I wrote this piece for Epinions years ago. It was saved to Ancestry.com without my knowledge or permission. I recently got access to it, so I am preserving it for myself and other interested relatives. Ancestry.com has no right to charge people for the right to read something I wrote to be read for free. Especially ME! Granny died in July 2007. She was six weeks from her 101st birthday.
I may add a photo at a later date… like tomorrow. (ETA: The featured photo is of Granny in August 1972. She was holding me. I was born two months earlier.)
The Bottom Line 100 years on Earth is a great reason to have a big party!
Although today is the fifth anniversary of the September 11th attacks on America, my thoughts are somewhere else this morning. In just two days, my grandmother, Elizabeth Brownlee Barger Tolley, will be 100 years old. Everyone, even people who are not related to her, calls my grandmother Granny or Mama. This weekend, most of my family will gather in Natural Bridge, Virginia for a birthday party to end all birthday parties. It will, of course, be more than just a birthday party. It will be a celebration of a great woman’s 100 years on the planet.
My grandmother was born in Rockbridge County, Virginia on September 13, 1906. She is one of ten children, and the last one still living. Having graduated as valedictorian of her high school class of fourteen students, Granny went on to marry my grandfather, Lloyd Tolley, otherwise known as Pappy, in 1925. The following year, she became a mother when my late aunt Jeanne was born in St. Petersburg, Florida. Jeanne got to be an only child for a few years, until Granny and Pappy moved back to Natural Bridge, Virginia. My dad was the next child, born on February 9, 1933 in Natural Bridge, Virginia. Granny went on to have a total of nine children, five sons and four daughters, eight of whom survived to be adults. My aunt Susan, who was born with Down Syndrome in 1948, died of a brain abscess when she was fourteen years old. She was Granny’s last child.
Although the Tolleys were a relatively poor family, every single one of Granny’s kids graduated high school. Most of Granny’s kids also graduated from college and most of the men served some time in the military. My father made a career out of military service, having spent almost twenty-two years as an officer in the Air Force. His brothers served stints of varying lengths in either the Air Force or the Army.
Though Pappy died in 1974, Granny still lives in the house my grandfather bought many years ago. She’s lived with my Uncle Brownlee and his wife, Gayle, for as long as I can remember. Although Granny’s house now officially belongs to my Uncle Brownlee and his wife, I will always think of the place as her house. The place is very special to me. It sits right off Route 130 in Natural Bridge, on a country lane that was named after my grandfather. A creek runs in front of the house, flowing under a stone bridge that Brownlee built with his own two hands. Another creek runs perpendicular to the property, meets the creek that runs in front of the house and flows down the holler’. At one time, my grandfather owned the property that makes up the holler’, but the land has since been sold several times. Weather permitting, whenever I spend the night at Granny’s house, I crack open the window and listen to the creek trickle past. I don’t remember ever not sleeping well at my grandmother’s house.
Granny is still very sharp and, though she seems tired these days, she’s remarkably healthy for being 100 years old. Every day, she reads the newspaper from start to finish. She always has, for as long as I can remember. It keeps her mind sharp. I can always count on Granny to have opinions about everything in the world. She watches CNN and plays freecell on a battered computer that’s useless for any other purpose. She bakes a mean loaf of bread and most years, she remembers my birthday with a card. Considering the fact that Granny has 22 grandchildren and at least 22 great grandchildren, I consider that to be quite a feat!
Five years ago, my Aunt Gayle’s brother, Ralph, took Granny, then 95 years old, for a spin on the back of his motorcycle. He drove her 15 miles, from Natural Bridge to Lexington, Virginia, where they enjoyed lunch at a little restaurant. Ralph took pictures of Granny on the bike and sent them to his favorite motorcycle magazine. They got published, along with a great article! At the time, I was studying social work at the University of South Carolina. I took great pleasure in telling one of my classes about my 95 year old motorcycle riding Granny, especially since my professor was a gerontologist.
Just a week before the 9/11 attacks, Granny met my husband Bill for the first time. She met him even before my parents did. It was Granny who told me in no uncertain terms that I should marry Bill. She liked him from the get go. On September 11, 2001, Bill was in the Pentagon in the wedge that got hit by the airplane. Luckily, he survived intact. It wasn’t long before we were engaged. I probably would have married Bill even if Granny hadn’t so overwhelmingly approved of him. It still makes me feel good that he vetted well with a woman whose opinion I so highly value. And it was Granny who paid for our marriage license with her wedding present of $100 cash.
It’s mostly because of Granny that I know my aunts, uncles, and cousins so well. Every Thanksgiving, for as long as I can remember, our family has gathered from far flung places to celebrate Thanksgiving together. Each year, aunts, uncles, and cousins drive to Natural Bridge, Virginia and spend the Thanksgiving holiday talking, eating, laughing, dancing, singing, playing cards, watching football, and hanging out. I have always looked forward to those gatherings, although Bill and I haven’t been able to attend since 2003 because of other commitments. It’s a wonderful tradition. Everyone is welcome. In fact, in 2001, when Bill and I were still dating, he brought his mother to our Thanksgiving party. I can’t help but think that letting Bill’s mom hang out with my family helped score me some points!
Over the years, Granny has rescued small children who have locked themselves in bathrooms and killed snakes with hatchets. She’s served as the long arm of the law in her house, catching and punishing my uncles when, as young men, they used to sneak behind the barn to smoke. She’s comforted the injured and sad, cooked many meals from scratch for her family, and worked hard to support her loved ones. She always tells the truth, too, even when the truth hurts. I don’t always appreciate hearing Granny’s truths, but I know that she’s usually right.
My grandmother is a grand lady and my family is very proud of her. I don’t know how many years she has left. Although her mind is still very clear, Granny has had a slow growing form of leukemia for some time. I sense that she’s very tired, especially since she lost her younger sister, Estelle, on Halloween 2002. Estelle was a hilarious chain smoking, trash talking, diminutive woman who never failed to make me laugh. Like Granny, she was blessed with an amazing constitution and lived to be 90 years old. I can’t help but wonder how long she would have lived had she not smoked so much. Her voice was like steel wool, harsh and abrasive. One of my fondest memories of Granny and Estelle was when they visited us in England, where my dad was finishing up his time in the military. I remember Estelle holding me up to a mirror and saying, “Who is that monkey in the mirror?” Estelle was, in many ways, Granny’s polar opposite, although every once in awhile, Granny can surprise people with a dirty joke or two. I think I take after Estelle more than Granny, though.
I look forward to seeing Granny this weekend at her birthday party. I hope it’s not the last time, though something tells me it probably will be. I imagine that this shindig will be very well attended, not just by people from the family, but by people in the community who have known Granny for years. I pray that she feels the tremendous love that others feel for her. I feel very blessed to have such a special, classy lady in my family tree.