Tuesday, April 21, 2009
Ann Lee Grigg Willis
February 26, 1920 - April 17, 2009
Ann Willis passed away early in the morning on April 17, 2009. She is survived by two daughters, Dianne Dumont and Linda Hinnant; by Linda's husband, Darius Hinnant; by four granddaughters, Susan Raihala, Lisa Dumont, Kathy Ives, and Jennifer Edwards; by eight great-grandchildren; and by one brother, Walter Grigg. She was preceeded in death by her husband, David Lee Willis; and by four brothers and one sister.
Below is the eulogy I wrote for her funeral on Sunday, April 19. I want to thank my brother-in-law, Tom McCarthy, for reading it so eloquently since I could not. I also want to thank Dr. Dewey Smith for making the service a true celebration of my grandmother's life. Dr. Smith, his wife Nellie Smith, Jim Thompson, Cam Gilbert, and Doris Norwood provided the music.
Today we gather to celebrate the life of Ann Lee Grigg Willis, an amazing, funny, strong, and beautiful woman who touched all our lives with grace and love and laughter.
She was born on February 26, 1920. Her mother died when she was young, leaving Ann and six siblings to be split up among friends and relatives until their father remarried. This early experience of loss and the rebuilding of her family by a loving second mother may explain the exceptional dedication to family that touches so many of our memories of her.
As a member of the Greatest Generation, Ann endured the Depression and World War II, with all the struggle and challenge of those two periods in history. During the war, she and her husband, D.L., moved numerous times, following D.L.’s ever-changing assignments from Canada to Florida to California and everywhere in between. It could not have been easy to keep the home fires burning, especially with a husband and five brothers deployed and a baby to care for, but whenever she spoke of the war, Ann emphasized the funny stories, the excitement, and the pride and patriotism of that time. Her grandchildren would beg her, “Sing the flag, Grandma!” and she would launch into a rousing chorus of “You’re a Grand Ol’ Flag.”
Ann’s daughters loved visiting historical sites with their mother. Williamsburg and Washington and Monticello came to life for them with Ann’s knowledge of the details of life in early America, and these tours contributed to her collection of historical memorabilia. Her grandchildren grew up playing with this treasure trove, which included such things as Confederate currency, print portraits of all the presidents, numerous books and pictures, and a small bust of her hero, Abraham Lincoln. Ann particularly enjoyed Civil War history, and she took great delight in teasing Kathy’s husband John about his lack of proper reverence for Mr. Lincoln.
Her faith in God was always strong. She taught Sunday school, was an active member of the United Methodist Women’s Circle group, and regularly attended church when she was able. When she could not attend, she studied her Bible lessons through the Upper Room and First Sunday School Quarterly. She always perked up at the nursing home when Linda or Dianne read to her from the Bible, watched church on television Sunday mornings with Dianne, and appreciated visits by ministers and receiving communion.
Ann’s life truly centered on her family. She was always happiest when surrounded by loved ones and took pride in making her house a warm and loving home. It was always neat and clean, with every little detail attended to. She liked to rearrange the furniture and collected the most interesting conversation pieces and knick-knacks, like old wrought-iron scales, a hand-operated coffee grinder, and maracas from Mexico, which she would shake while singing La Cucaracha. She sometimes moved things from their original containers, which caused one houseguest, thinking he was using body powder, to sprinkle Comet cleaner all over himself.
A happy family is a well-fed family, and Ann’s cooking kept people coming back for seconds and thirds. Her specialties were biscuits, fried cornbread, country-style steak, spaghetti, banana pudding, and deviled eggs. Her chocolate cakes were absolutely decadent. She made a moist chocolate layer cake but used real fudge for the icing. When the cake inevitably cracked down the middle due to the weight of the fudge, she’d fill the gap with more fudge. She was the only one who cared that her cakes weren’t pretty; everyone else just fought over who got the biggest piece with the most fudge.
