If we are lucky, we have a grandparent who makes an impression on us. The wisdom of age makes them great teachers. I was that lucky.
To say the least, my German grandmother, Grossmutter Henrietta Von Leibling Haas, had a flair for the dramatic. At three in the morning, gently, very gently, she would squeeze my foot to wake me up. “Comin mit me,” she’d say, in her thick Germanic accent, and I would rise to follow her down the stairs.
At the time, I was 7 years of age, and it seemed perfectly normal that I was her helper on those early morning trips. But to anyone watching, it would have seemed macabre. Her, an elderly, bent woman garbed in a long black-satin dress with pleats across the bosom, wearing a broad-brimmed hat covered in what looked like ravens’ feathers, hanging in a fluttering fringe around the edges, and me an elfin blonde child following in her wake.
I knew her black clothing was her original, healing, going-to-funerals apparel, and when she said, “I haff to dress for their belief,” on some very basic level, I understood completely.
The local people in the 1940s and ‘50s in Suwannee County, Florida, blacks and whites alike, had little money for midwives or doctors, and there were not many available. There was no electricity and no piped-in running water in the houses. Single and double-wide wooden outhouses, with the cut-out of a crescent moon in the door and a hand-driven water pump in the back yard was the norm.
Often in my cousins’ houses, I could see through the cracks in the floor to the dirt, chickens pecking away at the remains of whatever was swept down to them.
My grandmother had come to Chicago as a housekeeper and assistant to a doctor, and apparently long before I was born, she came to Suwannee County, Florida, and established her reputation as a midwife and healer.
Also, she had a 1940s Ford truck and drove, which was the exception back then, since few women drove and there were no paved roads, just two white-sand ruts with grass and weeds growing in the middle, on the way to her house, 15 miles outside of Live Oak.
And no telephones either, not even the six or eight-party lines that were so popular in Arizona and California, where I came from. Nowadays, those differences said I should have been in cultural shock, but back then I accepted her life and her medical practices as perfectly normal.
She liked the kerosene lamps, even though the white cotton wicks had to be replaced and the glass globes washed every weekend. At night, we would lie in her great bed of goose-down mattress and pillows and read in the flickering light True Romance magazines.
I never asked her how she learned to speak or read English or how she knew which weeds, deerstongue and dandelion roots, to gather in the spring for drying on long tables covered in white sheets in the back sloping room of her great frame house.
Children have a way of accepting whatever life they are born into, and I was no exception. Half awake on those early morning trips, I would curl up under a blanket and go back to sleep on the front seat, until we came to the house of whomever had summoned my grandmother.
Often, a man would be in the back of the truck giving directions as she drove though the tall pines and palmetto bushes to the small farms, always a tobacco barn and shed next to a similar gray house, a brick chimney on one side and a lightning rod beside it.
Childbirths were most often the cause of those calls, and after the first four or five, I became inured to the groans and even the shrieks of the women in labor. Most often, I would be relegated to a bench on the porch next to a lone man, usually a husband, while the women of the family stayed inside tending to the mother.
But the occasions that stayed permanently etched in my mind, rendered indelible, were the times she was called to “stop blood.” The bleedings, as they seemed to my young eyes, usually those of an animal and twice a woman after she’d given birth, are what I remember best, maybe because my grandmother’s role in those events was so spectacular.
We would be called in the early morning — why are those emergencies always in those bleak hours? — to come to a barn or a house, and the scene would be unforgettable. The coppery smell of blood, the pools of red in the sheets or cloths around the victims, those images I remember like they occurred yesterday.
Grossmutter would absolutely cool, something of an iceberg about her great dark self, except for her hair, which was a white braid wrapped around her head, with wild wires of silver escaping into a halo around her face. I see now how her appearance affected the uneducated people of that time and place, and I imagine that even in today’s so-called sophisticated era, she would seem unusual, almost an apparition.
Anyway, we’d enter the small dark rooms, reeking of suffering and desperation, and Grossmutter would put down her black bag, somehow akin to the doctors’ bags I’d seen in movies. She’d cross herself in the Catholic tradition, although she often referred to herself as being pagan.
Who knew what those people, most of whom were of the Protestant-Pentecostal persuasion, thought of that ancient Roman tradition, but they were always absolutely reverent and silent. Out of the bag, she’d take her large black Bible, the King James Red-Letter Edition, the gold leaf letters stamped on the cover and gold leaf embossing the edges of each page, and without preamble, she’d open the book and start reading out of whatever page she’d turned to.
For some reason, and, even later when I was old enough to judge, those first readings seemed ill suited to the dire situation that lay before us. And apparently she, herself, was not too impressed either because the voice she was reading in would be low and soft, the words unclear.
After a few lines of mumbled reading, she’d turn the page and find something that seemed more relevant to the circumstances, and her voice would gain strength and the words would become more explicit. With each new page, the language gathered power and filled the air around us.
I especially remember one particular young black woman lying on a bed full of bloody linen, her eyes large and wild with suffering. After a few false starts, Grossmutter came to a part of the red letter words that suited her better, and in a strong voice she read out:
“And a woman was there who had been subject to bleeding for 12 years. She had suffered a great deal under the care of many doctors and had spent all she had, yet instead of getting better she grew worse. When she heard about Jesus, she came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, because she thought, ‘If I just touch his clothes, I will be healed.’ Immediately her bleeding stopped, and she felt in her body that she was freed from her suffering. At once Jesus realized that power had gone out from him. He turned around in the crowd and asked, ‘Who touched my clothes?’
“‘You see the people crowding against you,’ his disciples answered, ‘and yet you can ask, Who touched me?’ But Jesus kept looking to see who had done it. Then the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came and fell at his feet and, trembling with fear, told him the whole truth. He said to her, ‘Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace and be freed from your suffering.’ Mark 5:25.”
With those words, Grossmutter fell silent. The air was heavy as if waiting for a storm. Then the young woman on the bed let out a prolonged sigh, and another old woman, probably a grandmother herself, lifted the edge of the bloody rags and said, “She’s stopped.”
Grossmutter returned the Bible to her huge purse, and we departed.
Back in the truck and wide awake from all that had transpired, I had to ask, “Why did you say ‘Mark 5:25’ after the reading?” Most of the time, Grossmutter never mentioned the chapter and verse of the gospel verse she’d just read out loud.
“Because two utter apostles, Luke and Mathew, write about that healing, which makes it wery, wery true.”
What can I say now, sitting here today at my computer, writing about my grandmother and that morning, except it was as she said, “Very, very true.”
Roberta George is a resident of Valdosta and the founding publisher of the Snake Nation Press.