When we try to define who we are and attempt to distinguish the parts of ourselves that are unique, we quickly discover that our personalities, perspectives, interests and values are the result of a lifetime of unique experiences and, most importantly, impactful people.
We are simply the sum of the stories, people and experiences that have come our way. Sometimes we are inspired to continue a tradition and other times to end them. However positive or negative the influence, paying tribute to the people in our lives who have changed us, rubbed off on us or left us with more questions than answers is a powerful part of self-discovery and human existence.
That’s where grandparents come in. Sometimes they raise us. Other times we never get the privilege of knowing them. Grandparents aren’t always blood relatives either. They can be special people who enter our world. Other times, they are simply remnants of old photographs, a genealogical lineage on a piece of paper, or just a name passed down. Most often, though, they are the cherished cornerstones of our families and relationships that remain the core of our clans.
If you’re like me, you can relate to each of these definitions.
When I was a wide-eyed little girl, my grandmother Laura, lovingly called “Granna Mae,” was an incredible wealth of knowledge and a teacher of all things floral and insect. Spending most of my free time outside, I seemingly inherited her genes for loving nature.
My fondest memories are spending time in her backyard garden, tasting herbs, feeding the birds, and watching caterpillars form chrysalises. As a gift, she gave me a handwritten booklet on the metamorphosis of the butterfly, complete with her own photographs of each life stage.
We used to make frequent visits to the Ijams Nature Center in Knoxville, Tennessee, to explore and learn about wildlife. To this day, I have a deep connection with the cycle and sustainability of native plants and wildlife. Each flower I grow, each caterpillar that munches on my carrot patch and each swallowtail butterfly that visits my flowers reminds me of the beauty and care Granna Mae offered to the critters in her garden.
As a cherished keepsake, I am proud to have her notebooks full of garden designs, plant lists, butterfly food recipes and even the remains of her butterfly specimens.
After raising five children of her own, I think Granna Mae’s love for nature took off as a new interest post motherhood. I was so glad to witness her, with skills like sewing, piano playing, cake decorating and homemaking under her belt, pursue such a unique interest later in life.
Granna Mae’s husband, Henry, whom my family lovingly calls “Papa Hank,” was merely a whisper at the beginning of my life, only meeting me through an ultrasound. He died of a sudden heart attack one month before my birth date in 1994. Even though I never knew him personally, his love for photography and plant life were traits I inherited.
As a professor of agronomy at the University of Tennessee, Papa Hank taught students for many years. In his free time, he camped with Granna Mae and their five children across the country. Making silent home movies on film, photographing with 35mm Leica SLRs and making slideshows on a projector were his most engaging interests. Each year, he sent out a unique homemade Christmas card humorously depicting his growing family.
He often incorporated optical illusions long before Photoshop existed. As a wedding and portrait photographer myself, I have digitized his original photographs, cards and film reels, which are now priceless heirlooms to me, recorded family history and stories that I will cherish forever.
Another artistic influence in my life is my adopted grandfather, Tony Neves. While I was serving as the secretary of the Adopt-a-Grandparent program at Lee University, I became fast friends with an eccentric gentleman who audited my photography classes. Through the Encore Program for senior students, he attended my classes for only $25 and never missed a single one.
When my professor invited me to dinner with some other students at the campus café before our weekly night class, I was lucky to sit next to Tony when many students wouldn’t. It wasn’t long before he was sharing his knowledge, stories and experiences of being a commercial photographer and war veteran.
Pretty soon, we became partners for class projects, and Tony taught me how to use film cameras. Seeing that I was serious about learning, he gifted me with vintage SLR cameras and lenses from his own enormous collection. For a photo book project, he took me to every historic church in a 50-mile radius so I could photograph each one. He became fast family to me when I didn’t have other relatives nearby.
He brought me food and medicine when I was sick, showed me the best and worst restaurants in town, helped fix my car, and showed me all the shortcuts and side streets to avoid rush-hour traffic. Most importantly, he showed me that family isn’t always blood.
If it wasn’t for Tony, I wouldn’t be writing this article for Life Care because he was the one who got me my first job as a photography intern in 2015. He also gave me the confidence and skills to start my own photography business in 2017 – a business that is still going strong.
After suffering a stroke in 2019, Tony’s health declined, and he passed away April of 2021. The enormous impact he had on my life for such a short season will always be a large part of who I am.
Another unlikely grandparent came into my life when I was a toddler. At this time, my dad traveled out of the country for weeks at a time for his job. Having just moved to the other side of the state, my mother did not know many people in the community yet. Mom began singing in the church choir, and as a stylish young woman, often wore perfume. A quiet but assertive voice said behind her one day, “Your cologne is killing me.”
Mom slowly turned around to see the most unassuming, soft-spoken woman behind her. After an awkward introduction, Darlene Sentelle became the soul sister to my mother – and the godmother to me – that we never knew we needed.
Having a disability known as familial spastic paraplegia, which caused permanent weakness of the hips and legs, Darlene always required a walker or cane to aid her when getting around. Even so, this condition did not stop her from showing up in our lives in a huge way.
From grocery store trips, choir concerts, piano lessons, school programs and doctor appointments to baby sitting, meal prep, church services and holiday dinners, there was never a moment when Darlene was not a constant guardian angel watching over us.