Ann loved gardening and could make almost anything bloom. She shared that love with her daughters and took her grandchildren to Freedom Park to see the trees in flower each year. Birds fascinated her, so she kept a bird bath and feeders for them. When a couple of vagabond chickens decided to take up residence in her back yard, they found avian heaven-on-earth with regular food and an ardent admirer.
One family role that especially delighted Ann was that of grandmother. She was so much fun and would laugh at every little thing her four granddaughters did and recorded their antics in her diary. When her granddaughters wanted to play with her make-up, she allowed them to “make her pretty.” The girls would slather far too much lotion on her hands and face, mess with her hair, apply bright red rouge to her cheeks, and even brush globs of mascara on her lashes. Sometimes, the lipstick stayed in the general area of Ann’s lips, but not always. She let herself be their doll and reveled in their laughter.
Woven throughout all our memories of Ann is her mischievous sense of humor. She loved to tell stories, jokes, and outright lies for a laugh. Her daughters believed she was a Martian who had eyes in the back of her head. She continued this myth with her grandchildren, who thought the fancy rolls of her hair in one of her portraits concealed her antennae. She even convinced one gullible granddaughter that Abe Lincoln slept in MawMaw Willis’s bed.
Those of us who were lucky enough to call Ann either “mother” or “grandmother” have our own favorite memories that come to mind. Here are a few of them.
Dianne moved to Raleigh after marrying, and each time she returned home for a visit, Ann filled the house with wonderful smells, warmth, and comfort, which made Dianne feel so loved and special.
Linda remembers how her mother was always home waiting when she got home from school. One stormy day, however, Linda couldn’t find her mom and started looking everywhere. She eventually found Ann and the dog hiding from the storm under the kitchen table. Also, any time Linda was sick for days on end, Ann would have her take a nice, warm bath. While Linda bathed, Ann put fresh, line-dried sheets on the bed for her.
Darius remembers Ann’s competition with her brother Bill over who could give the silliest presents. He also recalls that special look she would give someone when she felt they were sassy or teasing her, a sort of “What did you just say?” look that often dissolved from sternness into laughter. After dinner one night, when Darius was new to the family, Grandma asked him if he wanted some chocolate pie. He answered, “I sure do!” She smiled slyly at him and said, “I do to. I wish we had some.”
Susan remembers a day when Ann saw an elderly woman sitting alone on a bench in front of a doctor’s office. Ann struck up a conversation with her and discovered the lady had to wait several hours before her son could pick her up. When Ann offered to take her home, she thanked Ann, who replied, “I hope someone would do the same for my mother in the same situation.” Susan also remembers how she and her grandmother had competitions to see who could say “I love you more than you love me” first.
Lisa appreciates how Ann drove her to and from ballet classes, and bought her Easter dress every year. One day when Ann, Lisa, and Susan were leaving JC Penney, a stranger said to her, “What pretty daughters you have!” Ann was pleased to be mistaken for their mother.
Kathy remembers sleeping over at Ann’s house as a little girl. Ann read Charlotte’s Web to her, and the two of them started laughing uncontrollably over Wilbur. They pulled themselves together and tried to keep reading, but instead they just started laughing all over again. Ann later gave Kathy a ceramic pig, and whenever Kathy sees pigs now, she thinks of her Grandma and all the laughter they shared.
Jennifer loved how Ann took the grandchildren to Freedom Park and the Nature Museum, and bought them pencils with little polished stones in them. When Jennifer was tired, Ann put a pillow on her lap and laid Jennifer across it to rock her to sleep in extra comfort. One day, when Jennifer wanted to play barber shop, her grandmother actually let her shake talcum powder onto her hair. It must have taken a lot of shampoo for Ann to get all that powder out of her hair!
Mother Teresa said, “We cannot all do great things, but we can all do small things with great love.” This is the legacy of Ann Willis: a multitude of small things done with great love. We will miss her.