Florine McCrary, aka Granny Flo, was my matriarchal grandmother. I am sewing a sleeve that I copied from an apron that was her apron when she was attending The Shirley Little School of Beauty in Jackson, Mississippi. Apparently, she was the only white woman in the school. I didn’t know this apron when she was wearing it back then. Instead, it lives in my memory as the apron she wore to bake. Oh yes, she was an avid baker. Her specialties were Red Velvet cake (actually, the recipe came from a friend at The Shirley Little School), Oreo Cookie cake, Coconut cake, and my personal favorite Oatmeal Chocolate Chip cookies.
It’s a wrap apron and I am redesigning it as high-end loungewear. As I sew the sleeve together, I think about another one of her careers working in the Schwobilt clothing factory in Colombus, GA. She sewed hundreds of left sleeves into the men’s jacket all day. I think of my fortune to be able to sew the whole garment from start to finish. I had the privilege of going to college and studying, of all things, Art. College was not a privilege my grandmother had. I am fortunate to live in a time where I can work for myself. Between Etsy and Instagram, it is not unusual for women to be entrepreneurs these days. In fact, it is so common it is almost trite to call oneself an entrepreneur, so I steer clear of the term unless I am selling myself in a resume to a potential employer. I wonder if Flo had a resume.
She had so many blue collar jobs throughout her life. The most dignified was her job as a secretary in a police station in Columbus, Georgia. She was married to a detective (her second husband), Sam Featherstone, who loved her and my mom very dearly. He got her the job. But Flo was self destructive and suffered from addiction and mental illness. She probably used diet pills to maintain her exquisite figure. She was a true beauty. But lord knows she drank with those pills too. She struggled with pills and drinking for her whole life even into my life. I remember her joking about my pez dispenser as a little girl - “Is this where you hide your little blue rounds?” I had no idea what little blue rounds were, and quite honestly I still don’t.
Somewhere between her twisted sense of humor and her paranoia existed undiagnosed mental illness. She got it in her mind that Sam Featherstone was planning to kill her, and in the middle of the night, she packed up my mom and they ran away. So much for her dignified administrative assistant job.
My mom and Flo eventually moved back in with her parents. Flo’s daddy was a hard working man with no job (probably because he had the alcoholism gene too). Flo’s mama was the bread-winner because her well-off sister let her manage some rental properties in Columbus. My mom was the product of Flo’s first marriage, and my mom suspects the product of Flo’s attempt to keep a husband who had one foot out the door. My mom has fond memories of gardening with her grandfather, picking strawberries, and building brick walls in the back yard. He was a resourceful and smart man, but a strict disciplinarian. One day, his calico cat got out and he blamed my mom. Her punishment - “No tv for the rest of your life.”
“You go to hell!!” Said my mom in response to her grandfather’s punishment.
A chase insured which ended with her retreating to the bathroom.
She was devastated. For one, she was certain that it was not her fault the cat got loose. And two, all she had was tv. She had been moved around so much that she didn’t really have friends. And her grandparents ran such a tight ship she wouldn’t have been able to have them over even if she had. A whole life without tv wasn’t worth living, she thought. Thankfully, one night about two weeks later, she heard meows outside her window. She ran outside and lo and behold it was the calico. She lured her back inside and immediately took the cat to her grandfather with excitement.
“Now can I watch tv!??”
And that was the night that she wrote a letter to her estranged father who had never cared to reach out to her. But she figured, “What do I have to lose? I can be miserable here with no tv or miserable there with tv.” And that was that. A few months later she had gone from rags to riches. Her father was a successful car salesman and offered her a life that was quite the opposite of the one she had known so far.
Fast forward about 18 years. She hadn’t heard from her mother in about six years. It was a rare icy winter night in Jackson, Mississippi. The power had gone out and there was no water. Stress was high for my mom with her five year old son and another baby (me) on the way, struggling through her own marital and mental obstacles. She gets a knock on the door and opens it to find a police officer who has Flo in the backseat of his car.
“Ma’am, is this your mother?”
For a moment, stunned and tired, she considered lying with a simple, “No.”
Instead she answered, “What’s she done?”
“Well I found her in her car. She slid off the road into a ditch. She said she drove all day to come give you some Valentine’s candy.” One hand moves to his face, “I suspect she’s been drinking a bit, but we have a full house so I’m gonna let it slide this time.”
With hesitation and annoyance in her voice she manages to say, “Thanks, officer”.
My mom was conflicted about whether or not to send her back to wherever she came from or to accept her back into her life. Elsie, my other grandmother, was spent after helping with my brother, so she had declared to everyone in the family that she was done with babies, so my mom knew that she wasn’t going to be much help. So maybe this was a godsend, she thought. She got Flo checked into the Baptist Rehabilitation Center where she got sober and was out in time for my birth.
