Girls and Great-Grandmothers and all the Mothers between them


My hand and Deenie's hands: the bracelet she, my great-grandmother and I all wore on our wedding days


A couple of Sundays ago, I had a phone date with my 90-year-old grandmother, Deenie (aka “Cotton“). The boys were outside in swimsuits with Chris and a water hose and I had an hour-long window and a phone. After a week of family stomach-bug yuck, I called Deenie, cleaner and sponge in hand, ready to scrub every surface of the house while we talked. Instead, I ended up at my kitchen table, pen in hand, scribbling her words onto scraps of paper.

Nine years ago, I bought both of my grandmothers their own leather journal for Christmas. I told them, This is really a gift for me. I want to know everything you’ve ever thought of telling me. Write down your memories of childhood, I said. Write down what your parents were like and how you got along with your brothers and sisters. Write about the farm [both my grandmothers grew up on cotton farms] and your friends. Write about meeting your husband, write about World War II, about being a mom and how it felt to live through the sixties. Write anything!

Of course, I always assume that people are like me, obsessed with themselves and certain that every one will want to read every detail of their lives. I didn’t take personality into account. My dad’s mother, Meemaw, is an extrovert. She’s got opinions! She loves to be in charge. She still displays the trophy she won on the 12th grade girls basketball team in Hollis, Oklahoma. That was when she led her team to the Oklahoma State Championship in 1942. (That championship, by the way, was won while she was married—as a 17 year old—to my grandfather who was off in Europe during the war. Amazing, I know.) Meemaw took that journal and got to work. She wrote and wrote and wrote.

Deenie, however, never felt comfortable with her assignment. “Oh, Micha,” she’d say, her accent holding long that “y” sound, “I just don’t have anything interesting to tell.” She’s an introvert. She’s shy. And though she’s always been a voracious reader (when she was a kid she once kept her nose in a novel despite a tornado blowing over her home), she’s never felt comfortable writing.  I begged her every way possible and finally decided not to push anymore.

But that Sunday afternoon was a phone date with a purpose attached: I wanted to know about my great-grandmother’s spiritual life. I’ve been working on a small little side project, an essay about being female in the Church, and I’ve been thinking of how the Church speaks to mothering—expectations, support, and spiritual discipleship of mothers. I’ve been asking myself: How male-dominated is our understanding of the spiritual life?

When I was a little girl, I was in love with Deenie’s mother, Mama Mac. (In case you’re wondering, Mama Monk draws some inspiration from her name.) She was in her nineties all my childhood. She died when she was 97 and I was 8. Before then, I spent almost every Saturday morning in her home. I was probably one of 30 great-grandchildren, but I was the one who lived nearby; I was the one who came to visit. So she kept cookies for me, and a few toys. And, when I was little I sat in her lap, even though she was Very Old Looking with long ears and some chin hairs and a quivery voice. Somehow, I knew she needed me. And I knew that knowing her was special. We loved each other.

She was the first great loss in my life and I think of her often. And as I’ve been writing this essay, I keep picturing Mama Mac, circa 1920s, alone all day in that farmhouse in West Texas, seven kids in her care and a third grade education. What was the Church saying to her about her worth as a mother?

I asked Deenie if Mama Mac prayed aloud. I asked if Mama Mac sang hymns around the house. I asked if she had friends. I asked if she ever spoke about God throughout the day. And my grandmother and I had the most wonderful conversation about her own life: how many cows they had to milk on a daily basis, Mama Mac’s timidity, Mama Mac’s reading level, her isolation on that farm with only her stern mother-in-law as a neighbor.

And I learned something about Deenie I never knew: How, after growing up in a faith tradition that taught her to daily fear God’s wrath—the possibility that every unconfessed sin might undo the power of the cross—she was brave enough to chose to be baptized as a 33-year-old when she discovered the power of grace, forgiveness that depended not on her confessional-aerobics, but on God’s unchanging love. She was immersed in the water, released from that deep fear, her two little girls watching and learning courage from the pews of their church.

We talked for a long time about mothering and I recalled what years of youth ministry has taught me: Every woman is a 16-year-old girl inside, who wants to be told that she has value, that she is loved. And I felt it even then, at my kitchen table at 5 pm, the sun streaming through the window, the heat of the early summer afternoon. When I said how much I loved Mama Mac, when I said how she never could have known what she meant to me, Deenie reminded me that Mama Mac had loved me too, even when she could no longer remember my name from her bed in the nursing home.

