My grandmother learned to drive when she was 70 years old. Growing up, I thought this was a matter of choice. I thought all the things she did or did not do were because she wanted them that way. I thought all grown-ups were free to scream and cry and fail and choose for themselves, because I believe in that part of us that is never satisfied until we attempt a feat on our own. I believe in independence.
It was not until a recent family vacation that I fully understood what Nanny’s life was really like. One morning, she sat between my older sister and me and softly recounted stories of her marriage: the strict prohibition of getting behind a wheel, of going anywhere on her own—not even to church or the grocery store. When her brother Leroy was sick with cancer, Nanny would beg Granddaddy all week to go visit him, and my grandfather would leave her hanging until Sunday before announcing casually that they could go.
Both of my grandparents worked in the BF Goodrich mill in Thomaston, Georgia. Nanny spent 35 years in the weaving department threading cotton and rayon and polyester into a machine to make car tires. And every week when she was paid, she handed her check straight over to Granddaddy. The only cash she ever touched were the small bills my grandfather doled out for her lunch money. She told us with a rare mischievous smile how sometimes she would secretly skip lunch. Then the money would be hers, and she would save it up for a new dress or a pair of shoes—something she could buy without asking permission first. “Did Granddaddy ever notice your new clothes?” I asked her. “Why would he?” she replied, “All shoes looked the same to him.”
As I listened to her speak and my eyes grew wet, I realized how wrong I’d been to believe that Nanny accepted without thought the traditional role she’d been assigned as wife and mother and little else. I realized that while her love for my grandfather was deep and real, her desire for independence was never entirely extinguished. Like the threads on her mill loom, she was fashioned into a product of someone else’s design. But the material itself remained resilient. I wonder if she ever stopped to think that by making tires, she helped manufacture the very independence that she was never allowed.
When Granddaddy got sick, Nanny learned to drive, and he depended on her for every need. I think how frightening and wondrous it must have been for her to get into that seat for the first time, to feel the pedals beneath her feet, and to realize that for the next few minutes every decision was up to her. I will never look at my grandmother again without remembering that my many opportunities might never have existed at all. Nanny’s life weaves into my own, her sacrifices inseparable from my priceless independence.