The World’s Changin’, Baby.
December 18th never passes that I don’t think of my paternal grandmother. It was her birthday. Yesterday would have marked her 104th birthday. This year, when December 18th rolled around, it set me to thinking about all the changes in the world that my grandmother saw during her lifetime and the changes that have happened since she died a quarter of a century ago. It also made me think about the things that haven’t changed at all since my grandmother and I had one of the most important conversations of my life back in 1969.
Change didn’t come easily for Little Granny, the name her grandchildren gave her to distinguish her from our other grandmothers, who all far exceeded Little Granny’s 4 feet, 10 inches. I remember being at her house when the first moon landing took place. She didn’t believe it was really happening. How could men send a rocket to the moon and then go outside of that rocket and walk on the surface without dying? Despite the simulations on network television (there was no live video feed from the moon to homes at that time) and the explanations of what was happening and how it all worked, Little Granny refused to believe it was true. I don’t know if she ever changed her mind about it. I didn’t ask.
That same Christmas, I got a chemistry set. It came in a blue, metal case, with racks inside for all the chemical jars and beakers and test tubes and the most prized object of all, a microscrope. It was all I wanted for Christmas, and my parents, despite their abject poverty, somehow managed to scrape together the money to buy it for me. I wanted to learn chemistry, but only because I wanted to be a neurosurgeon. Brains fascinated me. They still do. Chemistry was a step toward neurosurgery.
We spent Christmas Eve at Little Granny’s that year, so Santa visited her house instead of ours. Knowing how excited I was to dive into the experiments in the instruction book, Little Granny let me set up my chemistry set in the corner of her living room. My first experiment was a blazing success, and in a matter of hours, I proudly held up the results for all my family members to see: a test tube full of colorful crystals. I still remember her words and the voice that spoke them with tenderness and encouragement, “That’s pretty, baby. You done a good job.” She called everyone she loved “baby,” but that didn’t matter to me. It made me feel special that she said it, and it made me feel special that she liked my work and was proud of me.
After the holiday celebration was over the next evening, my parents went home with my brothers, and I got to stay behind with Little Granny and PawPaw, who would drive me what was then considered a daunting distance of 100 miles back to my parents’ house on Saturday or Sunday. Travel plans were always vague when it came to Little Granny. For one thing, it seemed she and my grandfather never had a reliable car, and she was afraid of getting stranded on the highway, a valid concern if one lives in the high desert and is traversing territory that’s sparsely populated. A tow would have been too costly for people as poor as my grandparents, and according to Little Granny, “There’s crazy folks out there. They’ll kill you in the bar ditch for a plug nickel.”
Truth be told, I think she just preferred being in her own home. She certainly didn’t leave her property more than she had to. I liked that about her, though, because I liked being in her house with her. Just as much, I loved being able to stay in her spare bedroom, even if it was an unheated room. Little Granny would pile so many quilts onto the twin bed in that cluttered space, which she used for storage mostly, that a small child might have been at risk of suffocating, but I would crawl under their hefty weight with eagerness. It felt like the safest and most loving place in the world, and I slept the peaceful sleep of the dead when in it.
Over the next few days, I followed Little Granny around while she did her chores. The least favorite of these was feeding the chickens in the back yard. I didn’t like the way they pecked at my feet. When I hopped away from the pecking hens and squeaked in fear, Little Granny laughed and said, “Throw the feed away from you.” (DUH.) I did but was still terrified of her crazed rooster, which seemed to want to flog anything that moved in the yard . . . except Baby. The rooster had at least one neuron that fired correctly, though! Baby was a Chow, and he took his job as watchdog very seriously. The only person who could get near him was Little Granny, so she wouldn’t let anyone into the backyard alone, which suited me just fine. Baby was even scarier than the rooster and a lot meaner than the pecking hens. I never understood why she called him by the same name as she did everyone she loved. I suppose it was just easier when one had 8 children and heaven knows how many grandchildren. One more name, even if it was for a dog, might have been more to remember than should be expected of anyone. Or maybe it was her reluctance to change that bit of the southerner in her that was a calling card. Some southern women call everyone “Baby.”
When we weren’t busy doing chores, I played with the chemistry set. Time and again, I repeated the crystal experiment, and time and again, I failed to reproduce those first glorious results. I still don’t know what I did wrong. What I do know is that every test tube in my new chemistry set ended up filled with hardened gunk adhered to the glass. After several attempts to clean them with soap and water and a dishrag I tried to stuff in and pull out, I’d managed to break several.
