Deirdre Reilly introduced her reading's background: A tribute she wrote for her newspaper column 10 years before her grandmother's death.
A Cowgirl in Our Midst
There aren’t a lot of cowgirls around anymore. By cowgirls I mean women who can cook you a gourmet meal out of a potato and a pot of water, wrassle wild animals, and rock babies to sleep. Luckily, I have one of the few remaining cowgirls left, right here in my own family; her name is Mary Helen, and she’s my grandma.
Mary Helen was born in Beech Grove, Tennessee, and was married by the time she was 14—not unusual in her part of the country and back in those days. In my own girlhood I was amazed by this and questioned my grandmother with all the inquisitiveness and sensitivity my liberal arts public school education could muster.
“Grammy,” I began (I remember we were sitting in a car outside the 7-11 and my mother had run in to get bread), “what was the hardest thing, emotionally and mentally, of course, about marrying at that age—barely a young woman?”
Mary Helen considered this question seriously for a moment, then answered, “I had to get rid of my horse and my gun.” That’s what she said.
Mary Helen’s true love was the young man she married way back when, and she had three babies with him—she gave birth to my dad at home in her bed, the doctor too far away to call.’
“Grammy,” I said, amazed at this, “what was the thing you remember most—physically and mentally, of course—about having dad at home?”
Mary Helen considered this for a moment (I remember she was standing a t the stove) and answered, “I was sure glad when it was over.”
Mary Helen is a gifted artist. One painting she did, of two Native American men gliding through the Florida Everglades in a canoe while surrounded by crocodiles, has always symbolized to me Mary Helen’s imagination and creativity. She said, “That one used up a lot of green paint.”
Mary Helen just told me recently that she had a nephew named Paul who died at the young age of two, during the Depression. Paul had been living with his grandparents—Mary Helen’s parents—when his own parents took him away, desperately believing that they could survive and café for their baby on their own. Paul died of starvation. This was the first time I had ever heard of Paul
“Grammy,” I said over the phone line, “how did any of you get over losing Paul?”
There was a weighty silence on the other end of the line. “Mama and Daddy begged them not to take that baby away till times were easier,” was Mary Helen’s quiet reply.
Mary Helen loves a good laugh; once, upon returning to the cemetery where her husband lay buried, she noticed that the grave sit and double headstone created for her and her husband were unequal; my grandfather’s side was weeded and trimmed and polished, while her side—dates not yet carved in—was overgrown and in pretty sore shape. She turned to the minister of the church, who happened to be with her on her visit, and said, “My side looks kind of neglected, don’t you think?”
The minister mopped his brow and answered, “Mary Helen, you’re not using it yet!” She loved that.
In the last few years Mary Helen has moved away from her home and her home state, and she has lost her sight. She just keeps right on going.
On a recent vacation at the beach, I pulled salt water taffy from my teeth while I watched Mary Helen crochet five e or six dishwashing cloths, sew a button on one of my kids’ shorts, and feel her way all around the unfamiliar rental house, memorizing it in no time.
Some day, I thought, I will have grandkids who will ask me about her. I could tell them the funny stories or show them her artwork, but I think instead I will try to explain the way Mary Helen looks when grace is being said at the supper table. Her long body kind of folds in on itself, and her proud gray head drops in worship, in obedience, in tune. She goes where sometimes she talks and sometimes she listens; she goes where Paul is being fed.
My prayers, sitting shoulder to shoulder with her, are different. “Lord,” I ask, “let us keep her.”
After all, there aren’t too many cowgirls left.