On a recent phone call with my grandmother, I mentioned the swimming pool on the 29th floor of my building. Mamaw was reminded of a hotel in New Orleans she once visited, which had a pool on the roof, “and that was in the 40s. Heaven knows what they can do now.”
Traveling to New Orleans from Atlanta with only her friends from the bank must have been such a daring adventure for her in the 1940s. They didn’t bring any male chaperones – no fathers, no brothers, no husbands – in an age where young women traveling without men was strongly frowned upon, if not unheard of in more conservative circles. They flirted with cute strangers and drank hurricanes. (Years later, she would drink one sip of eggnog and proclaim, “No more! Ah’m dizzy and I want to drive to Publix in the morning!” I can’t help but speculate on what a tall hurricane would have done to her.)
Mamaw and her friends went all over New Orleans, including Bourbon Street, the French Quarter, Canal Street – all of the landmarks that would become famous as the setting for A Streetcar Named Desire. New Orleans jazz experienced a revival in the 1940s, and even though her tastes ran more towards Johnny Cash, she must have been impressed by the way jazz lamented the loss of a decaying, idealized South while promoting a certain kind of sunny optimism and perseverance. (If you don’t know what I mean, try listening to this.)
When I was a little girl, I remember a relative telling me not to be jealous of Mamaw’s treatment of my younger brother, because she had only raised boys and didn’t understand girls very well. But now, I know that her feelings towards me and my sister were more complicated than that.
Especially as we grew older, she must have seen how Kristin and I stepped out into the world much like she did in 1940s New Orleans: brave but wary, daring ourselves into doing things we were afraid of. I think she saw herself in us, versions of herself that didn’t have to abide by the gender-strict rules of the mid-20th century South. Mamaw had experienced just enough of life outside her family home in Chattanooga to let her know what exciting things were out there.
Mamaw passed away yesterday at 88 years old. She went to Young Harris College, raised two boys, toured Washington, D.C., played the Florida lottery religiously, watched NASCAR races like God himself was going to show up in the 184th lap, said “Hells bells” in public when she wasn’t supposed to, and collected enough birds, butterflies, orchids, and Elvis figurines to populate a beautiful, if somewhat strangely decorated, village. She hated to cook, but would have made me my favorite spaghetti dish every hour on the hour if that is what I would have wanted.
In short, after her adventure in 1940s New Orleans, she found adventures in the everyday tasks of woman, wife, mother, grandmother, and proud redneck. She would say “I’m just a hick from the sticks” when she was asked to try something new, but we all knew that was only part of the truth.