By DENENE MILLNER
I’m not sure what made me think about her today. I was in the grocery store, smelling the over-priced strawberries when my mother suddenly popped into my mind. It happens like that, you know I’ll be doing something absolutely mundane, and there she’ll be, standing in the bathroom mirror of my childhood home, putting on her lipstick and adjusting her church hat; or standing over me and my Dad, watching us eat that extra sweet potato pie she baked just for us, because she knew we wouldn’t be able to keep our hands off the two she made for Thanksgiving dinner; or singing a silly song to my Mari, which, even loud and off-key, always managed to make my then-baby girl fall fast asleep. Sometimes, the memories make me giggle a little. Sometimes, I can’t quite control the tears, and I’m blinded by overwhelming sadness.
A lot of times, I just miss her so.
Bettye went away from here six years ago—suddenly, surprisingly, heart-achingly. Mari was three, and so she couldn’t quite understand, really, why she wouldn’t be able to lay in her Gamma’s arms anymore. Lila was barely two months old, and so all she has is a few pictures of my mom holding her in her arms, nuzzling Lila’s fat cheeks. I was a young mother, trying to figure out how to raise two girl pies and be a good wife and hold down a challenging magazine gig and write books and run a household and live a fulfilled life. None of us was ready for her to go. We needed her.
I needed her.
I didn’t always appreciate the mother that Bettye Millner was. She was old school strict and a little mean and definitely one of those moms who thought children were to be seen, not heard. She reveled in making her kids do chores (I spent so much time scrubbing, vacuuming and doing laundry during weekend high school events that I seriously considered changing my name to Cinderella). She chauffeured my brother, Troy, and I to church every Sunday, faithfully, and with a smile. And most certainly, Bettye believed that any child who stepped out of line had a sound whooping coming right to ˜em (her weapon of choice: a fresh, thin, sturdy switch from the tree in the front yard). She was tart-tongued and quick to tell you about yourself—fiercely protective and ridiculously private (she’s somewhere on the other side clutching her pearls over me writing this blog about her, I’m sure!). And she prayed for us even when we didn’t know it—even when we didn’t deserve it. Especially when we needed it.
I expected her to be a similar kind of grandmother—to apply those strict, old school traits to the way she would love my babies. But she was different with them—all googly and sweet and swooning. She would snatch Mari right out of my arms before she or I could get through the door good, and rush her away to a room full of gifts, and a plate full of food, and a VCR full of kid movies just waiting for her grandbaby. She’d read to her and sing to her and talk to her and welcome Mari to talk back. She’d dress up her grandbaby and sport her down the church aisle American’s Next Top Model-style, showing her off to anyone with eyes. And she’d fall asleep with Mari snuggled next to her in her bed, my father banished to the basement couch to make room for the little girl child she loved so.
And just as she revealed a different side of Bettye as grandmother, my mom revealed a different, softer side of herself to me, too. Suddenly, we became fellow moms: Rather than tell me what to do, she encouraged me to do what I thought was right; instead of holding her secrets close, she shared them with the hope that they would help me be a better mom; rather than reprimand me for my childcare decisions, she trusted my judgment. I’ll never forget the day when I came to her distraught because someone very close to us criticized my decision to keep breastfeeding Mari past six months. Honestly, I expected her to agree; after all, what self-respecting, black working mom kept her ninny in a baby’s mouth past a few months when there was work to do and baby formula at the ready?
“Mari is your baby,” she insisted when I came to her, overwhelmed and a little mad at the judgmental mom who questioned my decision. “You’re not ever going to hear me questioning how you’re raising your child. You’re going to make mistakes all of us did before you, and many will after you. You do what’s right for you.”
What I would do to have her here. To order. To direct. To encourage. And pray for me and mine. There are so many things that I wish she could see—Mari and Lila’s fierce competitive spirit on the soccer field, the rows of A’s on their report cards. I know she would love Lila’s mischievousness, and Mari’s curiousness. She’d hang their artwork up on her refrigerator, and brag about her grandbabies to her friends, and sit them right up there in the front pew, so they could pay attention to the preacher, and the other deaconesses could give them mints and pinches on their cheeks. And my mother would be overwhelmed by my daughters’ beauty, proud of the young ladies they’re becoming. Excited about who they’ll be.
I do wish, too, that she were still here so that my daughters could see first-hand the incredible woman their grandmother was.
We are all missing out on something special now that Bettye Millner is gone.
I’ll tell Mari and Lila about her, though keep her fresh in their memories.
And I’ll wait for her to come to me again a lovely, sweet, heartbreaking vision in my mind.