As a young child, I think I sensed something very special about old ladies.
Perhaps I was lured by what I perceived as an ability to get away with really outrageous behavior. In any case, I know I thought it would be nice to be one someday!
I was fortunate to have known quite a few — some memorable. My great-aunt Nan, who was part of my life until I was 12, had a tremendous influence on me. She loved to travel, which probably whetted my appetite for foreign scenes. As well, she was intrepid in her pursuit of independence.
Living alone in a large two-story house, she had a great deal of responsibility. I recall that one night she heard her chickens squawking. Assuming it was a possum, she put on a robe, got her pistol and went outside to check.
It was as she had suspected, but the pistol did not fire. Unperturbed, she clobbered the critter with the handle. My recollection is that she was neither chided nor criticized; rather, people laughed at the event and murmured something about her being eccentric.
... There were certain standards that Aunt Nan felt all Southern girls should meet. An appreciation for opera was one, so I was required to spend Saturday afternoons with her listening to the Metropolitan Opera.
I think I was more successful in learning to tat, which was another skill I was expected to acquire. Although her method of teaching fell somewhat short, I was sufficiently inspired to learn from a book, which she took as an affront.
She was also the family recordkeeper and sometime researcher, which undoubtedly influenced my later interest in genealogy and research.
As a teenager, I became acquainted with a Mrs. Garris. She grew beautiful flowers and could be depended on to provide choice specimens for use in corsages, a necessity for music recitals and special events. I was always delighted to have an opportunity to visit her and recall having watched her fingers flick the dead leaves from hanging flower baskets; I don’t recall having heard her talk to them, but I don’t think I would have been shocked if she had.
One of my father’s relatives was an accomplished genealogist and writer; many of her articles and pamphlets survive today. On one of our rare visits to the town of Ninety Six, probably in the ’40s, she took a long time to come to the door.
Welcoming us inside, Aunt Lieze sheepishly explained that she had genealogy charts spread out on her sofa, where she had been on her knees comparing them. She had feared that the visitor might have been a neighbor who already suspected that she worshipped her ancestors and then would be sure of it.
The joy of my life, however, was my paternal grandmother, whose life I shared for 35 years. In all that time, I do not recall a single instance of her having been despondent or irritable; somehow, despite numerous challenges, she seemed to find a way to accept life and smile. This was undoubtedly one of the reasons friends and family adored her.
The quintessential hostess, she welcomed everyone to her home and could always seat another person at her table or provide a bed for the night. At least one niece stayed the school year, as there was not a school close to her home.
The closest to criticism from my grandmother that I recall was during the late ’60s, when skirts were being worn very short. Mine were never mini-skirts, but undoubtedly were far shorter than she would have liked. When I wore a particular dress, she would sigh, shake her head and say, “I do so love that dress. I just wish there were more of it.” And then she would laugh, and I would know it was all OK.
And now that I am an old lady and have learned to pronounce “septuagenarian,” I realize that I have generally accomplished what I needed to do without having had to wait to be really, really old.
Harriet Sinkler Little is a freelance writer/researcher and pinestraw farmer living in Summerville. She spent her early years at Eutaw Plantation near Eutawville and over the years has been a social worker, counselor, teacher and businesswoman.