My grandma went to be with the Lord in the early hours of a Friday morning, this past March. At 100 years of age, her soul strained to be free of the withered, aged shell her body had become and flew away to heaven.
My memories include a short, feisty, strong-willed woman who worked hard her whole life, went to church on Sunday, and loved her four daughters and many grandchildren and great grandchildren with a generous heart.
Nellie Bea grew up in a large family. She was one of ten children. She only made it through sixth grade. Children had to be bread winners back then and not just bread eaters. She left New Mexico for Texas when she was seventeen to live with her older sister and brother-in-law until she found a job. She ended up meeting and marrying my grandfather, Frank Sterns. A few months later, he was killed, and she was left pregnant and alone at eighteen. Single motherhood wasn’t glamorous in the 1930s. There was no outside support. She lived with his parents until my mother was born and then a few months later agreed to marry a young man from her home town. The man I knew as my grandfather, James Smith. They ended up heading to California to find work and eventually settled in Oregon.
Visits to her house when I was a child included playing with her giant jar of buttons, swinging on the old tire swing behind the house, drinking cold, fresh well water from metal cups, eating homemade fried apple pies, watching her put up jars of hot relish (Chow Chow) she made from the peppers in her garden, and snacking off blackberry bushes along the side of the house. She lived in the country, on a narrow winding road where the land could be tumbleweed dry on one side and on the other be thick and green with irrigated crops. Farms were peppered with cows and horses, as well as ancient tractors and rusting plows.
When I was eleven, my family moved across the country and visits back to Oregon were rare. Her letters to me over the years before her eyesight was too poor to continue, were filled with words sounded out the way she spoke. And that’s the way I read them, out loud, conjuring her from the lined pages of her letters. Still with a soft southern drawl from growing up in the deep south, mixed with her many years in Oregon, she had a way with words that was completely original to her.
She didn’t learn to drive or write a check until after she was widowed in middle-age. When she did learn, she was a pretty terrible driver, but it didn’t stop her from calling all the other drivers, “idits!” in that letter-dropping drawl of hers that was a combination Texan redneck and Oregonian lifer. Baking a pie and whipping up a fried chicken and mashed potato and gravy dinner was as simple and common to her as people nowadays sticking a take-and-bake pizza in the oven.
She was a lover of milk, game shows, aprons, and head rags (scarves wrapped around her head to hold the bobby pins in place or just to cover her hair when she was at home working.) She was frugal with her spending and didn’t waste food or clothes, but was generous with those she loved. She may not have given as many hugs as some, but you knew she cared. When she sent a crisp dollar bill in my birthday cards, I knew she was thinking of me no matter how far apart we were.
My grandma always used my first and middle name. I don’t know if it was a lingering southern thing, a grandma thing, or a conservation thing from being raised during the Great Depression. Don’t waste anything. Whatever the reason, I thought it was cool when she said my name that way. It made me feel special. When Mom used my middle name, it was usually because I was in trouble. But when Grandma called me Barbara Ellen, I felt like I was being acknowledged as someone dear to her. Someone worthy of two names spoken in a feisty Texas drawl with a heaping helping of love and pride.
This letter is written by Barbara Ellen in memory and honor of my grandma, Nellie Bea, now resting in the arms of Jesus.