Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Grandmaw Bithey

My Grandmaw “Bithey” was quite a character. Her real name was Tabitha (pronounced Ta-bie-tha), and you would have a fight on your hands if you incorrectly pronounced her name like the little girl on the TV show “Bewitched”. Grandmaw Bithey raised my mother, even though she was my mother’s grandmother. I can’t say anything nice about the woman that gave birth to my mother, so I won’t say anything other than when my mother was born, she took my mother to Grandmaw Bithey, who was doing laundry that day, and threw my mother on a pile of dirty clothes and said “If you want the little bitch to live, you’ll feed her” and then she left. So, for all intents and purposes, Grandmaw Bithey was my mother’s mother-figure. I wrote a poem about this, called “Grandmother’s Quilt”, that you can read on this blog.

Mom (front) and her cousins in Grandmaw Bithey's front yard.

I remember visiting Grandmaw Bithey when I was a kid. She had this huge basement in her house, and I was just fascinated by the shelves and shelves of canned food. The cob webs in the corners just made the whole place seem spooky. I used to love going down in the basement at Grandmaw Bithey’s, she was the only person that I knew who had a basement. Grandmaw also had a huge back porch that was closed in with screen and little windows that would open to allow access to her clothesline which was on pulleys so she wouldn’t have to leave the porch to hang out her laundry. It was a pretty neat set-up. Grandmaw also had a huge back yard that was bordered at the far end by a creek which was full of turtles, and we spent many hours down there trying to catch them.

A recent photo Grandmaw Bithey's house. It has been changed quite a bit.

Grandmaw also had cable TV. Coming from the mountain, where we only had an antenna that pulled in one channel (two when it was raining), we thought we were in heaven. I thought Grandmaw’s house was just like a vacation resort. There was just no place like it to me.

Grandmaw loved potted plants, and they were her pride and joy. She would cut a fit on you if you messed with her plants, but one time when I was little I was playing near the plants and for some reason I pulled up one of her big tree-like plants and carried it out into the kitchen. Mom and Grandmaw were sitting at the kitchen table talking when I came walking in with the plants, complete with dirt dropping off the roots. From the gasps of Mom, I could tell that I was probably in for a good lecture, but instead Grandmaw just said “Well, thank you honey, I’ve been meaning to re-pot that”, and she took it from me and put it in a pot out on her back porch. Mom told me not to bother in the plants anymore. When Grandmaw came back inside, she gave me a handful of little Oyster Crackers, a real treat for me, and told me what a good boy I was. I thought there was just nothing like those little crackers that only Grandmaw had. She always made sure that she had oyster crackers on hand when we were coming for a visit. I didn’t know until years later that you could buy oyster crackers anywhere, I just thought they were something that only Grandmaw had.

Grandmaw Bithey at Christmas, sometime in the 1960's.

Grandmaw loved to cook too, and what a cook she was. Every morning she’d make a big breakfast for us…bacon, sausage links, pancakes and King Syrup. She always had dark King syrup. If you’ve never had it, it is quite different than maple syrup. More like sorghum than maple syrup, but still really good and unique. I remember Grandmaw Bithey made the best pies in the world. Of course, she was able to get money to pay for her house by selling blackberries that she and Granddaddy Bill planted on their bottomland. Grandmaw would bake blackberry pies and sell to people, and by doing this she made enough money to pay the mortgage. People would come from all around to buy Grandmaw’s homemade pies, and she would even barter at the local store by trading her pies for whatever she needed.

Granddad Bill, Grandmaw Bithey and their granddaughter, Katie.

