The Good Life
with a Southern Drawl

Southern Grandmothers, An Endangered Species

By Amy Bailey — September 27, 2018

“Now add the sugar,” my grandmother would say to me as I sat in my favorite spot in her house – on the kitchen counter next to the mixer. I would watch the tea cake batter begin to form swirling around and around my grandmother pushing the sides down. What a wonderful place to be and how wonderful it felt, from being picked up and sat on the counter to the ultimate treat of licking the beaters.

Every visit to my grandmother’s house held something to learn, something to discover. One visit might be making tea cakes, another might be sewing, another might be canning tomatoes, another might be going on a nature walk, another might be picking blackberries. My grandmother’s house was an endless unstructured class on how to create. Traditions and basic know hows she had learned from the matriarchs in her family.

The way I saw it she could do everything my grandfather could do, plus more. She could hunt, fish, cook from scratch, bake anything, sew, knit, embroider, crochet, quilt, can and preserve, garden, raise chickens, play cards, tell the funniest bedtime stories, identify every tree, plant, snake, and flower in a forest, and she wrote letters. She was the epitome of the Southern Grandmother. When she left this earth I didn’t just grieve her, I grieved the talents that went with her that I never took the time to really learn.

I did learn a few things, namely cooking and sewing. I also remember numerous phone calls when attempting these things on my own. Baking a pecan pie for the first time, cooking a turkey for the first time. “What is this I exclaimed?!?!?,” horrified when I pulled out the bag of entrails from the turkey. My grandmother just laughed and laughed on the other end of the line explaining that you used those to make giblet gravy and that you used to have to dress the turkey entirely on your own. But it was sewing that captivated me the most and brought up my love for fashion and style. My grandmother had her own little ‘sewing house’, a room detached from the house where all her sewing machines and stacks of fabric and patterns were. Spending time in there creating was my favorite thing to do, even as I got older. But it was while living in New York around such incredible fabric stores that my passion grew. My grandmother bought me a sewing machine and had it sent to my apartment, nightly calls as I constructed dresses, skirts, and shirts. Soon we would be designing my wedding gown and bridesmaids dresses. Then life happened and it seemed I became too busy for sewing. My grandmother continued to make my daughter dresses and outfits when she was a child, even after she was diagnosed with ALS and began losing the ability to work with her hands. I remember some of the last items she made my daughter, I thought, “These are way too big for Marybella.” Not thinking that she was making them bigger on purpose because she knew she was dying and wouldn’t be around to make them later. In fact the first thing 4 year old Marybella said when I told her the news of Nannie’s death, “But mommy who’s going to make my dresses?”

Do you ever think about what you would do with one more day? One more day with someone you lost. One more day to hold each other. One more day to say I love you. I think about it. And although I would probably just hold her as tight as I could with a tear stained face, I would like to think that I could muster up enough strength to ask her to teach me. Teach me how to quilt, teach me how to embroider, teach me these wonderful things she knew how to do because I want to be able to teach my daughter. I do not want these lost arts of the Southern Grandmother to go extinct. There is too much beauty and wisdom in them to let them die. There is also something soulfully satisfying about creating with your hands, creating something tangible, creating something with love, creating something sustainable that adds beauty to this world.

The older I get the more I’m drawn to the deep and simple things in life, not the disposable, convenient things that fill so many of our days. It’s easy to rationalize that we don’t have time, but we sure do spend a lot of our time mindlessly on social media. Are nightly social media posts an acceptable substitute for reading to our children? Does scrolling through social media really take precedence over fishing, cooking, sewing, or quilting? Is documenting Bloody Mary Brunches on Instagram really a replacement for learning how to garden? Do texts really take the place of sitting down and writing a letter to a loved one? If this world of screens is so eye-glazingly wonderful, society sure does seem stressed, depressed, and always looking for what’s next.

My mom is involved in hosting a quilt show in Alabama every spring. This past spring a quilt pre-dating the Civil War was shown. Still intact and colorful, I was overcome with emotion looking at this piece of history. What struck me more than anything was its tangibleness. Here this quilt which was made by hands (in fact by hands of many women in the community where it was made) has survived through seven generations. What can we say in today’s society will last through seven generations? Seven generations ago a group of women got to together with a purpose – to create a beautiful quilt. In fact quilting bees were extremely popular social events in the mid nineteenth century. At a quilting bee each person had a specialized job, even the children were assigned jobs. It was a community activity, it brought people together and it created something tangible. As humans we are meant to create and we are meant to use our hands, there is a sense of fulfillment and accomplishment in doing so that will last long after we are no longer on this earth. A sense of accomplishment and fulfillment that can never be replaced with typing words with our thumbs to be sent into space.

We speak a lot about mindfulness these days, we take yoga classes, we pay life coaches to tell us how to be more mindful. All of these lost arts our grandmothers knew how to do, they all require mindfulness. You cannot sew well if you are not mindful and focused, you will sew a crooked stitch and have to rip it out and do it again. You cannot text and tend to your rose garden, you’ll get pricked by a thorn. You cannot make tea cakes with a frazzled brain, you will mess up and create cookies that are not edible. My sister recalls one time not really paying attention to the ingredients while making tea cakes with Nannie, the tea cakes did not turn out well and Nannie wanted to know why. So they went back through step by step until she figured out that a huge clump in the baking soda caused the snafu. These lost arts of our Southern grandmothers take concentration, patience, and single tasking – all things good for our brains. After cooking, sewing, or gardening I feel a sense of accomplishment, I feel focused, I feel mindful, I feel replenished creatively. I feel quite the opposite when inundated with screen time and our pop up world.

Maybe it is time to get back to the basics. Put down the distractions and take the time to create with our hands. I love seeing my daughter come home from both her grandmother’s houses. At Emmy’s she may end up making bath salts or pickling cucumbers or gathering pecans, at Nana’s she may help plants flowers or read a new horse book. Lord willing and the creek don’t rise, I will be excited to be a Southern Grandmother. I want my grandchildren to wake up to the smell of homemade biscuits on a Saturday morning, I can’t wait to walk them through the woods and discover nature, or sit down to teach them how to sew.