Here I am, writing a memorial for a person I love. She hasn’t passed on yet, but soon this will happen. I got a bit of bad news last night, and the series of strokes, and now what may be cancer, seem to have finally caught up with her.
I’ve tried numerous times to write one of these for each of my grandparents, and balked each time I began. I think I wrote one for Grandpa Spurgeon (my mother’s dad) but that’s as far as I ever got. I can’t ever seem to slice out a happy medium between a factual outline of a life, and what the person means to me. When I was growing up, our Grandma Myrt (my cousin’s entire kindergarten class called her Grandma Myrt) had a more profound and lasting effect on me than any other woman in my family (except of course my mother). For those of you in my family who think maybe I’m jumping the gun by writing a memorial, I’m sorry. I just have to organize my thoughts and this is the only way I know how. I’d love for you to share your memories of her on the blog, in the comments section.
Grandma was born Myrtle Jane Scaggs in rural Ohio (near Kentucky) in 1925. If she makes it to her next birthday in six weeks (on May 2), she’ll be 89 this year. Through her, I’m related (very very distantly) to Miley Cyrus and her father Billy Ray, as well as bluegrass musician Ricky Skaggs. Grandma always said her dad was part Indian (native American, although she’d never use that term), and she knew that somewhere in her family tree was an Indian princess. She also told me her dad was illiterate, and spelled his last name name “Scaggs” because a C was easier to make than a K. She grew up very poor, moved to California with her mother, father and sisters sometime during the depression, was a Rosie the Riveter during the war, worked for a department store for a few years (Sears or Penneys?) and then was a homemaker. No paper will ever carry an obit for a homemaker who worked at Sears, so I guess I’ll just do this myself. After the war, she married Grandpa and became Myrtle Jane Farmer.
She’s where I got a large part of my sense of humor. Grandma was always able to make me laugh. She tells a story that, when I was a toddler (yes… I was very small once), she did a song-and-soft shoe routine, to get me to pay attention to our dog “Lizzy Tizzy Tizzy in The Snow Snow Snow…” and stop crying (Snow rhymes with “cow” her the song). I apparently was laughing so hard by the time she was done that I couldn’t stop.
When I was in my early elementary school years, she would pull up my shirt and play the “xylophone” on my ribs… her brand of tickling me (yes, I was skinny once). Again, I’d laugh so hard, I’d just about be screaming.
She had an electric organ she’d play in the corner of her house, and because of that, Grandma is also the person who got me interested in playing the piano. She played a comical song (on only the black keys) called “Chewing Gum.” I only recently discovered this was a 1928 song by the Carter Family (Sarah singing and Mother Maybelle playing the guitar, if you care about these things). For years I thought she made up the words “Mother sent me to the store; she told me not to stay. I fell in love with a blue-eyed boy that I met on the way. First he gave me peaches; then he gave me pears. Then he gave me fifteen cents and kicked me down the stairs… I have him back his peaches; I gave him back his pears. I gave him back his fifteen cents and kicked him down the stairs.” She’d sing the voice parts in a high squeaky little-girl falsetto, to rival the David Seville and the Chipmunks.
Speaking of the Chipmunks, I loved Christmas at her house when I was young. I loved it so much, I’d usually throw up from the excitement of impending visit from Santa once or twice. I first heard that Chipmunks Christmas album (“Alllllvin!!!!!”) at their home. The family would occasionally drag out their instruments and play music and we’d sing along. My great Grandma Farmer on her accordion, my dad on his guitar, grandpa had a clarinet and trumpet in the closet, and my grandma, of course, on the organ, but maybe this wouldn’t happen all at once. It’s not like we were a family band–everyone just had a bit of music in them. Nobody was shy about singing. I first remember “Mairzy Doates” (1943–sung here by The Merry Macs) being sung to me by Grandma, and also the “Three Little Fishies” song (here I posted the 1939 original by Kay Kyser and His Orchestra). When I was young I discovered the comedy/music duo Homer and Jethro among her records and I discovered this song (a parody of Johnny Horton’s “The Battle of New Orleans”). She had lots and lots of records. Mostly big band, crooners, polka, and a weird selection of humorous novelty records. She told me she always loved music. Gandma said that she was young, before WW2, she would buy the Billboard magazine every week, and she would make it a point to know every single song of the era.
