The smell welcomed me immediately, as I stepped into the old, brick house on the hill. My Granny, Faye Hinkle, knew how to cook, but my favorite was definitely her fried okra. Breading perfection. Chopped to a slight hash. And a singe of blackened crust. Each time I visited my grandparents’ ranch outside Wynnewood, Oklahoma, I knew I could count on this specialty… and my Granny.
The last time I saw her before that particular okra incident was about a month before. I had driven through the night to be with my family. Arriving well after midnight, Granny greeted me at the door in her nightgown and housecoat, all sleepy eyed and smiling. My grandfather, Glyn Hinkle – or as many know him, Buddy – was right behind her. And in the kitchen was a fresh pan of okra. We sat there in those early morning hours eating and talking about the reason for my impromptu visit.
My parents had moved from Wynnewood to Seminole, Oklahoma, nearly two years before. A tornado destroyed the home they built there the day I traveled from Austin. My mother had called only hours before in a panic, spouting broken exclamations about my high school yearbooks and senior photos – all gone. Mom was in their safe room with the cat. The dog was hiding under the bed. And my dad was a mile away, driving to the scene, watching the tornado dip down next to the house and skirt across the pasture.
Click “View All Images” below to view a slide show of the tornado wreckage.
When my mom emerged from the reinforced concrete and steel room, which conveniently and cleverly doubled as their bedroom closet, the dog was shaking under the bed, and mom was in a state of shock. The storm had ripped away a great deal of their home and scattered our family’s memories for miles.
The next day, Granny, Buddy, and I surprised my parents by driving over to Seminole to help with the cleanup. Well, I helped with the cleanup. My grandparents, who honestly couldn’t do much heavy lifting, were really there out of support and love. Upon arriving at the site, Granny went straight for my three-year-old niece, Madison, the absolute joyous highlight of her later years. Always into something, Madison pointed out one of her dress-up costumes among the wreckage. Within a few minutes, my 78-year-old grandmother had fished out a pair of fairy wings and slipped them onto my niece, who soon fluttered about the yard. The scene was ridiculous, but it actually reminded me that the situation was far better than it could have been. My parents were alive, we could be entertained so easily by a little girl twirling around with my grandmother in a backdrop of chaos, and most importantly my family members were all together for each other.
That natural draw to be a part of the healing process and to care without hesitation I noticed early in my grandmother. I never met a person who disagreed with that. She wrote cards, called often, and collected money for the sick in our community. She cracked the whip at church, always organizing some grand event to raise money for whatever the congregation needed, somehow managing to walk a fine line between pushy and graceful. She cheered at the baseball games, she bragged about the band performances, and she let everyone know every detail of each of her family members’ accomplishments. But the greatest pride – no, pleasure – in her own skills and talents came with a needle and thread.
Like her mother before her, Granny was a wildly accomplished seamstress. From making the bridesmaids’ dresses in my brother’s wedding to countless clothes for my little niece, it’s a wonder she ever strayed from her sewing room. Her forte was quilting though. Everyone admired the work she completed, and everyone wanted one of their own – even strangers. Most importantly, she used quilting, along with her posse of church ladies, to serve several charitable causes. Her ability to sway people to purchase chances to win quilts, to donate to whatever cancer organization or church building fund at the time… well, it was oddly charming and subtly aggressive together.
Only once did I hear someone tell her directly of their displeasure toward her. It was me. When I was six years old, she really upset me. I was not allowed to eat out of the sugar bowl, especially before dinner. Standing in her dining room, I put my hands on my hips and told her, “I hate you.” I remember she started crying right there and told me how sad it made her to hear that…that no one should ever feel that for someone. I quickly hugged her and said, “I’m sorry.” All was well. She told me years later, she wasn’t really crying. It was all a farce. What a rotten thing to do to trick a kid into an affectionate apology. Ha! No, she really wanted to teach me the importance of loving someone, regardless of a disagreement. Forgiveness and moving forward were important pieces of her life, and it showed every time I saw her growing up and each time I called her states away after moving for school and later my job.
Her style of humor and semi-subtle ways of proving her point always stuck out. That okra incident I mentioned before also involved a round of calf fries she told my calf-fry-disgusted mother were actually chicken strips made especially for her to eat to her heart’s content. Those masked meats were sitting prepared in the kitchen next to the okra and the cake meant for Madison’s four-year birthday party later that evening.
An hour before the party that would precede that family dinner, I called my grandparents to tell them I had been caught in Fourth of July traffic on my way up from Austin. I had planned to ride with them to the party, but they should go on without me. Buddy informed me Granny had just developed a severe headache, and they might be late themselves. He hung up the phone. Minutes later, Granny had a stroke.
One by one, her loved ones gathered at the hospital in the days to follow. The outpouring was amazing. They wanted to let the woman who cared for everyone know how much they cared for her. After four days and saddening news of her deteriorating, unchanging unconscious condition, a nurse told our family she didn’t think this woman who, before her stroke had only had non-life-threatening ailments, who was excited about the events in the weeks ahead – a trip to see me in Texas, raising money for a cancer quilt, my niece’s birthday party – who had just been fixing a meal for her family… our vivacious matriarch would most likely pass away before the sun came up.
The family left, but, despite his exhausted state, my Buddy wanted to stay the night with her, just as he had every night since this sad situation began. There was no way I was going to let him stay alone. I helped him scoot the fold-out couch next to her hospital bed, tucked him in, and then retired to a chair across the room. For the next several hours, I stayed awake surfing the Internet on my laptop, glancing at Buddy as he stirred occasionally, and watching Granny’s breathing begin to slow down.
Around 5 a.m., the alarm on Granny’s IV sounded to indicate the bag of fluid was empty. The sound woke Buddy, and he sat up to look at his wife. I called the nurse, who hurried in with a replacement bag. As she was working, I stood on the other side of the bed, holding my struggling Granny’s hand. My parents and her sister, Carolyn, walked into the room just then. Just seconds later, as if she was waiting to say goodbye to her family, Granny took her last breath.
Sleep-deprived from my night that ended in Granny’s last living moments, when we returned to my grandparents’ home, I went straight for the okra. I moved the containers my brother and I had put my favorite vegetable into earlier from the refrigerator to the freezer. I’m sure I came across a bit possessive, as I all but threatened anyone who touched those containers. I wasn’t ready to let that part of Granny go, even if it meant delighting in the deliciousness that was her cooking…her last bit of cooking.
If my family’s strange run of bad luck over the past few months taught us anything, it was that we lose some things and retain others. My parents lost their house, and we lost countless keepsakes. But in the process of recovery from the tornado, we became closer and better understood the importance of actual memories. In my last memory of seeing Granny running around the wrecked yard with my wing-donning niece, she showed me how to enjoy life even in the hardest of times and to care for those around you even when it hurts.
The days that followed her death were some of the toughest I had ever encountered. Selecting her outfit, picking out flowers, sorting through dozens of photos. Through it all though, she once again brought my family closer and reminded us how much we love each other. It is hard to say goodbye, to force myself to eat that okra. But in the end, I know it will spoil, so I will – in my own time – enjoy it while I can and fondly remember the woman who shared it with me.
The preceding blog post also served as my grandmother’s eulogy, which I read at her funeral in front of her friends and family.