December 27th was my grandmother’s birthday. We affectionately called her Maw primarily because my brother (the oldest) named her that. My paternal grandmother was my only living grandparent and I was blessed to have her in my life. Now let me tell you about my not so typical grandmother. I use to dream of a grandmother who would bake you cookies, have sleep overs, and essentially spoil you rotten. I was completely envious of friends and cousins whose grandmother did those things. However, in my forties and especially today, I see what she did leave me and the rest of her grandchildren. GRIT. Pure 100% determination to survive. You see my grandmother was born in 1932 during the great depression. Her father lived in a community called Golden Pond, Kentucky. Golden Pond is one of those communities that unfortunately no longer exist. A piece of land between the Cumberland and Tennessee River, Golden Pond was a hot spot for government, electricity, and moonshine. Even Al Capone liked my hometown’s moonshine. When the Tennessee Valley Authority came into western Kentucky to build a dam for rural electrification, thousands of people lost their home to the construction and modernization. Jolly Jones, my great grandfather and many others, were forced to leave and create a new home. Growing up during the depression, my grandmother was resourceful. She could cook, sew, can vegetables, and loved taking care of animals. Her life was not easy.
She fell in love with a man who was older, divorced, and had a child. In 1950, falling in love and marrying a man that was 12 years older than you was the talk of the town. She shouldered the stigma and married the talented, musician. My grandfather could build anything, in fact I got married in the chapel that he had built. He could play any instrument and had an ear for music. He played with the famous, Boots Randolph (also from my hometown). Boots was known for playing the saxophone and trombone. I am guessing some of you are wondering if you have ever heard of his work. I bet you have in fact, I bet you heard it recently. Rocking around the Christmas Tree by Brenda Lee or Turn on your Love Light by Jerry Lee Lewis? Maybe, you’ve heard of ELVIS!! Look him up – trust me. My grandfather would play with him but his love of alcohol killed any dreams he had of being in the spotlight. My grandmother keep things going by working at the sowing factory or any where she could while starting their family. They had four children (two red-heads) and battled poverty and alcoholism. They moved to Texas for a new start and yet alcohol still found them, so they moved back. One son was in the wrong place at the wrong time. A cattle stealing ring was going on throughout Kentucky and Tennessee. My uncle was squirrel hunting and ran up on the incident. He was shot and died at the age of 12. My grandfather hit the bottle even harder coping with the loss of his youngest boy. And in the early 1970’s, he came home yet again drunk, angry, and with a gun for the final time. My grandmother suffered, lost more than I can imagine, and yet continued. Maw persevered and started going to school at night while the youngest (my aunt) was still at home and in high school. She worked weekends at a local nursing home to make ends meet but finally received her LPN degree. She worked hard and became a nurse at the penitentiary. Yes, you heard me – my grandmother was a nurse with the worst kind of criminals. She retired from the state penitentiary after working over two decades there. So no, she did not bake cookies nor knit me a sweater. She did not coddle me in fact she was tough on me.
So on her birthday, I want to pass on to my girls grit, perseverance, and pure determination. Life is tough. It does not always deal you the best hand. Get up. Keep trying. Never let someone tell you no. If you have a will there is a way. She worked – she did not let folks give her a handout and do nothing. She fought for her kids. We not only share a middle name but she gave me the resiliency to never give up. For that, I am eternally grateful. Happy Heavenly Birthday Maw – I love you.
One dish she made year after year for the holidays was sweet potato casserole with marshmallows. My absolute favorite. You can add nuts, slice and dice but to me – sweet potato casserole must have roasted marshmallows or it’s an imposter.
Sweet Potato Casserole
4-6 medium sized sweet potatoes, washed, peeled, and sliced
1/2 stick of butter
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 Tbsp vanilla (pure)
2 Tbsp sweet condensed milk
1 Tsp cinnamon
1 bag of medium size marshmallows
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spray non-stick cooking spray in a 9×13 dish. Wash, peel, and slice or cube your potatoes. Boil your potatoes until fork tender. Add butter, sugar, vanilla, condensed milk and cinnamon. Mash or use an emulsifier to puree the mixture. Place the mashed potatoes in the 9×13 dish and top with marshmallows. Bake for 25-30 minutes until golden brown. If you like a like bit more roasting, quickly broil on high for 1 minute. This will yield a bit of summer burnt marshmallow for you!!!
As I close on what would have been my grandmother’s 87th birthday, I leave you with not only my favorite dish of hers but more. I ask that you see people for more than just their clothes and money. See her. See what she survived, what she did, and the difference she made. Her story is worth telling. Her story made me me. Eat, live, and fight for the life you desire. Never let circumstances dictate you. Cheers to a New Year!
Happy Holidays to you!