The countess of Durham

Much like my current favorite fictional heroine Lady Mary Crawley of “Downton Abbey” fame, I am very lucky. Not because I have servants in my basement, a loyal husband who can miraculously walk after a Great War injury or seven-course dinner parties every weekend. I am lucky because, like Lady Mary, I have had the privilege of growing up in a matriarchy led by a strong grandmother who was always around when I was a child and who will stop at nothing for her family. In many ways I am luckier than Lady Mary because, unlike her grandmother, the Countess of Grantham, my grandma, Betty Jean, my very own Countess of Durham, can actually cook and waited in countless Hallmark lines in the mid-90s so I could amass a Beanie Baby collection second to none. The Countess of Grantham would have just sent her maid.

Like Lady Mary, as a kid I never lived far away from my grandma. She is in almost all of my childhood memories. When I think of Christmas, I think of the huge Southern feast and the smell of squash casserole in the oven over which my grandma would slave all day while saying it was no big deal. I think of how she would always start a fire in the early evenings and everyone in my family would run in from all across the house to feel the warmth and hear the crackle. And I think of how she spoiled me and all my cousins with more presents than she should have bought us, each wrapped beautifully in different papers with real ribbon — not the stick-on bows my mom and I are so fond of.

Other holidays were just as important. Whether it was Valentine’s Day or Halloween, my sister and I would always find a Hallmark card in the mail with a fresh $5 bill inside. One Valentine’s Day, we were living at my grandma’s house between moves and she still sent our cards through the Postal Service because she wanted us to have the joy of getting something in the mail. If that’s not true love, I don’t know what is. To this day, my grandma, going strong on her 83rd year without a computer, is my snail mail pen pal. My roommates are always jealous when we check the mail because most of the time, there’s something from grandma waiting inside.

My grandma always wanted my and my cousins’ birthdays to be special, and her efforts succeeded. When my family moved to Fairfax, Va., she would visit for a week to help me celebrate my birthday. She would also come for dance recitals, school chorus concerts, graduations or just for the sake of visiting. When it was time for summer vacation, whether it be our annual extended family trip to Myrtle Beach or one of my family’s many road trips, my grandma was along for the ride and ready to pose for one of the million photos I insisted we take.

Even though I have lots of special memories of my grandma, she was there for more everyday moments as well. She introduced me to the joys of Shirley Temple movies such as “Heidi” and “The Little Colonel,” took me to Harris Teeter for sugar cookies and introduced me to her love of reading through Nancy Drew. My grandma understood the importance of spending time with kids and making them feel special, safe and loved.

The greatest lesson my grandma taught me — through her actions, not her words — was the value of hard work. Born months before the stock market crash of 1929, she was a child of the Great Depression. The eldest child of a dairy farmer, she was expected to wake up before school to bottle milk for her father to take into town. She never let her chores impede her schoolwork and tells us of how she used to read the encyclopedia in her free time — you know, back before Wikipedia when they actually printed volumes annually.

By the time she was 18, my grandma had four younger siblings. There was little disposable income, but she realized the value of education and with the help of her grandparents was able to go to Duke University’s rigorous nursing program. After graduating from nursing school, she worked at Duke University Hospital for 42 years while raising five children and running a household mostly by herself.

I spent many afternoons of my childhood watching Walt Disney’s “Cinderella” with my grandma and my sister on VHS. It was my grandma’s favorite movie and we loved singing along with the mice, the fairy godmother and Cinderella herself. Many years later in Art Prof. Higginbotham’s Art of Disney class, we analyzed my childhood favorite and determined that Cinderella’s main message is that if you work hard, much like Cinderella did all those years for her evil stepmother and stepsisters, your dreams will come true. I don’t think my grandma ever realized it, but that day in class it hit me. My Grandma is a real-life Cinderella from whom we can all learn the important lesson: With hard work, “if you keep on believing, the dream that you wish will come true.”

Katie’s column runs biweekly Tuesdays. She can be reached at

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