Our grandmothers: where we come from, who we are


My maternal grandmother—we called her Mama Bunting—made the best 4-layer chocolate that I will ever eat, with deep, dark chocolate layers and deep, dark chocolate icing between each layer and thick around the sides and top. To die for. 

She had a way with homemade biscuits that made them melt in your mouth. By the time my family would arrive at her house on a Thanksgiving or Christmas Day, the sleeves of her work shirt would be rolled to her elbows, those old, loose arms dusted in flour, and she’d be pounding and then rolling the dough. When she died, among other kitchen things, I got her biscuit cutter. I haven’t used it a single time. My biscuits would be such a failure that my grandmother would turn over in her grave to see her biscuit cutter used so poorly.

Mama Bunting was educated before women had the vote. She worked as a registered nurse for 55 years until she was 75 years old. One of her most famous patients was Frank Butler, Annie Oakley’s husband, and he was so grateful for her care that he invited her and my grandfather to his hunting lodge and gave Daddy Bunting one of his dogs, so the story goes. 

I had another grandmother, my father’s mother—we called her Granny–who could not have been more different. 

She dipped snuff, she never wore her teeth, she lived in a house heated by a pot-bellied stove, and when she could no longer quilt—her love and her practicality—her sons gave her bits of fabric she could rub with her hands, the quilting habit so ingrained in her fingers by then. 

Granny—I don’t know this for a fact—probably didn’t finish school. She raised her 8 living children and, during World War II, turned her home into a boarding house.

A 25-year difference in age—an entire generation–might have explained the difference between the two women, both born in the country, both Southerners.

Mama Bunting was born in the country, but she was a small town socialite. In addition to her chocolate cakes and biscuits, she could host a luncheon or dinner like the best of the big city socialites. Her collection of silver, china, and crystal was immense. She played weekly bridge until she was 94. She loved her DAR. For her time, she was a fashionable dresser, and picked out her pink funeral dress so early that she wore it to my wedding, almost 15 years before she died. 

Granny was born a country woman and stayed that way, even when she lived in town. My grandfather, her husband, was a blacksmith. Her next door neighbor cast spells to get rid of warts. Legend says she never visited a doctor or a dentist.

As a pediatric nurse, Mama Bunting spent her life caring for others’ children, as well as the two she had. Granny birthed 10 children over a span of almost 20 years. Her two oldest children died from diphtheria one day apart. She never stopped talking about those babies. Five sons went to war, five came home, one suffering from battle fatigue the rest of his life. 

Mama Bunting was intimately involved in my growing up, her lessons were first-hand. I never remember Granny in her “right” mind, so my lessons from her come from family stories. 

Mama Bunting lived to be 96. Granny lived to be 94. Both gave me the gift of longevity.

From Mama Bunting, I learned first-hand that if I wanted something done, I should do it myself. I learned I should never be dependent on anyone, including a man. I learned the importance of managing money. I learned that care can be hands on, but it can also come through examples of self-respect and hard work.

Granny was essentially “gone” by the time I was born, so I had no conversations that imparted her wisdom. I never spent the night in her house, though I had many good meals in her kitchen, prepared by her numerous children and grandchildren, who loved her devotedly. What I learned from Granny came from stories I heard about her from my father and my uncles and aunts. She taught me how to live through tragedy, how to be self-sufficient, how to love. 

I am equal parts of both grandmothers. I have no fashion sense. I love to quilt. I cherish my family. I work hard. And much, much more.

Our grandmothers, if we are lucky to have them, are the foundation for our lives. They’ve lived and learned, they’ve loved and lost. They’ve navigated life. They’ve shown us the way. They’ve experienced first-hand what it means to be a woman in sometimes difficult circumstances. 

It’s been years since I had a living grandmother. I still have Mama Bunting’s biscuit cutter. My sister has the recipe for her 4-layer chocolate cake. I’m a grandmother now. I think I’ll roll up my sleeves to my elbows, dust my arms with flour, turn on the oven, and give them both a try. 


Barbara Presnell is a poet and essayist who lives in Lexington, NC.


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