I missed my grandma terribly—but singing brought her back to me.
Posted in , Apr 1, 2007
They say the best songs—especially the best country songs—come from the heart. I'm here to tell you that's true, and then some. Last year I was a contestant on TV's American Idol. Competing against thousands of singers, I made it to the top six before being voted off, and was grateful to have come so far.
Right away offers came in from big Nashville songwriters to write material for me. I was flattered, but in the end I figured I had to try telling my own story my own way. After all, country singing is about life. Real life. And who's going to be better at talking about my life than me?
Country songs are also about heartaches, and I've had my share of those. Most folks know by now that I had some tough times as a kid. My mom took off when I was two. My dad was in and out of jail. Neither one of them gave me much to write inspiring songs about.
That job was left to someone else. A lady named Faye Pickler. My grandmother. I dedicated my first album, Small Town Girl, to her. The last song on the album, "My Angel," tells the whole story.
There's an old dirt driveway I mention in that song. It ran straight from the main road to the front door of Grandma and Grandpa's house. Grandma had an easy chair that looked out the big front window, and her view went straight to the street. Whoever was coming, she could see from a long way off.
Grandma could see a lot of other things coming too. Like what I was heading for in life. My dad's house was right across the way, just a big field between the two, with a path running through it. After Mom took off and Dad's troubles got worse, I got to know that path pretty well.
Seemed I was running toward Grandma's more often than heading home. Life was confusing back then, and I didn't ever know what to expect from one minute to the next.
By the time I started school, I was living with Grandma and Grandpa full-time. There was a little shelf of kids' books right inside their door. My favorite was a songbook full of hymns. Amazing Grace, Jesus Loves Me, all those old favorites.
Grandma and I would sit together on the porch with that book in our laps and sing our way right through it. I got lost in those songs. If I was feeling sad, mixed-up or scared before we started, by the time we were a couple bars in, my troubles took a backseat.
There was a power at work in those songs that you can't put words to—that you just feel in your bones. I knew Grandma felt it too. Grandma used those times to help me build up my confidence—something any child from a broken family can always use a little extra of.
Every day when I got off the school bus, there was one thing I could count on: Grandma. She was at the end of that old dirt driveway, waiting just for me. Year in and year out. No matter what.
When I stepped off that bus I knew I'd see her—either looking out from the big picture window or, if the weather was warm, standing in the front yard. She was always there.
Grandma had had a rough life herself. You know the expression "dirt poor"? Well, that was my grandparents. They were teenage sweethearts. They knew from the moment they met that they were going to get married, but they weren't looking at a whole lot of options in life.
Grandpa quit school real young when he got tired of being teased for wearing the same clothes everyday. He couldn't even read till Grandma taught him. He got his GED thanks to her, and later on his electrical license.
Grandma knew how important it was to have someone rooting for you—someone who believed in you 100 percent. And she believed in me every bit as much as she believed in Grandpa.
In all the years I knew her, Grandma's health was never good. She had rheumatoid arthritis and gout—a painful combination. She was in pain much of the time. I mean, really hurting. Not that she ever admitted to it.
Even if she'd been awake till 4 a.m. with her arthritis, she was always up the next day to get me ready for school, almost as if she drew some kind of strength from her pain. And don't think that we spent all our time out on that porch, either.
If she was feeling well enough she'd take me out back to pick apples or plant daffodils—our favorite flower. Daffodils, Grandma told me, are the flower of hope. We planted bulbs all around the house.
"All you have to do to know that God is up there watching out for all of us," she told me, "is look at a daffodil in bloom."
But then Grandma was diagnosed in 2002 with an illness she couldn't smile her way through: lung cancer. I was 15 and a sophomore in high school when she passed away. After a funeral there's always tons of relatives milling around, tons of food.
But there comes a time when the last of the friends and guests have left, the last of the leftovers have been eaten and it's time to move on. Time to get back to life—or what's left of it.
For Grandpa and me life was Grandma—end of story. Everywhere we looked in that house there was something that reminded us of her. The night of our first real supper without Grandma neither of us could sit down at the dining room table. We both just sort of stood there, staring at it.
There was my chair. There was Grandpa's chair. In between was Grandma's. Empty. Like the house. Like our lives. "Grandpa, it's too lonely in here without Grandma," I finally said. "Let's just go eat in the living room."
That's what we did too—that night and the ones after it. If I thought I knew what emptiness felt like before, I was wrong.
When I came home from my first day of school after the funeral, I looked down that dirt driveway. For the first time no one was waiting for me. I loved Grandpa dearly, but Grandma looked after him just as much as she did me. Who on earth would care for us now?
It was a long time before Grandpa and I moved our meals back into the kitchen. And just as long before I could walk down that long driveway and feel at peace. But in time, I could.
Along with everything else, it turned out Grandma had been passing along another gift to me over those years. Something I didn't know I was getting, but that was flowing into me with every song we sang on that porch.
Strength. The kind of strength that comes from only one place. The peaceful place I lost myself in when Grandma and I were singing those hymns. The strength of faith.
Another spring came, and one day, walking down that long dirt driveway, I could see that the daffodils were up again, bright and cheerful as ever, all around the house. Grandma's flower of hope.
In the fall of 2005, with the memory of all those porch songs in my heart, I made the long drive to Greensboro, North Carolina, to try out for American Idol. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Much as he hates to travel, Grandpa flew to Los Angeles to watch me perform. How much do I wish Grandma could've been there too? Well, I don't need to tell you. But, in a way—a very real way—she was. There isn't a time I open my mouth to sing I don't feel her right there beside me.
Just as sure as she sat there with me on that porch swing, Grandma's still rooting for me, believing in me 100 percent. She's there for me. Always. My angel.
By Kellie Pickler
Every day when school got out
I'd get off the bus and I'd run down
That old dirt road where
You were waiting for me
On the front porch in that blue swing
You'd be smiling and we would sing
"Amazing Grace" and "Jesus Loves Me"
You were like my mother
You were my best friend
You were everything I wanna be
And all the good inside me
There's never been
Never been another
That loved me like you did
My grandmother, my angel
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