A strong life

Zoë. Life, of Greek origin.
Caroline. Strength, of Latin origin.

Caroline: A name that means strength, inherited from her maternal great-grandmother Carolyn and her paternal great-grandmother Carol. Both strong women with characteristics that I hope she grows into.

This is a story about Zoë’s great grandmother Carolyn, my Nana.

Memories of my Nana start early for me. She’s a jumble of images and sounds and smells: of vinegared cucumbers and suntan lotion, of tomatoes and sourdough bread. She’s forever summer to me, she and Papa the reward at the end of a long two day car ride. When I remember her, I see the basket of Dr. Seuss books that sat on the bottom shelf of the table next to the blue sofa in her living room. We’d read and reread those books until we could recite them: one fish, two fish, red fish, blue fish.

Her favorite story of me was how I’d point my finger at her and emphatically say, “Nana. Sing!”

or “Nana. Read!”

 or “Nana, Draw me a picture! But not of a house with a tree and birds. Something different.”

And she would sing or read or draw, whenever I asked her to. I never felt that my demands bothered her. She’d just laugh and we’d play.

I was the first grandchild and although I knew she loved us all, I felt treasured by her. Even after there were eight more grandchildren, I still felt like I was the most special. We all did.

I remember boxes of South Carolina peaches and how we’d peel and slice and sugar them and scoop bowls of vanilla ice cream and put those amazing juicy peaches on the top. The juice would pool at the bottom of the bowl and we’d slurp it up. We’d eat that same dessert after supper every single night. I’ve never, ever had peaches as sweet.

I remember the very steep staircase that went down into their cellar basement, open on both sides and the smell of the damp walls and the scent of potatoes. My own house has a cellar that smells the same. Sometimes I’ll open the door and get a whiff of that dampness and smile, remembering her.

Her old family homestead was gone, but the staircase in the old place had been donated to the President James K. Polk Museum in Mecklenberg County, south of Charlotte. Although I’m sure we learned information about President Polk, my childhood memory is of visiting Nana’s staircase. One evening when she was young, Nana was carrying an lit oil lamp and walking down the stairs, which were steep and had a tight corner turn.  She missed a step and came tumbling all the way down. The way she told it, her whole family came running over and the first thing they asked was, “Did you break the lamp?” Nana loved to tell that story. “Can you believe it,” she’d say. “They didn’t ask about me! Just that lamp. Just that darn lamp.”

I remember our summer weeks together at the beach and the collections of shells we’d show her. Beach towels and sand were everywhere. Piles of flipflops and hats toppled by the door, bathing suits drying on the porch banister. She’d cook grits and eggs and livermush and bacon for breakfast every morning. We’d have a huge plate of Papa’s tomatoes. The butter from the grits would run over into the eggs and the tomato juice would pool by the livermush. Every bite was filled with love.

Each evening we’d sit in the rocking chairs listening to the surf and we’d chat. We’d play rummy and she’d usually win but she’d never gloat.

She and Papa had a deep love and respect for each other. She was also matter of fact about their love story.

"Tell me, how’d you meet, Nana?"

"Oh, we’d always known each other. But you know, during the War, all the men went away and there wasn’t anyone here. And after the War, there weren’t many men left. And I was getting old!"

They married when she was in her late twenties. She was the baby of her family and he was the oldest of his. My favorite photo of them shows them right after they got married, Papa in a suit and Nana in a two piece dress, and she’s holding his hand and looking right at the camera and beaming. Papa is squinting a little in the bright sunlight. Their love was steady and sure and full of laughter. Their lives were service in a way rarely seen and they gave of their time and talents without complaint. They were part of that greatest generation and they were some of its greatest.

N.C Grier & Carolyn Kuykendahl Grier
Our song was Chopsticks. She’d play the bottom part and I’d play the top. We’d play it faster and faster, laughing at our clumsy fingers. At one time, she had the entire song memorized. Closer to the end, she needed the music, but could still play it. She’d play hymns and sing for us. Her favorite was One Day at a Time and I can hear her in my mind singing it with her accent. One Day-a At Ah Time…


Oh, Nan. I wish you could have met Zoë. You’d have loved her. Miss you tons.

Carolyn Kuykendahl Grier
January 22, 1919 – February 19, 2011


  1. Awwww, Carrie. That was beautiful! What a treasure grandparents are and what a tragedy that oftentimes we don't realize until it's too late.
    I'm so thankful that my kids have had the blessing of growing up close to their grandparents, and that they {g'parents} go OUT. OF. THEIR. WAY to engage purposefully with each and every one of their grandchildren.
    What beautiful memories… you are a Southern girl at heart!!

    Thanks for your sweet comments on my post yesterday. You are a blessing to me!

  2. Simply beautiful, Carrie. You captured the love Nana had for all her grandchildren, AND for her children. Some men complain about their Mothers-in-laws; I was blessed with a saint. This produced floods of memories--and tears.


  3. Beautiful, Carrie. You captured your memories so well... what a lovely treasure for Zoe to have one day... Love you! Rach


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