Today is Velma Louena Holliday Latham's 89th birthday.
She's my Ma Ma (pronounced "maw maw"), and a few weeks back, I drove to her house in Gadsden, AL, for a visit. I had ulterior motives. In addition to an insatiable hankering for her iron skillet fried okra, I also wanted to hear her story.
When I first asked my grandmother about an interview a month before, she fanned me away with, "Oh, honey, I don't have anything interesting to say."
But upon my arrival, we small-talked for only a few minutes before she ushered me out to her back porch. This was the porch blessed with ever-present breezes; where I had grown up rocking in wrought iron chairs listening to wind chimes, bird chirps, and adult chatter. Decorated with humming bird feeders, gourds dangling from coat racks, miniature cactus plants, and colored glass bottles, this porch opened to views of her prized roses near rows of peas, tomatoes, and okra.
Before I asked a single question, she began telling me her idea for a kid's book about a young, curious horse named Horace.
"I don't know if there's ever been another horse named Horace in a children's book, but I think it's a good name for one," she said.
Through Horace, she painted the picture of life on a small country farm and then seamlessly segued into her own story of coming of age in the same setting.
"It was a very simple life, but I look back on it with pleasure," she said. "I didn't know then that we were poor people."
Ma Ma talked about how her father sharecropped throughout the counties of West Alabama; how her family survived the Depression; how she courted the two most handsome men in the community of Palmetto; and how she knew she would find a way to "set her hook" in Jake Latham (my Pa Pa, pronounced "paw paw") the first time she saw him.
She talked about raising two boys; living in numerous towns throughout Alabama, Mississippi, and Florida; the regret she felt for turning down a scholarship to a clerical school in North Carolina; and how she found great joy working as a seamstress in a mental retardation development center. (Pa Pa sold sewing machines and shared Ma Ma's birthday--two beautifully poetic details in their story.)
Alzheimer's Disease took Pa Pa almost 15 years ago, and Ma Ma shared about when she first sensed he was getting sick.
My grandmother spoke over an hour, and she finished the interview by circling back to the end of her story about Horace: The day a truck drove up to the farm and carried off the horse's mother.
"It came to Horace's mind that everything on the farm had to be separated from its mother sooner or later," she said. "The little chicks grew up, and they weren't there with their mother anymore. And the cats would have kittens, but they didn't stay with them any longer. So, Horace said to himself, 'I'm a grown up horse now, and I have to do what I have to do to make my life pleasant.'"
above: A young Velma in her garden
above: Velma as a high school senior; Velma and Jake Latham on their wedding day; One of Jake's military portraits during WWII
above: Pa Pa and Ma Ma celebrating their 50th Wedding Anniversary
above: Ma Ma's famous iron skillet fried okra
above: Ma Ma with Miss Kitty