|Bennie in 1986|
My dear mother-in-law, Bennie Ella Jones Warnock, passed away Friday, July 31st, just 16 days shy of her 101st birthday, which would have been today. (See her obituary here.) It had not been her desire to linger long in decline. She had hoped to make a seamless transition to the “next life.” In fact, she told me that she would not be available to celebrate the year 2000 with us, but of course, she lived well beyond that.
Bennie lived in Camden in south central Arkansas and we in Idaho, so we saw her about every other year and then usually for a week, but when we were with her, we made the time count. I remember especially those sweet visits when our children were babies. She was so good not to interfere with the baby’s routine but to support me and play with the baby during quiet times. The arrangement was unspoken but worked well. I wanted her to know her grandchildren and have a positive experience with them.
I remember one year she visited during the Fourth of July. I’m going to say it was 1978. “I want a nice watermelon for us,” she said, and she had other good things on her grocery list as well. Unsuspectingly, I drove her to the downtown Safeway where I expected her to make a selection from the watermelons on display. But no! – she walked up to the produce manager and said, “I want a really good watermelon for my family.” “You can’t do that here!” I thought to myself, distancing myself from her a bit, but to my surprise, the man said, “Yes, ma’am,” and disappeared through the swinging doors, returning soon with a large watermelon, which proved to be the best I’ve ever eaten. To this day, I don’t ask store personnel for favors, but I’ve always wondered if Bennie got the watermelon he put aside for his own family. Did she get the melon intended for the company picnic? Does the store really put back the best stock for little ladies with southern drawls?
Bennie’s reputation as a good housekeeper preceded her, and I inherited a certain expectation that the house and grounds must be in good shape for her visits. My own mother was naturally aware of my failings, but somehow we had to keep Bennie from knowing that I struggle with the housekeeping. So we tried to have everything spit-spot. Nevertheless, she could spot the weak places. One year she painted our pantry cupboard. Another she did her best to spruce up our alley (back door) entrance, lecturing Mike on the importance of keeping the alley neat. “Everybody else’s looks neat and tidy,” she complained, “and yours looks so scruffy.”
While she was with us, she bought the groceries and did the cooking, often expecting us to sit down to the meal before Mike was ready. We complied with her wishes. I told him privately that we could do anything for a week.
Once, Mike was out of town for the evening and Bennie decided we should take the children to McDonald’s. Burgers were ordered and we sat down to eat. “I want another one,” exclaimed Milo loudly. It was quiet there; everyone heard. “We’ll have another burger here,” called Bennie, to which the counter person responded, “Coming right up!” He delivered the burger to Milo and collected the money from Bennie. Everyone was smiling.
In the ‘90s, I was working, so when Grandma Bennie visited I admonished the children that they were not to take advantage of her energetic ways. Calling home to check on things, I talked with young Hallie who said in confidential tones, “Mom, Grandma Bennie is cleaning my room. She insists. She insists!” I had no doubt.
I could tell many other stories about my southern mother-in-law and maybe I will from time to time. She was a character who grew up when the South was still very much a culture of its own.
Unfortunately, Bennie gradually slipped away before our eyes. We had the sadness of missing her while she was still with us, and that affects the memories of the younger grandchildren. “I don’t remember much about her,” said Hallie last week. “Just remember that she loved you,” I told her. If that’s all you can ever say, that’s enough. KW