Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Isabel Blackwell Roberts

Today has been one of the most wonderful, exhausting, rewarding, and grounding days of my life...(sigh)



In all the ways that matter, I met this woman for the first time today.

She is my paternal grandmother. Or as we say it down South, my daddy's moma. She was born in 1924, weighing less than 5 lbs. She was the first child of Mr. and Mrs. John Blackwell, and as such, they took dozens of pictures of their black-headed baby girl. Her people (her kin, her lineage...in the South, her identity) were the Williams(es) and the Blackwells of New Hanover County, NC and Marion County, SC, respectively. She married my grandfather, a navy pilot named Benjamin Franklin Roberts after he lost his left arm in 1944 at a naval base in Pensicola, Fla. The Roberts family had lived in South Carolina since the 1600s. When they married she was twenty. He was twenty-one. In the wedding photo they look not at the camera, but at each other...laughing.


She gave birth to five children (in descending order, by age): John, Isabel, Giles (my father), Ben, and Sallie. My grandfather was an accountant at Zeman's general store on Main St. in Marion, South Carolina; his parents didn't get a house "in town" (read: off the farm where he was raised with 11 siblings) until their children were grown. She, my grandmother, was a nurse, and then a homemaker, and then a nurse again. She was raised in Marion, in a two-story grey house with a wrap-around porch just blocks from the home where she would raise her children and live out the rest of her days. She was voted most likely to succeed in the 1942 Marion High School yearbook (she would go on to Duke Nursing School...no small feat for a woman in the forties who lived a state away). My grandfather was voted both Most Attractive and Most Neat in his 1941 MHS yearbook.


She once rode a parade float, advertising Coke: buxom body in striped bathing suit, a similarly-shaped glass coke bottle in hand, she laughed in a picture...sixty-some-odd years ago. She was serene, my father says. She was good, kind, warm. In a home as formal as the Roberts', she was the one that said 'I love you' to her children, and never missed a sporting event, dance recital, instrumental performance. She developed colon cancer in her late 40s. She was a practicing nurse again by that time; and, rather than tell her family(even my grandfather) about the cancer, she kept it a secret and took chemo treatments while at work. She taught all five of her children to cook, clean, sew, and balance a checkbook...things they would need to know. She battled cancer in secret for nearly five years. When she died, her two youngest children, Ben and Sallie, were still in high school, living at home.


My grandfather remarried; Marian Elvington Roberts is the woman that I grew up knowing as my "MaMa" (grandmother). My grandfather doesn't discuss The War, or the accident that cost him his left arm. And he doesn't discuss my (biological) grandmother...my "Granibel," as we could've called her. Neither does my father, until today. I have spent a lifetime scraping together her story, stitching up dates, pictures, anecdotes, begging my father for information. Daddy, what was she like? Was she pretty? Did she like to read? Did she have brown eyes? Could she sing? Do I remind you of her?

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Today was the first day I spent alone with my father in years...since I was a little girl. We drove home...to Marion. I peppered him with questions about (my) Granibel that I have been compiling since I was a child, and for the first time they worked...they unlocked something. In my father's quiet way, he began to tell me of the woman I wish I could meet more than anyone else in the world. We filled hours in his pick-up truck, time I usually dread for its heavy silence, with one steady question and thoughtful answer at a time. From beyond the grave, my Granibel is healing a much-tattered father-daughter relationship...

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