Oh Frances, My Frances


My grandmother’s birthday is today, May 14th. Frances Frater Tipps was one of the most beautiful women I’ve ever known. Quiet, graceful, delicate as a bird, her laugh was throaty and strong.  Her smile warmed the room.  She had a profound dignity about her. In spite of all of her life’s difficulties, she rarely complained. She spoke so softly that I’d have to ask her to speak up, but I was the one who should have listened better.

The most wonderful thing about her was that she’d make me feel like the most important person in the world when I spoke to her, nodding intently, saying mhh-hmm, her eyes sparkling. She wanted to know everything I had to say, and in a time that I felt invisible, I felt celebrated by her.

She introduced me to my lifetime love of reading; enthusiastically talked with me about literature and transcendentalism. We shared a love of poetry and sent poems back and forth to one another.  When I spent my summers in New Mexico with her, I slept in her study, in a bed shoved up against her books shelves.  I’d spend lazy mornings with the light cutting squarely into the dust of the room, running my fingers over the spines and reading the crisp names – Joyce, Whitman, Dickinson, Emerson – quietly in a whisper.  I’d sit at her desk and write with her pens, pretending that I was that writer that she and I always talked about.

She selflessly handed over her cerulean love of blues and greens. She gave me away to Georgia, and married me to texture.  She saw the austere beauty of wheat colored plains against storm ridden skies.  She loved the church’s cross branded against the sun.  I never would have tasted art deeply if it weren’t for her.  Nor would I have loved the gray of photography and its inside out skeleton of light.

And as if these worlds weren’t enough for me to swim in, she let me come with her and sit while she taught her college English comp classes.  There the world cracked open. I would watch her stir the minds of young people and enjoy their gratification at the success that came when she invited them to pour themselves out onto the page. Always beaming, always respectful, always making each and every one of them feel special and alone in her eye.  She was a teacher, and now, so am I. I strive to have my students feel that way with me…my genuine curiosity and appreciation for them as individuals.

I remember the lilting sound of my grandmother’s voice. I see clearly her smile.  Tessa and I talk in the car about Shakespeare on the way to school, and I think she must be smiling.  I hear Copeland and my heart stirs, and I see those storm filled plains.  She is as soft beside me as the cottonwood down in the early fall.  With her so close, it’s hard to miss her at all.