By Rocky McElhaney
The first eulogy I ever delivered in my life was for the woman I loved more than I could ever explain – my grandmother, Mary McDaniel. That speech was both the hardest and most rewarding thing I think I have ever done. Born and raised in poor, rural farm country in East Tennessee, Mamaw Mack lived her whole life within a three-mile radius. To her, life was about faith, family and friends – in that order.
She was born in 1931 and there was very little opportunity for young women in those days, in education or the workforce. Mamaw only had an eighth-grade education but she read the Bible every night, taught Sunday school and sang in the church choir, although she couldn’t carry a tune in a wooden bucket. She worked her fingers to the bone for minimum wage as a seamstress in a sweat shop for more than thirty years, leaving home at 4am every morning after getting up to ready everything for my mom and aunt to get off to school. She took the summers off to work in the tomato and tobacco fields with my Papaw. That was harder, but likely not hotter, work than pay-by-the-piece sewing.
I remember she would quit suckering tomato plants in those scorching July fields to walk to the house to cook supper – usually skillet fried meat, mashed potatoes, green beans canned from the season before and cornbread. Then she would shower and dress for Wednesday night pray meeting or church visitation. Her hair was rolled and perfect for church. She wore jewelry and perfume then. Mamaw was so tall when she cleaned up. She was both tough as nails and as graceful as a ballerina. She always had a kind word and a loving heart. She was the greatest women I ever knew. Mary McDaniel exemplified the best of the old south way of life.
In stark contrast, however, my Papaw McDaniel, probably represented the worst of the southern way of life. I was about five when I first remember him openly using racial slurs. Although he too was a Christian and deacon in the church, he was an overt bigot, a known womanizer and, at times, a stumbling drunk. Papaw did not read the Bible but professed to know all the things it was against. He railed to his friends in the 1980s about the “wet backs” invading our country but worked illegal immigrants in the tomato and tobacco fields, long hours for paltry wages. The child workers were paid a day rate. He cussed at them all, including my grandma. He treated her only slightly better than he treated the workers. Most of his work on the farm involved driving the tractor or fussing at the help.
At the end of the day, after he paid the workers cash for their labor – no reason to pay taxes when you were smart enough to avoid them – he would drive to the house, shower and eat the supper Mamaw had cooked. He would never complement her on the food but usually asked for seconds which she would get for him. In the true south, the women waited on the men at meal time and only ate after the men were done. I remember when he took off his shirt, his arms were so dark, his belly pasty white – a real farmer’s tan. Papaw always wore a full suit to church and sat up close to the front. His hair was greased and perfect for church. He wore jewelry and cologne then. Papaw was so distinguished when he cleaned up. He never had a kind word for anybody and was hateful. He was the most hypocritical man I ever knew. I thought once that he was probably just like the white men in Mississippi that went after Medgar Evers.
She loved him past it all, his good and his bad, despite the scars he carved on her heart. She made sure we all loved him too. To follow her example, we had to love him. Her love pulled us all through it. As she aged, through earthly struggles and sickness, Mamaw Mack never changed, not an inch. She never wavered in her core beliefs that God is great and family comes first. She lived it daily, her whole life, until the moment she passed away. As he aged, through trying times and sickness, Papaw did change, a bunch. He opened his mind and heart to those core values that good people share, that he always had within him, that God is great and family comes first. He lived it, from then on, until the moment he passed away.
She was always a true southern lady. He became a true southern gentleman. The grace of God can save a man’s soul, but the true love of a good woman can redeem a man’s life.