Hearing the breaking glass, Little Granny came into the kitchen to investigate. I showed the ruined test tubes to her. In tears, I admitted with great shame that I’d failed to grow the beautiful crytals again and had destroyed my equipment in the process. As I remember it, “I ruined it” was the most coherent thing I snuffled out during that conversation. Little Granny took the test tubes and shooed me out of the kitchen, telling me that she would get the broken glass out of the sink so I wouldn’t cut myself. I sat on the couch in her living room and stared at the chemistry lab across the room. I felt hollow from disheartenment and regret and ineptitude.
After a while, she returned with my test tubes in hand, and they were clean and almost as shiny as new. When I asked how she’d managed to get them clean, she sat down at the iron-legged, linoleum-topped dining table positioned against the wall just outside the kitchen door. I came over and sat down, too, and watched her pour a cup of coffee from the electric percolator that was her pride and joy because it was an electrical device that saved time and work and “made good coffee.” After a few sips of the coffee, she reached for her tobacco pouch and rolled a cigarette while she answered my question.
“Bottle brush and kerosene. You can’t use kerosene. It’s dang’rous. Ask your mama to do it for you when you mess up again.”
I wasn’t sure what to say. She had cleaned the test tubes, and I was grateful for that, but she was also saying I would fail again. The woman who had been so proud of my accomplishments was now proclaiming that not only had I failed once, but also that I would do so again. My silence must have amused her because she laughed. Then, she said the most profound thing I’d heard up to that point in my life.
“Everbody messes up ‘cept those who don’t try. If you wanna do whatever you’re doin’ over there,” she said, nodding toward the chemistry lab in the corner, “go do it. When I was little, girls couldn’t do that even if they wanted to. And neither could poor folks. But don’t go thinkin’ you’re special and won’t mess up or that you know more’n anybody else. Some is gonna say you can’t. Don’t listen to ‘em. They’s jealous or ig’nrant or just plain mean. The world’s changin’, Baby, and you gotta change with it. You gotta help them that needs help changin’. You study your books hard and make all the mistakes you can so you learn from ‘em. Leave them’s behind that wants to stop you.”
I got up and wrapped my arms around her neck and kissed her wiry hair. She patted me with her bony fingers and let me cry. She might have thought I was crying over failing. In reality, I was crying because she had just told me that she couldn’t have done what I was trying to do, couldn’t have been what I wanted to be. This woman who had restored my test tubes using common sense, experience, a tool meant for something else, and what amounted to a chemical solvent even though she’d never had a bit of education in chemistry couldn’t have been a chemist or an engineer or anything else that required a college education.
For Little Granny, those men on the moon weren’t real, but the possibility that her granddaughter could be whatever she wanted to be was. That possibility had opened up because of educational opportunities for women and for economically disadvantaged students in the U.S.
As it turned out, that wasn’t true for everyone in 1969, and it still isn’t. As my grandmother said, “Some is gonna say you can’t. . . . They’s jealous or ig’nrant or just plain mean.” There are women and girls in this world who can’t be chemists; they live in places where they are denied education and opportunities to fail and learn because they are females. There are people of both sexes and every gender identification who can’t be chemists because they live in places where children’s educational opportunities are truncated by hunger and poverty, where adults’ opportunities are truncated by prejudice. Some of those places are in our own backyards, where Baby isn’t a Chow but a self-interested human being or political party or government.
For writers, the watchdog is most often our own fear of failure, fear that we’ll gunk up our test tubes and not be able to get them clean or ever grow the crystals again, fear that if we help someone else, they’ll turn out to be competitors who will assure our failure in a competitive marketplace. Sometimes, the watchdogs are those in an industry reluctant to deal with change because it means relinquishing some of the power they’ve held for a very long time. In response to those facing such watchdogs, I offer Little Granny’s words:
“Everbody messes up ‘cept those who don’t try. If you wanna do whatever you’re doin’ over there, go do it. . . . But don’t go thinkin’ you’re special and won’t mess up or that you know more’n anybody else. Some is gonna say you can’t. Don’t listen to ‘em. They’s jealous or ig’nrant or just plain mean. The world’s changin’, Baby, and you gotta change with it. You gotta help them that needs help changin’. You study your books hard and make all the mistakes you can so you learn from ‘em. Leave them’s behind that wants to stop you.”
Thank you, Little Granny, and Happy 104th Birthday!