My grandmother, Winnie Waugh, walked with a wooden cane for the whole time that I was a little girl. This cane was made of smoothly polished dark brown wood and was very plain – a simple curve on the end for her hand and a rubber cover on the tip to help grip the floor or ground securely. My grandmother was a short woman – 4’10” tall – and she was heavy – around 200 pounds. I’m sure that the cane was necessary because of the excess weight she carried. She wore a size 4 shoe, so her small feet no doubt made balancing a precarious task. I remember Grandmother’s cane as a menacing weapon that she wielded when she was vexed. She would raise it high and threaten, “You better behave or I’ll smack you with this.”
My grandmother had been a powerful woman in her younger years. She was the statewide president of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) and in that role she spoke on at least one occasion to the Texas House of Representatives. She was known for her charitable work in her small town of Bastrop, Texas, where she gave food and clothing to the less fortunate and even helped transport women prisoners via train to the state prison so that they would be safe. She was headstrong, plainspoken and no-nonsense, and she had a Scottish husband who loved her dearly and let her be who and how she was even in those early years of the 20th century. But, unfortunately, I met her in the waning years of her life, long after her personal power had diminished and she was filled with frustration.
I like to think of Winnie Waugh’s cane as being the true representative of her personality – strong, basic, purposeful, effective. The rubber cover on the tip – that grip – could easily describe her grounded nature. Just like that cane, she was not built for weakness and neediness, but rather for strength and aid. In fact, she didn’t know what to do once her purpose was done. That’s where the impatience came in.
My grandmother was well into her 80’s when I was a child. She had raised four children, lost one son, buried her husband, and had been displaced from her home to come to live in ours. She was not a happy, soft, cuddly woman who wanted to bake cookies and tell stories to her granddaughter. No, this was a woman who routinely came into our kitchen with her suitcases packed and announced, “Someone needs to take me to the train station. Good-bye and good riddance.”
I can almost feel her frustration these fifty years later – her anger over the injustice of aging and the loss of her personal freedom. As I age, I am closer to understanding just how infuriating she must have found her situation, which surely felt prison-like to her. Unlike her, I hope to grow old with more grace. To be a grandmother who engenders love, not fear.
Yet, I must admit that I felt her power. She was not to be ignored or pandered to or treated with a smidgen of disrespect. After all, that’s when her cane proved indispensable. “Stop running in this house,” she’d call and then point that wooden stick at me. I slowed down immediately and said, “Yes, ma’am” loud enough so she could plainly hear me. Those were the rules with Winnie Waugh.
Raising Cain. I realize that phrase has another origin and another spelling than the cane of which I am referring. But in my childhood home, that phrase could aptly describe my grandmother. Winnie Waugh loved to raise cane (Cain). She was angry, and the implement intended to steady her walk, gave her a way to harness what remained of her strength.
Now that I am in my sixties, I can look at my grandmother’s behavior with new respect. She was not going to succumb to her circumstances without putting up a good fight. To hell with passive surrender; she was ready to use whatever means at her disposal to chase away loss and fear and the occasional noisy child. This was a battle to the death, after all. She lived to be 96, so she gave it her very best.
Probably Winnie Waugh’s sheer stubbornness kept her alive. Or maybe it was that cane. She lifted it several times a day, after all, to exercise her authority and bring just a bit of control back into her life.