Every time I saw the other kids high fiving in the morning hallways, I just didn’t share in their excitement about having a substitute teacher that day. They thought about having an easy day with no homework and probably a movie. All I could think about was the attendance roll call. “Ethel Baldridge?” All the eyes would turn to me and I would sink down into my desk. Sometimes the adult would say something kind like, “Oh, what a sweet, old name” But most of the time, I just got called Ethel all day and during the years when you want anything other than to stand out, my name always created some unwanted attention.
I was named after my grandmother, Ethel Samantha (Davis) Baldridge and when I was young, she was one of my most favorite people. She was probably less than five feet tall and nothing more than a little wisp of a thing, floating around in a cotton house dress and soft, white curls adorned the top of her head. Her skin smelled like lavender lotion and she looked always turned into a refined lady on Sundays when she put on her thick pantyhose and serious Sunday best. She loved to rock in her recliner and read the Bible. I think she read it every day. And if she knew we were coming for a visit, she would make everything we all loved to eat, no matter how late it was when we got there, it was all waiting for us. We would fight over who got to sleep next to her on the pull out couch bed. She was at least 70 when I was born but she would insist that my parents slept in her bed and she’d sleep on the pull out with one of us. I know it hurt her back but I think it made her so happy to see us that she didn’t care. I thought she was marvelous. Gentle but strong, fragile but fierce. We just don’t understand how important our elders are when we are young. She was born in 1913. Can you imagine the things she saw in her lifetime?
She was born in Tomahawk, KY (Tommyhawk, she would call it) and was one of several children. I believe she was the oldest girl. They were poor Appalachian folk and lived on a little farm, like most people in those times. She loved to talk about her Mommy and she loved her so much. Her Mother was beautiful, just like Grandma. Her Mother got sick with something awful when she was young, probably some type of flu, and it caused her hair to turn completely white at a young age.
Grandma married an older man, my Grandfather, who just so happened to be a teacher in her one room schoolhouse when she was in her mid-teens. I imagine this could have also contributed to her Mama’s early gray hair. He already had 4 girls and Grandma took them in, even one that was just a baby when Grandma got married to my Grandfather. They lived in Kentucky for many years, born and raised Appalachians, until Grandpa eventually got a job working in the steel mills in Ohio, like so many Kentuckians of that time period. Dad always said his parents’ hearts remained in Kentucky and they traveled back as often as they could. I know it is why Dad decided to settle there, himself. He heard his ancestors calling.
Grandma went on to have 6 children of her own, losing one as an infant. She tended all her children with love even while constantly moving from one place to the next. She was a constant in their lives and the embodiment of home. She could cook anything perfectly, sew anything and made beautiful quilts. She loved her grandchildren and although she may have been a strict Mother, she let us grandkids get away with murder. We were the apple of her eye. And just being around her made us all feel safe. We felt special when she held us. We felt so completely loved.
She died when I was 16 after a difficult battle with cancer and I think that was the start of many years of confusion in my life. I didn’t process or understand the grief I was feeling. I just knew something inside of me was hurting so much and nothing could make it go away. I did a lot of destructive things to try and make it stop but nothing worked. I lost my maternal Grandfather (Papaw) within that same week and goodness, I think my heart actually shattered. Instead of trying to figure it out or reach out to someone, I pushed it all down and lashed out and away from friends, from my family and even from God.
Now when I work with children facing grief, I remember that hopeless feeling, the hole that loss creates and how the words, “I’m fine” usually mean “Adult, leave me alone. I don’t want to deal with this. You don’t understand.” And so I try to meet them where they are but remember that something is likely still dwelling underneath that needs to find its way out somehow.
The first time I remember actually dealing with my own grief was in a college art studio course. I created a life-size plaster sculpture of myself. I dressed myself in a shawl and hair wrap that belonged to or reminded me of Grandma. I stood holding a toothbrush. It was a nod to the moment after her funeral when a 16 year old me went into Grandma’s bathroom and saw all her things still there, taking up space, waiting for her to return but now useless in the end. Somehow creating this piece of art lifted a weight I was carrying. It helped me in ways I didn’t understand. It taught me the importance of processing my pain because life will ultimately always present us with more.
I also decided to own my name and stop hiding it. Now, when people call me Ethel, instead of giggles and insults, I see light blue eyes, curly white hair and the sweetest grin you’ve ever seen. I am so proud to be her namesake. She will never really be gone as long as I remember her and every time someone says my name, she glides through my mind again, always with me. My name is Ethel, a strong but delicate name and I try harder each day to be more patient, more kind, more devoted and ultimately just try my best to live up to it.
Grandma and my Dad.