My mom moved to Birmingham when she and my dad got divorced. Flo followed my mom. Literally. She rode in the moving van with the movers - her car hooked to the trailer. Subtle and overt betrayals and abuses led to the dissolution of my parents’ marriage. Though my mom always says Flo’s presence added unnecessary strain to an already strained marriage.
My mom worked two or three jobs at a time to be able to support us and pay for a house in a nice school system. So Flo spent a lot of time at the house babysitting us after school while my mom was still at work.
She’d make me fish sticks and Brunswick stew. I would rope her into imaginary, pretend games. Though she was unwilling to play along much so I would always give her quiet roles like librarian or maid (if she was busy with house work). We had such fun together. Well I did anyway. I never really saw her flaws because, for the most part, she was a sober granny. She was weird enough to call herself a “Rock’N’Roll Granny” but sober enough not to make scenes that would scar me for life (as she had done with my mom).
When I was six, she secretly started working at Hardee’s on the weekend. Her wealthy Aunt Dorris who had married well left her a nest egg to live on when she died of liver failure, but it didn’t afford her very many luxuries. So she got a part time job to be able to buy my brother and me Christmas presents. Really, she wanted to be able to buy me the thing I had been ogling over for months on the tv. Every time the commercial would come on I would call her into the room to watch.
“Granny!!!! Come quick! My Size Barbiiiiiie!!! She comes with a wedding dress! She’s so pretty. All I want for Christmas is her.”
Christmas is a special time for kids of divorcees. It’s the one day of the year where you get to imagine what life would be like if things had been different. If we were a “normal” family. That’s why my brother and I loved Christmas morning so much. In later years, he would tell me to pretend I believed in Santa or else Christmas wouldn’t happen anymore. What a Christmas the Christmas of 94 was! Boy oh boy! I got everything I wanted! A leather biker coat. Leather biker boots. I was stylin’. And then saving the best for last, the biggest gift to me under the tree. I think a part of me knew what it was, so I tore just a little peep hole, saw the wedding dress and ripped the rest of the paper off like a wild Banshee.
“My Size Barbiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiie!!!!!”
My grandmother’s smile was ear to ear. Every sweaty second of flipping burgers was suddenly worth while. I jumped on her and hugged her neck so hard she couldn’t breath. But she didn’t care.
I didn’t waste a second. I took her out of the box, my dad helping using his pocket knife on all those cruel zip ties that slow kids down on Christmas morning. As soon as she was free, I ran us into my room and shut the door! Stripped off my ugly ass pj’s, unbelievably excited to trade clothes with My Size Barbie and slip into my Cinderella-esk wedding dress!
Just when I had got her outfit off and was ready for my big transformation like I saw on the commercial - stars and fireworks and twirls ready to ignite - my door swung open! My mom with her camera, Granny, … and John :/ :< . I scream “Get out!!!”
John’s says, “What are you doing with Barbie!!”
“I’m trading clothes! Get out!!”
John laughing hysterically and chanting, “A-man-duh’s a fa*got!” A chant that he was prone to sing for no other reason than it was the early 90’s and it was an “insult” he didn’t get in trouble for using.
Barbie and I jumped into my closet to get away from the paparazzi. And I didn’t come out for a while. The moment was lost. But the sentiment lives on in infamy. My grandmother got a part time job at Hardees to afford me the magic of a My Size Wedding Barbie. A playmate … maybe I shouldn’t use that word … but a sister and friend to share clothes with. Looking back, it is odd that Mattel put boobs on My Size Barbie. She ain’t quite my size. The rest of my life I was infatuated with the idea of having boobs that never grew. But that’s another story.
I shared this sentimental story at Granny’s funeral (minus the paparazzi part). She died unexpectedly and I was in the midst of defending my thesis in grad school. I had to attend through FaceTime. I was a disembodied head being held by my mom’s sister-in-law. When the priest opened the floor for sharing, I was saddened by the silence, so even though I was a floating head I decided to share this story. I began crying as I shared, and my Aunt Luann said, “Oh honey, don’t cry!” Which I found to be incredibly annoying in the moment but I continued to tell the story and to cry.
I knew Granny to be a pure and good soul underneath her idiosyncratic, schizophrenic, obsessive behaviors. And I thought this story painted the picture of who she really was. A woman who worked hard her whole life, had some luck, but mostly hardships, was deeply flawed, but had the most giving heart.
It reminds me of the part of Mark where Jesus said “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything - all she had to live on.”