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  • Betty Girardeau

When I am Old, I Am Going To Wear Purple

Updated: Oct 8


Jenny Joseph in 1961 wrote a poem that started with a line something like this. Not much else in her poem sounds like my great grandmother, though, as she would most certainly not have spent her pension on brandy or learned to spit. But as long as I can remember her, she always wore purple or lilac. In her final years she lived with her daughter, my grandmother in South Carolina. The fact that her clothes were always made from fabric in the same basic lavendarish colors so impressed me as a small child that at first I thought she was my "grape" grandmother rather than my great grandmother. By the time that she came to live at my grandmother's, she was totally blind and spent much of her time in her room listening to talking books, mostly the Bible, on her record player. Her mind was as sharp as a tack, though, and she kept up with the news of the world. Shortly before her death at 91, I was visiting in South Carolina and she asked me to read the morning paper to her. There was an article in it about the recent death of Joseph Stalin, and I remember her saying that she thought he had been an "evil man." She was born in 1862 in Augusta County, Virginia, which is in the heart of the Shenandoah Valley, an area that saw a lot of Civil War skirmishes and battles. When she was born, so family lore says, she did not initially have a middle name. But when she was older and wanted to have one, she selected Lee for her middle name because as a small child she remembered that she had once sat in General Robert E. Lee's lap. Although by the time that I knew her, her hair was pure white, as a young girl it must have been red or auburn, because her nickname was "Foxy," probably not because she was particularly "hot," as we would think today. She married James Harvey Bell in 1882. While a good man from all accounts, he was a terrible businessman, and the family, which ultimately included two sons as well as a daughter, was often in financial straits. In order to bring in extra money, she rented to roomers. She was a firm believer in the Presbyterian Church and that all of her children, even her daughter, should be well educated and attend college. In hindsight, I wish I had thought to sit with her and ask her about her girlhood and life in general. But I never did that, maybe because when we are growing up we tend to be looking ahead to our own futures and seldom think about the pasts of others until they are gone. But I will always remember that she loved purple and lavender and that was the color that she chose to wear every day.

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