Bessie Mary Alsworth Allen
August, 2006

 

I want to share a few memories today on behalf of all of Bessie Mary Allen’s grandchildren.   Our grandmother was many things to many different people, a sister, mother, grandmother and great-grandmother. She was also an aunt, great aunt, mother-in-law, cousin, and friend to many, many more.  While I know that she had a unique relationship with all of these people, the portrait illustrated today can only be from our perspective as her grandchildren.       Personally, I know that I am so lucky to have had a 45 year relationship with my grandmother, or as I always called her, Big Mama.

When you live in Pennsylvania and tell people you are going to visit your Big Mama, you get more than a few odd looks.  I in fact always thought it a little amazing that she herself didn’t seem to mind being called Big Mama.  I was told when I was born that her husband Tommy, my grandfather, kept trying to teach me to call her Big Mama, almost as a way of teasing her.  I think my grandmother had enough good humor and enough sense to know when to fold   when it came to matters with my grandfather, and so Big Mama she became.

My earliest memories of my grandmother were the ones you could see, smell, hear and touch.  I remember staying overnight at her house on Bridal Wreath and sleeping in the spooled Jenny Lind beds.  I remember the smell of coffee always on the stove    and the sound of dominos clicking on the claw foot table as she and my grandfather played 42 with many good lifelong friends.  Sometimes it was hard to get to sleep with all that domino noise, and I was still awake when Big Mama came in to check on me.  At this point, she would give me a backrub until I drifted off to sleep.  Even at the age of 5 or 6, I knew this was a special grandmother moment.

When I was seven, my family moved to the other side of the river, creating a much longer drive to my grandparent’s house.  We still visited her often and many times she would make the trek from Oak Cliff to North Dallas to take my brothers and me out for the day in her car.  When Mark, Paul and I were younger, we remember being very excited to get inside Big Mama’s car for one particular reason.  While most people kept Kleenex next to them in the front seat, our grandmother kept her secret source of strength in that space---namely a box of Hostess Twinkies.  Since Big Mama was happy to share, we would quickly go through that box of Twinkies, and another would always take its place by our next outing.  A few months ago, I asked Big Mama if she remembered those Twinkies, and her eyes lit up and she laughed.   In retrospect, I admire her self confidence.  Many grown women might be tempted to hide a daily Twinkie habit, but not our grandmother. 

As we got older, it took more than Twinkies to tempt us in her car.  Although Bessie never was involved in a single auto accident that I can recall, we all used to say that she left many in her wake.  My brother Paul remembers a time when she narrowly missed hitting a parked car and my mother remembers one of us, probably my brother Mark, saying to her, “If you really loved me, you’d never let me get in the car with that woman again.”    She is the only person I have known to get a ticket for going under the speed limit when she went 30 MPH on the bridge to Rockwall.    This particular bridge has only two lanes, one going in either direction, and police were called in when traffic was backed up for 2 ½ miles behind our grandmother’s car. I will always remember when Big Mama took me to get my own drivers license, and like her daughter Louise, I chose to take the wheel on the way home and forever after.   Big Mama, however, continued to stay on the road.  In fact, she was sighted not too long ago in the drive-though line at Wendy’s.   The entire family and perhaps the State of Texas owe her good friend Sherrie a huge debt of gratitude for driving Bessie around in her later years.     At the same time, as scary as it could sometimes be driving with Bessie, you had to admire the stubborn determination of a woman who could stick to her chosen path at her own chosen speed-- even when half the world was honking at her.

Humor aside, there are many other reasons to admire Bessie Mary.  She truly loved our grandfather Tommy, to whom she was married for 57 years.  While they often gave each other a hard time, they were a loyal and dedicated team.   When he passed away almost 12 years ago, it left a huge hole in her life, and Bessie was fortunate to have her siblings around to fill part of that void.  My grandmother’s lifelong relationships with her brother and two sisters have truly been a cornerstone in her life’s foundation.

I also admire the energy and passion Big Mama gave to her many hobbies.  She was a prolific artist who particularly loved to paint floral arrangements, and I know many people in this room are proud owners of her work.  She loved to give her grandchildren art lessons, a tradition which she continued with her great-grandchildren.  Her granddaughter Holly remembers that every time she went to visit Big Mama her parents would say, “Don’t ask her about her artwork because we’re not staying that long.”  Of course, Holly never failed to return home with a new painting in her lap that her grandmother had helped her create.

 In addition to her painting, our grandmother was also a dedicated genealogist who was thrilled to become a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution.  On one of her visits to see my family, she and I drove for hours through Valley Forge Park on an ancestor hunt. She was so excited to find finally her DAR ancestor’s name listed on a plaque in a Valley Forge Chapel that had stained glass windows.  While I sometimes got a little tired of hearing all about “our heritage”, I also knew that Big Mama was the first person to call when your child had a Family Tree project and that I’m not the only family member to have made that call. 

Our grandmother was equally passionate about her church,  and for many years acted as a Christian Women’s Fellowship leader.  In many ways, Bessie was a natural born preacher.  She had strongly-held views, not only about religion, but also about politics, foreign affairs, and current events, views that she never hesitated to share.  I must admit that when I got older, I used to egg her on a little bit, allowing her display her equal talent as a natural born debater.  I didn’t always understand where she got some of her facts, such as when she insisted that Communists were coming in to this country through Mexico and spreading germ warfare.  However, when I look at headlines today, I think that maybe she just had some inside information.

Big Mama often had a unique take on reality.  She envisioned a world through rose colored glasses     where she was Queen Bess and we were her royal family of noble heritage.  My brother Paul recalls a time when he had bought a new home and had been busy removing old wallpaper from every room in the house.  When Big Mama heard about this, she gasped, “Paul, you can’t remove that wallpaper—wallpaper is a part of your heritage!”

When my mother and I planned her 90th birthday three years ago, we were inspired by a vision of her as Queen Mum and planned a tea party complete with flowers, finger sandwiches and large brimmed hats.  Bessie sat at her throne wearing a large pink hat and truly seemed in her element, honored by a large crowd of friends and family.

Since her rose colored vision extended to her family, Bessie particularly loved to brag about her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren and thought them all incredibly talented, intelligent and beautiful.  She always gave unquestioning support to her grandchildren’s dreams and ambitions, which was particularly appreciated during the Girl Scout cookie sale, when her granddaughter Katie recalls that her grandmother was always her first and biggest customer. When I was a young child, Big Mama told me I was beautiful so often that I was sure I would one day win the Miss America Pageant.  When I grew a big older, I came to realize that Big Mama’s opinion might be just a little bit biased.

And while I sometimes felt embarrassed about my grandmother’s rose-colored opinion of me, I now appreciate just how wonderful it can be to have someone believe in you more than you believe in yourself.

I had 45 years to get to know my grandmother.   She has not only been present in my life but in my children’s lives as well. I can only imagine what kind of perspective living 93 years gave to Big Mama.  A caption in the Sundial, her high school yearbook, described her as a person of optimism and wit, qualities which remained with her for all of her 93 years.  Even though she may not physically be here any more, she will always be with me.  Each time I arrange flowers, buy something just because it is on sale, drive through Wendy’s, or eat a Twinkie, I will know that she is not just a memory but is a tangibly physical presence within me.  Even more importantly, I know that I am only one of many who loved her and will hold her in their hearts forever.

Sharon Lynne Crutcher Yoh, August 13, 2006

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