Annie Frances McCampbell was born in 1897 on Christmas Day. She hated having a Christmas birthday. As a child, I recall being shocked to hear an elderly woman complain that having her birthday on Christmas meant she got only one annual gift instead of two. Somehow, hearing an adult articulate something that even as a child I regarded as immature materialism was unsettling. In my young mind, adults were supposed to have overcome such worldly silliness. If my great-grandmother was still smarting about a Christmas birthday when she was well past the age of eighty, what did that mean for my own eventual maturity?
As Alzheimer’s began to erode her mind, Annie-Maw, as I knew her, was always in need of responsible and alert company; before she was truly frail, she would occasionally spend the day at our house, giving Uncle Jim and Aunt Margie, with whom she lived, a break. Most of my memories of her are from those days, when little daily things were beginning to slip from her, but I was too young to really notice the difference. The older stories, however, were still as vivid to her as ever. I found it fascinating that I could talk to someone born in the 19th century. She remembered the first time she rode in a car. She remembered what life was like before my grandmother was even born—my grandmother, who was a perpetual mystery to me because she had died when I was only two.
As Alzheimer’s eroded her mind further, she lost track of people who had come into her life more recently. She stopped recognizing me. Eventually she stopped recognizing my mother. Her world was peeled away from her like layers of an onion, the first and freshest memories going before the older stories. She did not know who I was, but she could still tell me about her first car ride or her Christmas birthday.
She became like a mystery, somehow, as all elderly people do. She had lived a life I couldn’t experience or recognize in the woman I saw before me. Now there was no way her hands could thread a needle. My mother told me that she used to make the best biscuits in the world, but I never saw her cook because she was too frail to prepare food. I had an apron she had sewn years before I was born, and I liked to wear it when I was in the kitchen. Annie-Maw was a loving and open woman who probably would have raised every child on her street, but my memories are of others caring for her.
I have a confession to make; I told you that Annie-Maw was my great-grandmother. That isn’t technically true. Really, she was neither a biological nor a legal relative at all, except in a very round-about way. She had raised one of my grandmother’s sisters after my biological great-grandmother had died young, leaving behind six children. When my grandmother found herself pregnant and her husband in the military (during World War II), and later newly divorced with a small child, Annie took her in, too, and helped raise my mother. My mother grew up in Annie’s kitchen while her own mother was working hard to make ends meet. Annie’s son Jim became an older brother to my mother. Annie’s husband Fritz, in the absence of my biological grandfather, became my mother’s “daddy.” Fritz had died before I was born, but my mother’s childhood stories were rich with tales of “Annie and Daddy,” and sometimes she would just mention Fritz as “Daddy, my real daddy.” Shortly before he died, Fritz met (and thankfully approved of) the man my mother would eventually marry.
So it was that this frail woman who couldn’t always remember us would sit at our table and tell me what it was like to be a child at the turn of the twentieth century in a world I could not imagine outside of Little House on the Prairie. So it was that we visited her in a nursing home when she did not know our names, even though I carry her name hidden in my own. And so it is now that, while I have no memories of my grandmother or the aunt that Annie-Maw raised, I have joyful memories of Uncle Jim and his wife Margie, some photographs that Jim took,, and a couple of recipes in Margie’s distinctive handwriting.
Now, as I compile the history of our family, with all its characters and stories and plot twists, I have had to find a way to explain how my grandmother’s mother died young and her children were scattered, while my great-grandmother died of Alzheimer’s when I was twelve. Plus explain who all these McCampbells were.
My mother has given me the words, though. In the same way Fritz was my mother’s daddy, Annie was simply a real great-grandmother. I do not need to define that for my children, who are fortunate enough to have wonderful memories of one of their own great-grandmothers. They know what a great-grandmother is. Annie was mine.