By David Phillips
South Bend, Indiana
I didn’t know it for a long time, but my grandma wasn’t a nice woman. I was shielded from this truth as a boy, because of my status as her favorite grandchild. I’m not sure what I did to gain this distinction — my mom and her were at odds all their lives - but man, did she love her some me. She loved to have me around and hug on me and lavish me with Southern fried foods.
As I grew up, I saw through the cracks. She could be wicked when she sniped at my mother. She was crueler to the men she married — of whom there were three. All of whom she outlived. She also buried two sons. (There’s a joke in there somewhere. I’ll let you make it.)
Like my grandma, I was born up in a holler in Pikeville, Kentucky. But unlike me, she never held a job. Never learned to drive a car. Throughout her entire life, she depended on others, and “others” clearly disappointed. Maybe that’s why she was so bitter.
Grandma came up poor and stayed that way, but she was not without talents. She could sew a patchwork quilt as durable and colorful as that coat of many colors in the Dolly Parton song. She made the best biscuits and gravy I ever tasted — so good that when she passed, I swore them off for the rest of my life. Nothing could compare to the fluffy, buttery biscuits and savory gravy Goldie Burgess made. When my grandma died, biscuits and gravy died with her, at least for me.
She could also sing and play guitar. I didn’t hear her play often, but on the few occasions I did, a distinctly old-timey voice would spring from her lips. She’d play a country spiritual, like “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” By and by, lord. By and by.
One day she gave up singing and the guitar. Nobody remembers why. I wish she hadn’t: I’ve never been able to play or sing. I can’t get both my hands to work in conjunction, and my singing voice troubles the alley cats. My mom inherited none of her musical skill either. Grandma’s gift did not get passed down.
Grandma loved country music most of all, but there was one particular exception. Of all the songs recorded that ever drew my grandma’s interest, there was none she loved more than Fats Domino’s “Blueberry Hill.” If it came on the radio, she’d turn it up. If the radio didn’t give it to her, she’d dig out her vinyl recording and take it for a spin. She once had many records, but a house fire took them — along with much more. Many things she could never replace: photos, keepsakes, and an endless parade of trinkets and whatnots.
She could, however, replace records. When she passed away seven years ago, I inherited her remaining collection, which was now only a small boxful of CDs and a few vinyl albums. I had to laugh when I found three Fats Domino “best of” albums on CD and another two on vinyl among her 25 or so recordings. All five had “Blueberry Hill” on them. I guess Grandma didn’t want to take any chance on running out of Fats.
I suppose it’s not hard to understand why she loved the song so much. Aside from being an objectively great record by any standard, the Fat Man’s thick Southern drawl and the down-home roll of his piano made “Blueberry Hill” sound country. It’s not that hard to imagine a Ronnie Milsap or a Conway Twitty singing it. Country singers who had a little extra soul in them could have pulled it off.
But they couldn’t have done it like the Fat Man - and certainly not up to the high standards of Goldie Burgess. She was only interested in Antoine Domino Jr.’s version.
After Grandma’s third husband died, my mom and dad moved her up north to live with them. She had tried to live with us once before (while she was between husbands), but she didn’t stay long. Things moved too fast for her in Niles, Michigan — a midwestern town of 11,000. The population of Niles was double Pikeville’s, even if you could count the stoplights in Niles on one hand. Twice the people, twice the noise.
Her move to Michigan went better the second time around. Probably because this time she had no other choice. She couldn’t take care of herself anymore. She had no one to “carry me to town” to get groceries, see the doctor, or shop for the trinkets and whatnots that filled her trailer.
We had a little over a year with her before a heart attack coupled with cancer took her away. One more year of biscuits and gravy. Another year of cigarette smoke and crankiness.
But I see her press “play” on her favorite song a few more times. When she did, her toe would get to tapping, her toothless (she could never abide dentures) smile would break out, and for two minutes and 22 seconds, there was joy on her face.
Goldie Burgess had found her thrill.