May is the month that both my grandmothers were born. My maternal grandmother turns 90 in a couple weeks. My paternal grandmother died 10 years ago. Today would have been her 93rd birthday.

Gram and I were close. I was pregnant with my son when she passed away and his middle name is her maiden name. Had my son been a girl, I would have used her first name – Kathryn. Everyone knew her as Kay.

She was born in a small town in western Kentucky and although she spent most of her adult life in Chicago, she and my grandfather are buried in that same town in Kentucky. They are surrounded by several generations of “her people”.

A few years before she died, I sat down and asked my grandmother the story of her life. My husband videotaped it for us. The local genealogical society was making a book and I included her story and picture. I gave the book to my dad when it was published.

My grandmother was born in 1918, the third child and first daughter of poor sharecroppers. Her family soon swelled to nine children and they were able to buy a house in town. In search of a job and a better life, my grandmother came to Chicago with a couple friends. A few of her sisters and a cousin came up here for a little while, too.

My grandparents met in a small restaurant that he owned in the city. My grandfather’s sister tells a story of the first time she met my grandmother. They were going to have dinner with her and they stopped at her apartment to pick her up. She must have thought my grandfather would be alone because my grandmother answered the door in her underwear. I think my great-aunt held onto that vision for the next 50 years. They were not close.

After serving in WWII, my grandfather came back to ask my grandmother to marry him. Shortly after that, her grandmother had passed away and they traveled back to Kentucky to attend her funeral. It was Christmas week and all my grandmother’s siblings were going to be in town. With everyone there, they decided to move up the wedding. It was Christmas Eve 1945.

My grandparents lived the rest of their lives in Chicago except for a few years in Tennessee. They raised two sons and owned several restaurants. My grandmother was a working mom long before it was the norm. She volunteered at the church and school and was a saucy woman.

My favorite story of her is from the 1950’s. Her car had died at a light and she tried unsuccessfully to restart it. The man behind her kept blowing his horn, as if that would help. Instead of losing her temper, my grandmother simply got out of the car, walked to the man behind her and gave him her keys. She told him, “You go up there and try to start it and I will sit back here and blow the horn.”

When we were kids, we often stayed at their house over the weekend. One night, while getting ready for bed, my grandmother said to me, “Pam, go downstairs and tell grandpa to put that car in the garage before I have a hissy rigger.” My grandmother was always fixing to have a hissy rigger. None of us knew what that was. However, when I went down to tell my grandfather what she said, he got up off that couch fast and put the car in the garage. I guess he saw a hissy rigger and didn’t want to see it again!

After my grandfather’s death, my grandmother moved back to Kentucky. My husband and I visited her every year during the weekend of the church picnic. She loved to play cards and read “smut books” and could rock in her chair for hours. She would garden and can veggies and went to church every week.

Gram was in town when my oldest daughter was born and came to the hospital an hour after she was born. Three years later, Gram passed away in that same hospital. I got to spend those last few hours with her and although she didn’t respond, I felt she knew I was there.

I think of her all the time, but especially on her birthday. Happy Birthday, Gram! I miss you and wish there was cell service in heaven.

Gram and my daughther 1999


Kay and Howard on their wedding day 1945

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