As a substitute teacher, she always seemed to have me under her watchful eye and warm heart at school. She and her loving husband, Rick, were some of my biggest supporters when I began pursuing music, songwriting and singing. They attended all my shows, concerts, recitals and performances and even wrote notes and poems of encouragement to me when I was struggling with insecurity and self-doubt.
When Darlene began her battle with breast cancer, she was no longer able to get out and attend events and gatherings. One Christmas, my friends and I packed up our guitars, sheet music and cheerful voices to surprise her at her home.
We all quietly gathered around her recliner and beautifully adorned Christmas tree to bring the caroling concert to her. Throughout my childhood, she strengthened and supported my family when we needed it most. I would like to think that at the end of her life, my family and I returned that strength and support back to her.
For a brief but sweet time, Papaw Roy was also in my life. For a man with no voice, the first seven years of my childhood were graced with his larger-than-life personality and childlike whimsy in his heart. Having lost his larynx to cancer, he talked with a buzzer to his throat. As a child, this only made my grandfather all the more intriguing and special.
He communicated with me in a way that no one else could – with big expressions, music, dancing and wintergreen gum. Each time I came to visit, he would set me on the kitchen counter, open the first cabinet and pull out a fresh stick of sparkly, green gum just for me. Then he would pour a cold glass of buttermilk for himself.
“Is Papaw silly?” he would ask in a buzzing tone, reminiscent of a robotic bumble bee. Of course, I would confirm because he was usually wearing a hat sideways or popping out his false teeth to squeeze as many laughs from me as he could. And if that didn’t work, his buzzer went straight to my ribs, and we’d turn on the radio for a dance party.
After years of alcoholism post military service, I’d like to think that Papaw’s years with me and all his grandchildren were sort of a redemptive and therapeutic season for him. His battle with cancer ended in 2001, but the memories, smiles and laughter have a permanent place in my heart.
Like Fess Parker as Davy Crockett, my step-grandfather, Papaw James, claimed he was “half horse, half alligator with a little bit of snapping turtle.” A true king of the wild frontier, James was a true outdoorsman. The only things he loved more than fishing was my grandmother Shirley and God.
Gaining a new grandparent as a 10-year-old took some getting used to. Calling a stranger Papaw wasn’t easy at first, but all of that changed after our first campout together at Reelfoot Lake in Tennessee. Our first boat ride through the glades of the lake, catching fresh fish and partaking in his famous fish fries quickly stole my heart. The joy and laughter he brought my grandmother proved he was meant to be in our family.
But beyond all the adventures, what mattered to me most was how he prayed. At each meal, breakfast being his favorite, he would call us all together to join hands. Without hesitation, in a deep and resolute voice he would always say, “Lord God in heaven we come to you thanking you Lord for the blessings you’ve given us today.”
His stubborn, hard-of-hearing self would always become as humble and gentle as could be when he would squeeze your hand to pray. Mealtimes and prayer were the love languages he willingly gave to us as his blended family. He passed away August of 2021, surrounded by all his family – biological and by marriage. You could no longer tell the difference.
Roy and James’ surviving wife, my Mamaw Shirley, is my last living grandparent. At the age of 81, you can still see the youthful glow in her eyes and smile. I can quite easily determine that she is one of the most resilient and optimistic people I have ever met.
Her faith in God and love for others outshines any hardship she has ever endured. Her uninhibited laughter brightens up every room she walks into. One hug from her can squeeze the down-in-the-dumps right out of you.
For such a bubbly and radiant woman, she had talents that were humble and quiet. She has spent many years writing beautiful poetry that has been featured on greeting cards, church programs and books. Her gift of writing comes from both the love and pain she has felt from suffering losses, enduring health problems, walking with relatives through addiction and from hundreds if not thousands of books she has read in her lifetime – all of which are displayed on several wooden shelves in her living room library.
You can also taste her talents through the homemade meals she makes. Spending time in the kitchen making chicken and dumplings, Christmas candies, fruit jellies and Thanksgiving feasts always end up being a competition to see who can make the other laugh until they cry. After the mealtimes, we gather around her century-old piano and sing songs together in three-part harmony.
I am blessed to call each of these amazing people my grandparents. Granna Mae showed me how to fall in love with nature and to care for the wondrous miracle that we call Earth. Papa Hank taught me the priceless gift of storytelling and family journalism. Grampy Tony taught me how to see the world through an artistic lens, and to never stop chasing your dreams.
Precious Darlene showed me what quiet, sacrificial love means and the assurance of loyalty despite disability. Papaw Roy taught me to laugh, be silly and value joy and reconciliation no matter what. Papaw James taught me to never lose a sense of adventure and to always keep the faith.
Mamaw Shirley teaches me how to hope in the best of people, love them through the worst and to make life a soulful, poetic prayer.
The most important stories to learn and grow from are found in the people closest to us. Soaking up all the moments we can with our grandparents is a priceless gift when they are willing to pass down lessons of love, endurance, humor, creativity and hope.
If you are lucky enough to have amazing grandparents, call them. Share meals together. Learn about their past. Ask them for advice. If you do not have grandparents, open your heart to meeting new ones. Take the time to entertain small talk with a stranger.
Family isn’t always blood: they could be your grandparent soon enough.