She saved tinfoil by washing it clean and she had a full 12 place setting of Kraft Cool Whip salad bowls should the need have ever arisen.
As I related earlier, she married Papa in December 1945 after The War and they started a family. She was a homemaker until Aunt Cathy started school and then she went to work in the shoe department of Belk’s Department Store on Main Street in Fountain Inn. For the first 13 or so years of my life, every pair of shoes I owned was bought with Granny’s discount.
What Granny truly excelled at in my eyes, however, was in being a grandmother. To say she doted on me as her first grandchild would be a criminal understatement. She, with PLENTY of help from Papa to be sure, spoiled me, and later her three other grandsons, completely rotten. I loved every minute of it. She saved me from several well deserved punishments, but for the sake of space, I’ll just relate this one.
Granny had just bought a nice new corded rug to put down over the hardwoods in the den. It was a beautiful rug and she was proud of it. I, at the tender age of about three, was sitting in the middle of this brand new rug playing with a bottle of jet black liquid shoe polish that Papa had just used to shine his Sunday shoes. This is one of the few memories I have of Mama and Daddy before the divorce, but I distinctly recall each of them having told me more than once to put this bottle down and stop fiddling with it. Of course I kept right on and as you’ve probably guessed, the top popped off and jet black liquid polish met brand new beige rug. Mama started from the north end of the room as Daddy started from the south end of the room. As luck would have it, however, the room was a rectangle and Granny was in her rocker on the short eastern side so she got to me first, scooped me up over her shoulder, and stopped both my parents by saying, “It’s just a rug and it scared him to death. He didn’t mean it. He was just being mischievous.”
“He’s not bad, he’s just mischievous,” was Granny’s stock answer to any mishap any of her four grandsons might have. Lord knows how many times she could have worn us out or at least put us in time out for eternity, but instead, she just gave us a hug, asked us not to do it again, and usually gave us a piece of her homemade pound cake to reinforce the lesson.
To be completely honest, Granny Wham was one facet of my life I took for granted would ALWAYS be there. To me, she and papa were like the mountains or the ocean or even the blue sky above. They would always abide with us. Nothing could ever take them from us.
I was wrong. So very, very wrong.
Granny suffered a medium serious stroke in July 1995. It was the beginning of a long, long decline. She rallied. She even rallied upon learning two days after her stroke that Papa Wham had died. She had an indomitable will and for a few more years, it kept infirmity at bay. In the end though, a diagnosis of mini-strokes put an end to her living alone and driving. Aunt Cathy did the duty of a dedicated daughter selling her own home to move Uncle Larry, Zach, and Blake in with Granny so Granny wouldn’t have to leave the home she and Papa had built together in 1953.
She would stay with Aunt Cathy through the week and spend some weekends with Daddy and Teresa. One early weekend morning, trying to fix coffee for Daddy before he got out of bed, she made a misstep and fell, breaking her birdlike hip bone. After a stint in the hospital, she went to Martha Franks Retirement home to undergo physical therapy. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, she seemed to grow more frail instead of regaining strength. Again, though, her indomitable will, along with a hearty dose of good Willis stubbornness, kept the end at arm’s length for another few years. After all, she had a family to look after.
In the end, though, the reaper comes for everyone, even tiny precious and greatly beloved grandmothers. Aunt Cathy held her hand as she passed from this world to the next. My two first cousins, my little brother, and I stood watch over her casket at the front of the church where she’d taught Sunday School and sang in the choir for over fifty years, then, when it was time, we closed the lid on her beautiful oaken casket with The Pieta of Michelangelo depicted on all four corners and let the ministers have their say.
Granny’s dust lies next to Papa’s now in the Beulah Baptist Church cemetery. Her soul, I imagine, walks hand in hand with his down golden streets and, even though I have no theology to back it up, I like to think she looks down on us every now and then — in afterlife, as in life — watching over the family she held so close to her heart.
Love you, Granny Wham and miss you very much. Tell Papa we love and miss him too.