On My Mother’s Side

© 2009 emilygrimes 72

These are some of the photographs from my new book! They are currently on display at Images Gallery.

Mana with Bridesmaids, 1978
From my perspective, Mana spoiled my cousins, and I was jealous. At my house, Friday night dinners consisted of fish sticks (my Catholic best friend, who abstained from eating meat on Fridays, was often present), a pre-frozen vegetable, and a starch. My parents, with brown bag in hand (Chattanooga was dry), told us to mind both our table manners and Sadie, our maid, and then they left, the scent of Mother’s Arpège perfume mingling with the smell of the food on our plates. They were off to enjoy their regular Friday night dinner date at the Ranch House at the foot of the mountain. If I was lucky enough to be at Betsy’s on a Friday night (her parents were likely to be at the Ranch House as well), Mana cooked and served us meals that my mother would not have wasted on unappreciative children. I still remember eating my first artichoke on my aunt and uncle’s screened-in porch. My cousins showed me how to pull out the leaves, dip each one in the little saucer of melted butter beside my plate, and scrape the meaty flesh off the leaf with my teeth.

Library, Big House, 1977
As at our house, cocktail hour was a daily ritual in the homes of our friends and family, a time to relax at home or drop in on others and share the stories of the day. My father often stopped at the Big House on his way home from work for a drink with Granddad and Tav. In winter, they could be found in the library, he in coat and tie, she in a stylish dress and heels, drinking Scotch and a martini, respectively. In warmer weather, they took their drinks on the porch, where the scent of gardenia blossoms filled the air in the summer months.

I rarely saw Tav without my grandfather present, and there was an unwritten rule in our family that serious conversation was to be avoided. One time when I was home for a visit as an adult, though, Tav was alone when I stopped by the Big House, and the talk turned sober. Growing old was awful, she told me. It was terribly sad, she said, to outlive one’s friends, while knowing what was to come—diminishing physical and mental strength, and the lonely business of dying.

Kendall, Christmas, 1977

Campbell, Betsy, and Kitty, Easter, 1981

Eleanor Swimming, 1981
Granddad was a swimmer; he kept a stack of poker chips beside his small pool and moved them one by one to a new pile at the end of each lap. My athletic mother enjoyed keeping up her year-round tan (the cause of later skin cancers) while playing golf or tennis, but was too social to spend much time swimming lonely laps in a pool.

Mother was an organized person, capable of hosting a seated Christmas Eve dinner for ten or Easter lunch for fifty without appearing to do anything but talk. Granddad and Tav, as well as my aunts and uncles, did their share of entertaining, and they too never had to replenish trays of food, remove drink glasses from antique tabletops, or wash and put away china and silver for the next occasion. Their longtime “help” performed these tasks discreetly and efficiently.

At our house, Charlie Mae cleaned the house and washed our clothes, Newsom was the yardman, and Mary Rivers, who we called by her last name, did the cooking and slept in a small room upstairs during the week. After Rivers’s retirement, Sadie moved into the maid’s room; my friends and cousins remember Sadie haranguing us from the hallway to settle down and go to sleep. Her retirement left my mother, who had never done the cooking, with a much-needed position to fill. Times had changed, and finding someone who would fill the ice bucket each evening in preparation for the cocktail hour, cook, serve, and sleep upstairs five nights a week proved to be difficult—so she convinced Rivers to come out of retirement. By this time, Rivers was old and needed much cajoling to do her job without complaint. After dinner each night, we were reminded by our mother to take our plates to the kitchen and praise Rivers for a delicious meal.

Leaving the Wedding, 1978
Betsy and Jay are outdoorsy types, so the image of them paddling the river into the sunset was a fitting honeymoon departure. For years, they enjoyed spending nights in a log cabin which they dismantled in Virginia and reassembled on Uncle Bob’s property overlooking the Tennessee River. The cabin has no running water or electricity, but chilled wine poured freely when Betsy and Jay were there.

Hardwick and Sim, 1981
When my grandparents divorced in 1957, my grandmother walked away from the house she and my grandfather had designed, built, and furnished together. It was the home where they raised their children, who settled nearby after marrying, and where the growing family gathered to socialize and celebrate. Not long after the divorce, Tav and Granddad married. My mother was torn about whether to attend the ceremony. She was devoted to her father, but felt she should stand in solidarity with her mother. The day of the wedding, my mother gave birth to her fourth child. Her obstetrician had agreed to induce labor on that day, thus sparing Mother from choosing sides.

Granny’s life changed radically after the divorce; Granddad’s did not. He and Tav were happy together, his family was close by, and his habits and routines continued without interruption. Meanwhile, Granny moved to Columbia, South Carolina, where her son Bill, also divorced, had recently graduated from Columbia Bible College. They both relocated to St. Petersburg, Florida, where Uncle Bill established a Christian radio station and conference center, adopted his second wife Marge’s two children, and had a daughter, Crissy, the youngest of the Caldwell grandchildren.

In Granddad’s retirement, Sim (right), a foreman for many years at Modern Maid (formerly Tennessee Stove Works), the family business, became his fishing and hunting buddy and his great friend. Although they were constant companions, Sim never stopped calling Granddad “Mr. Caldwell.” Many mornings, the two of them drove down the mountain and fished in the ponds at Krystal Farm in nearby Chickamauga. On Saturdays, they hunted doves there or on other private reserves. Much like the proud cat who drops its prey at the foot of its owner, my grandfather brought dead doves to my mother.

Big Tee and Weenie, 1981
Because I live far from my extended family, I was not present during their health struggles and declining years. I never knew—or, more likely, never noticed—the extent of my mother’s kindnesses toward her Aunt Tee, and I feel sad sometimes that I was not able to perform for my own parents the small, thoughtful acts made possible by proximity.


  1. Peggy Reeves
    Posted December 28, 2009 at 8:47 am | #

    The photographs are so good and the text is interesting. Maybe you had a chance to see the current photography exhibit at the Frist; I’m going this week.
    Happy New Year!


  2. Sharon truex
    Posted January 9, 2010 at 12:24 pm | #

    Oh Emily…I am proud to know you! I woukd love to purchase an autographed copy from you. What a beautiful tribute to your family and a life long gone.
    From found poetry by Annie Dillard. excerpts from A Countryman’s Year by David Grayson 1936…”…Give me time enough in this place and I will surely make a beautiful thing.” And you have! Well done Old Friend… Sharon

  3. Ann Lindahl
    Posted April 6, 2010 at 2:34 am | #

    Thanks for sharing your interesting family story together with good photographs.


  4. Mini Okie
    Posted February 28, 2011 at 4:11 pm | #

    Very impressive. I am creating a blog of my own when I stumbled upon yours. Good work. Thanks for inspiring me on to do a blog of my mother’s side of the family.

  5. emilygrimes
    Posted March 11, 2011 at 2:43 pm | #

    good luck with with your blog!

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