She loved to dance, and she was good at it. My Czech great grandmother said “The Polka is not an easy dance to do correctly. We [Czechs] can do it, but lots of people can’t. Buddy [my grandpa] never could. Myrt is the only one in the family who does the steps right.”
She was an extraordinary cook, especially when she made down-home food. She made excellent biscuits and gravy, peach cobblers, cinnamon rolls, donuts, and big pots of filling soup. Grandma would never measure ingredients; she did all her cooking by feel-and-taste. A few years back, when I would try to pin her down for recipes, she’d just say “Oh, I don’t know. I just know how the dough should feel.” The whole family would always sit down for a big lunch, usually the largest meal of the day. The big pot of soup, cold cuts, sandwiches, and whatever was left over from dinner the day before. There were always bowls of candies or nuts around the house for snacking. If I visited her house, there was a good chance I’d overeat until I got sick. True to her depression-era ethos, she never wanted anyone to go hungry in her house. We didn’t. Sometime in the late 1960s she took a cake decorating class. I still remember my the cake she decorated for my third birthday, with a fireman in a green coat.
At night, we’d often watch television and she would crochet while she watched. Grandma said she hated “just sitting there with nothing to do with her hands.” She loved sitcoms and musicals. She’d occasionally tell me dirty jokes (she was the first woman I ever heard use the word “twat”–I was maybe twelve–and I thought I’d fall out of my chair from shock). Sometimes we would play pinochle or Scrabble. Decks of cards were always close at hand. She and grandpa would make the occasional trip on the bus “up to the line” near Lake Tahoe, and do a bit of gambling for the day. She loved to tell stories about her family, particularly funny ones (or sometimes scary–she was convinced she saw aliens and was terrified of bears coming close to the house). She never slept well and was almost always up by 5AM, when she just gave up trying to sleep.
She had a bronze statue of a seated Shiva (that looked a bit like the one I linked here), in the back of the hall that used to scare the bejeezus out of me when I was little. I had nightmares of the statue stalking me through her house, even three or four years after we moved to Oregon, a good 500 miles from grandma and her “Buddha” as she called it. Once or twice when I was young she told me to pray to it, to overcome homesickness or bedwetting (which lasted until I was 10 years old). Bhudda never really worked his magic but years later, when she told me she put the statue outside as a garden decoration and it got ruined, I did a celebratory dance in my mind.
Nearly every summer I’d go to visit them. Grandma didn’t like us living so far away. She loved her immediate family, but her extended family were sometimes troubling for her. She never had many good things to say about her father, who was a heavy drinker and couldn’t hold down a job–he died a few years after they moved to California. She got along with, but often didn’t like being near, her half-sisters (Aunt Mary lived with grandma for a few years in the 1980s and they just about drove each other crazy). She had a period of almost 10 years where she wouldn’t say a word to my Great Grandma (her mother-in-law). Yet, she clutched dearly to her family, always asking me when I’d move closer to Farmer’s Mountain. When my father moved to Arkansas, she never really accepted the fact with ease, just like she never really accepted my parents’ divorce and us moving to Oregon. She never stopped calling me Brian Jane Farmer, even years after my name had been changed. Jane was *her* middle name, you see, and rather than become confused with all the middle names of her grandkids, she’d just use her own middle name to holler at us. “Brian Jane! You get out of that tree!” “Lori Jane! Stay out of the cookies!”
Sigh. Why do people have to get sick? Why do loved ones have to go? Now that I’m 3500 miles away, I’ll probably miss the funeral that will take place soon. I’ll see you in my dreams, Grandma. You and Grandpa still visit me quite often, you know. I also want you to know, Grandma, that I’ll always be Brian Jane, and you don’t need to worry there will always be a bit of Farmer in me.