July 19, 1903. A summer birthday. A historically hot day in Georgia. One hundred and thirteen years ago, Roberta Mildred Martin was born in Winterville, Georgia.
“Bert,” as my father called her, was the woman who raised my mother. She was “Mama” to my mama, and “Grandmama” to my sisters and me. She did not give birth to my mother; she was her aunt. My mother struggled with this realization at age fifteen; she’d been lied to all her life as to who her biological mother was. But Grandmama was indeed the person who was the mother in Mama’s life; the one who provided for her, taught her right from wrong, administered discipline, and occasionally showed her affection.
Years later after we had arrived, Grandmama was one of our summertime babysitters while my mother worked. She watched over us from early morning biscuits and black-eyed gravy and hot percolated coffee sipped from a saucer, all the way to late afternoon ice-cream truck treats. I’ll never forget her black leather coin purse and how it snapped tight and held seemingly endless change.
During my and my sisters’ formative years, she was one of the people whose rearing and teachings helped form us. She was the smartest, most worldly uneducated person I’ve ever known. She was shrewd, sharp, and had a wit and tongue that could simultaneously build you up and cut you down. She had lived a hard life, been married five times (widowed and divorced), back before Elizabeth Taylor made it en vogue.
And she had stories that could hold 6 to 10 year olds enrapt for hours in her small Cabbagetown duplex. One story was The Woman and The Lady. Both were adults, could make their own decisions, may or may not have been married, may or may not have had children. Both were beautiful; one on the inside and one on the outside. And gradually, she’d paint a picture of the contrasts of these two females. One may have worked outside the home, the other made her home and family her career. The more she described these two, the clearer their essence would become. The more beautiful one had the more genteel, kind-hearted, good-mannered nature; she was the Lady. The other may have had outward beauty, but she also had the gumption to dress down those who wronged or slighted her: to call someone on their questionable ways. To perhaps even go after an alleged mistress with a butcher knife in tow, just to put a good fear into her.
Grandmama was deliberate in her choice of words when describing a female: they were either a lady or a woman. Usually, the Lady was whom she thought more highly of. Occasionally, the Woman was someone whose hutzpah she admired or she simply didn’t like. I think Roberta was both. She never, not once, touched a drop of alcohol. But Bruton snuff was a different thing and a vice in which she indulged. She always, ALWAYS extended hospitality to anyone in her home (to do otherwise was completely unladylike and not acceptable).
So on the anniversary of her 113th birthday, I’m left thinking of where I fall on her female classification barometer. I think I’m mostly a Lady, but what makes me interesting is that smidge of Woman that runs in my veins.
Happy Birthday, Grandmama! I miss your summertime birthday celebrations with salted watermelon slices, homemade ice cream in the hand-cranked churner, your skinny layer-cakes piled high (9 deep!), and your awfully sweet tea poured from the Currier & Ives teapot. You did good.
Some of Grandmama’s staple “Lady” beauty products:
. . .and her one Woman vice. . .