The legacy of a grandmother

By: By Mac McPhail - Contributing columnist

This mother was going through a difficult time. At 52 years old, her husband had just died. As a mother of ten children, one who died as an infant, she now faced life alone, with four children still living at home. Three of the children were under ten years old.

The time was December, 1940. World War II was on the horizon and the effects of the Great Depression were still being felt. That was especially true for this widow, the wife of a sharecropper farmer. There were no welfare programs or food stamps. She and her children would have to find a place to stay. She had no money. It had taken everything from the meager sharecropper income for the family to get by prior to her husband’s death. What would be the future for her family now? How would they survive?

They would survive. An older son who had moved out, delayed his marriage, inorder to move back home and help them find a new place to stay. Just in his twenties, this young man would help provide for the family and guide them through those difficult years. The other older brothers and sisters would help as best they could.

The times were tough. They had no electricity, so cooking had to be done on a wood stove. Clothes washing was done outside, with the wash water being heated by wood. The younger children would pick cotton, work in tobacco, and do whatever they could to help. The family would have to move several times as the younger children were growing up. Yes, times were difficult. But, as one of the younger sisters made sure to point out, “We never went hungry.” The mother and the older brother made sure of that.

Things started to get gradually better. There were some better crop years. “We started coming out,” the sister stated. The younger children continued in school, with one of the sisters even being named the valedictorian of her graduating class. All of the widow’s children eventually would have their own families. Each would own their own home.

But the widow never did. The widow was Cordelia Jolly Williams, the mother of my mother, Ethel McPhail. But we all knew her as Granny Cordie. I can’t remember a time that Granny didn’t live with my family while I was growing up. She would occasionally go and stay awhile with the other brothers and sisters. But the vast majority of the time, she was a fixture in our family. And she was a welcome part of our family until she passed away during my junior year in college.

Granny would cook, work in the garden, keep an eye on my sister and me, (a job in and of itself) and do what she could to help around the house. Granny appreciated my daddy, and my daddy sure did think a lot of her. So did I. You couldn’t beat hugs from Granny. And when I got in trouble, (which, of course, was not very often) it seemed like she was always there to take my side.

Granny living with our family made life interesting around our house. It seemed like there was always one of the eight other brothers and sisters dropping by to see their mama. And bunches of cousins would come along with them for me to play with. But I can’t remember much talk back then from Granny or any of her children about how difficult the times were after her husband’s death. (I only learned about most of the above events recently.) I do remember mama saying, “I hear people talking about wanting to go back to the good old days. I don’t want to. Those days weren’t so good.”

Last Sunday’s sermon at church was about families and children. In his sermon, Pastor Dwayne stated that an inheritance was what you left for someone, but a legacy is what you leave in someone. I was right in the middle of working on this column, so my thoughts went back to Granny.

In the world’s eyes, Granny didn’t have much when she died. She didn’t have a home or any money in the bank. She didn’t own a car. (She never had a driver’s license.) But she had much more. She had children and grandchildren that loved her dearly. Those children worked, owned their own homes, and raised their families. And many of those grandchildren have gone to college, become teachers and nurses. One even became a tax collector. (No family is perfect!) Other grandchildren have had successful businesses and work careers. They have worked hard at raising their own families. Granny may not have left any material wealth when she died, but she left something far more important – a legacy.

Mac McPhail, raised in Sampson County, lives in Clinton and can be reached at

By Mac McPhail

Contributing columnist

Mac McPhail McPhail

Mac McPhail, raised in Sampson County, lives in Clinton and can be reached at