I remember hearing stories about how Grandmaw Bithey came to be married with Granddaddy Bill. Grandmaw Bithey’s daddy, whose name was Hugh, thought she was too young (she was 14) to get married when Granddad Bill first asked for her hand, so Grandmaw and Granddaddy decided to sneak off in the dark of night and get married. So one night, Granddaddy Bill climbed up the trellis into Grandmaw’s bedroom to carry out her suitcase and to help her climb down, and they made it out of the house but it was a dark night and as Granddaddy Bill was loading the wagon, Grandmaw Bithey tripped over the wagon tongue and broke her leg. Well, Granddad Bill had no other choice but to take Grandmaw Bithey back into the house, so he picked her up in his arms and carried her to the front door where he knocked and woke everyone up. Grandpaw Hugh called out to ask who it was, and Grandpaw Bill said, "It's Bill Iman" so Grandpaw Hugh came out of the house swearing vengeance. But finding Grandpaw Bill standing there holding Grandmaw Bithey in his arms and finding out that she had a broken leg, Grandpaw Hugh had a change of heart and told them that if they wanted to get married that bad, then they could go ahead and get married with his blessing.

Granddad Bill, Grandmaw Bithey and two of their grandchildren.

Grandmaw Bithey was also a unique person. She was very traditional in her lifestyle, she was a devout Presbyterian lady and she raised my mother that way. Grandmaw wrote only in black ink because everything else was just “silliness”. She was very prim and proper, and didn’t take to change very well. She valued education and urged her children to get all they could get, and she knew that education was the key to a better life. Her favorite song was “Hey Good Lookin’” by Hank Williams, she was a strong supporter of Equal Rights, and she raised her daughters (and my mother) to be independent women, and to think for themselves. And this was in a time and place when that just wasn’t in vogue.

Grandmaw Bithey was older than her official age. When Grandmaw Bithey passed away in 1989, the age in her obituary said 93. But she was really 106 years old (this isn’t too hard to believe either considering her mother lived to be 114). You can find Grandmaw Bithey on the 1890 census when she was the age of 7. This would have made her born in 1883, which is the year she told her family that she was born. She would have had to have been born in 1896 to only have been 93 when she passed away, and this would have made her younger than her youngest sister, and Grandmaw was the oldest child!! You may wonder how did Grandmaw manage this feat? Well, when the government people came around in the 1930’s getting information for the newly formed Social Security Administration, Grandmaw figured she’d shave a few years off of her age, after all, everyone knows that a real lady never reveals her true age. So she told them what age she wanted to be, and since she looked younger than her years, they took her at her word.

I remember sitting at Grandmaw’s kitchen table one night, and hearing her talk about all of the wonderous things that she has witnessed in her lifetime, such as the first automobile, the first airplane, women getting the right to vote, man walking on the moon, she lived through both World Wars, and watched America transition into the Industrial Revolution. I recall her saying that if she could pick a time in history that she would want to live in, it would be the time that she had lived. She said she loved seeing all of the new things happening, and if you think about it, I suppose she did see her fair share.


intouchwith said...

I love this story, and pictures.

Jason Burns said...

Actually, the way I heard the marriage story was that Grandma was the one that broke her leg when she tripped over the hitch on the wagon, and Will had to take her back to her parents with a broke leg.

And the clothesline you remember wasn't a clothesline. She had a birdfeeder on that pulley, not clothes.

Good recollection, none the less.

Jason Burns said...

And King Syrup is nasty! I always dreaded having to eat that stuff. She could make a nice pumpkin pie, though. I remember when Grandma Bithey heard we were comin, Mom said she would make a pumpkin pie for me, cooked carrots for you (with oyster crackers).

And I also liked the basement.

Shirley Stewart Burns, Ph.D. said...

All the stories I have ever heard about her, and the way Linda adores her, I know that she was a very good person. How lucky you all were to have known her.

Janet, said...

I liked your remembrances. You have lots of good ones of your grandma.It is remarkable all the changes and inventions that people born in the late 1800s lived to see.

Matthew Burns said...


In regards to the clothesline, it was used for clothes. The line at the end of the porch was used for a birdhouse but the others were used for clothes. I remember me and Mom helping hang up clothes one time. I thought at the time that it was so neat to have a pulley system clothesline.


tipper said...

I love loved reading about Grandmaw Bithey!! She sounds like someone I would know from down the road.

And I love the arguing between you and Jason. Makes me feel at home.

The Tile Lady said...

Oh, I just love your Grandma Bithey! What a wonderful woman she was! What a great family history you have shared here. I just loved reading it so much, Matthew. You really have a book here, I'm telling you!