Here are a few pictures of my Grandma Wooten from around 1970. I knew she was a nurse at some point but hadn’t known she had gone back to school for it when older. I don’t know when she was born exactly, but she’s clearly not 22 here. She always seemed much older to me than she probably was. This is a few years before I was born, and she aged a lot between these photos and when I was accustomed to visiting her. I remember once crying as a very little boy when we drove to Wrightsville Beach to visit her because I thought she was mean and I didn’t want to visit. She was extraordinarily wrinkled and was cranky and sat in the same spot on the couch in the dimly lit house she rented, smoking nonstop and drinking tea from a brandy snifter and watching NASCAR and Cubs baseball and National Geographic.
She and my parents would always argue for about half the time we visited, and though as I grew up, I learned that arguing about a topic doesn’t always mean you’re actually fussing with each other, I think it sometimes got a little mean spirited, which didn’t help my impression that she was an old grouch.
The only toys at her house were a motley set of rusted miniature (bicycle?) license plates from various states. I would pull these out and balance them against one another to make little buildings. Sometimes my sister and I would walk a couple of hundred yards down the street to Johnny Mercer’s pier for a few minutes, or to the hotel between the pier and her house (which she rented the downstairs of from a man she seemed to hate named Walker Brown) to buy a soft drink from one of the vending machines in the parking garage. Otherwise, we mostly sat around watching whatever Grandma had playing in the background on the television.
She had a way of holding a cigarette in a hand near her face and rubbing her lower lip absently with the ring finger of the hand. Her hair by the time I came along was pretty much completely white and curly and looked very soft, like wool.
One room of her home that we didn’t go into very often had a collection of minerals in a wall-mounted rack with dozens of little compartments. She had several large geodes, and some sculptures of sharks or dolphins made of I don’t recall what — perhaps porcelain. She had various other curios that were neat to look at. I think she was fairly interested in science and the natural world. I think that if I had known her when I was older, I might have found that she was a pretty fascinating person.
When I was in probably middle school, she moved out of Walker Brown’s place into a condo that my uncle owned. There was a mall nearby that I would sometimes walk to to browse a book store. The visits remained pretty much the same, with Cubs or National Geographic or racing on television and with the arguments maybe becoming more vitriolic. I remember that one Thanksgiving my mom packed up some food to take her a Thanksgiving meal. She lived about an hour away, so it was a little bit of trouble. Grandma for some reason or another was kind of a jerk about it, and I think Mom packed up the food and drove home crying over it.
I don’t know how much having had a hard life excuses being mean to people, but it’s my understanding that Grandma had a rough life. Her husband was I take it another pretty fascinating person, but he wasn’t nice to her (what that means exactly I’m fuzzy on), and she had three kids and was essentially a single parent in the 50s and 60s.
Drinking wasn’t something I ever saw her doing, and I never saw my parents drink any alcohol (a vendor once sent my dad a few bottles of wine that went unopened for years), but I remember once looking in the pantry at her condo and seeing a bottle of Jim Beam back there. I must have been a teenager at the time, and I remember being surprised and in a way sort of pleased.
She had cancer when I was in high school, and she wound up dying alone and in a grotesque way and was found by my other uncle, who had been living with her at the time but been away from the condo at the time of her death. Since I had always found her pretty uninviting and uninterested in me and basically mean, I wasn’t too bothered by it, but I have thought a few times since that I might have liked to know her before she grew bitter, or to have better understood and known her when I was older, as I really do think she was probably a smart and interesting person I just never had a chance to get to know properly.