I reminded Deenie that it will be the same for my nieces, who are even now learning from her how to age with grace and kindness and quiet contentment. Loving a great-grandmother, I said, always shapes us, whether we know it or not.

And so, I cried a little on the phone, heard stories that may not have been told in decades, and then we did what mothers have always done best: We reminded each other about the Love.




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  • Felicity

    I love grandmother stories. My grandma (dad’s side) rode a horse bareback with her sisters over the mountains of northern California just to get to elementary school each day, and their home was so remote that she had to board with a family “in town” when it came time for high school. She wanted to be a nurse but her father thought nursing wasn’t a respectable career for a woman, so she took up painting instead. After she married and had grown children, she got her CNA and worked in the hospital until she retired. She came from an unchurched family, but her father had been baptized as an adult and after that he required his children to attend Sunday School every week. She never fell out of that habit, even today at 97 with hip pain and a walker. I love that my dedicated roots run deep and strong into sweet, life-giving soil.

  • Hilary

    Thank you for this story, Micha. I’ve been thinking a lot about grandmothers and mothers, and this post seemed to find me (as yet, just the daughter and granddaughter) at just the right moment. I remember sitting on the farm where my grandmother grew up one afternoon in summer, and wishing I could get inside their stories – these women who are part of my bones and skin. Thank you for inspiring me to imagine learning those stories.

  • Denise

    Love this. I had a relationship with my great-grandma, too. Her stories are the best legacy. There’s just something about that, isn’t there… Thanks for sharing.

  • Amanda

    So many tears as I read this. I was/am very close to one set of grandparents, A few years ago I sat my matenal grandparents down at the kitchen table just to hear their stories. Some I’d heard many times, others not. I took a few notes, but mostly I found myself just listening. My grandfather passed away a couple of years ago, and my grandma’s memory is having a lot of issues these days. I am so thankful for the time I took just to listen.

  • Addie Zierman

    This is beautiful Micha. I’ve been thinking too, just these last couple of days, about spiritual legacy. So many powerful untold stories.

  • Amanda Peterson

    Just got to say how much I love this. Deenie sounds much like Grandma, who incidentally may have known Meemaw as she was born in Hollis in 1908 and lived there until 1957 when my mom was six. My grandfather also grew up there, though I never knew him, and Hollis was named for his father. Just couldn’t believe I actually read Hollis, OK in your post.

  • michaboyett

    How funny, Amanda! I’m sure they knew each other. I’d love to know your Grandma’s name so I can ask Meemaw. Every summer Meemaw and Pawpaw dragged us to the Hollis Black-Eyed Pea festival. Isn’t that awesome? Of course, I ended up marrying a boy who’d never even heard of black eyed peas, much less gone to a festival in their honor. : ) I’ve always thought Hollis would be a great name for a kid…

  • Lesley

    Thank you for such a wonderful, thought provoking post. As soon as I finished reading, I put the phone down and called my grandparents. Grandpa has Facetime on his cell, but isn’t a proficient user. We were able to connect eventually so that he could see my little girl crawl around for the first time. I also pulled out Anna’s great grandmother’s baby ring and put it on her fat little baby fingers. You reminded me of the special relationship I have the honor of cultivating.

  • michaboyett

    Lesley, I’m so grateful that my post led you to call your grandparents. I forget too often about how meaningful it is in their slow, often lonely days to hear from us. Love the idea of that baby ring on your little girl’s finger! Thanks for letting me know…

  • Marilyn

    Oh my, this is bringing tears to my eyes. It was the same for me with Mama. I lived close and spent many hours on her lap or in her kitchen. She was a dear, sweet woman. We need to reminisce about our shared experiences. I grew up on that same farm, in the same house. She taught me her cornbread recipe and how to make watermelon rind persevers. She made the most delicious popcorn balls. Papa read aloud from his very worn Bible every evening while Mama brushed my hair on the nights I got to stay in town. My favorite times growing up were when all the cousins came to Floydada. What fond memories of a sweet woman.

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  • Charity

    Truly beautiful.

  • Kristin T. (@kt_writes)

    This is beautiful, in every way! The photo, the stories, the names you use for your different grandmothers—I love it all. Thank you for taking the time to make that phone call, and to share it all with us.

  • Margie

    As a new great grandmother to a beautiful baby girl I was really surprised how little recognition great grandma’s get. I couldn’t find any great grandma t shirts…or baby clothes…Hmmm. a new business perhaps?
    I am still a healthy active employed woman and hope to spend many hours with this little darling!
    Thank you for your article. It also brought tears to my eyes!!