Ammie: Catholic Grandmother

[This is the thirteenth installment of my memoir, The Long Walk Home. Click here for a complete table of contents.]

In my forties, I found myself married with two children. I had a business of my own and had taken up golf, the subject of the following excerpt. As I note here, golf returned me in some sense to my own childhood Eden. 

Golf returned me to Minnesota in memory. Then once in 1994 I returned there in person. My mother’s mother, Mary Heffelfinger Morrison, our “Ammie,” died in May 1994, on the brink of ninety. I went back for the funeral.

Kid sister to three older brothers, Ammie was something of a tomboy. Of my seven grandparents, she seemed the most religious, with her crèche and Christmas cookies set out each year on the grand piano at “The Hermitage,” her St. Francis statue strafed by hummingbirds, and her morning prayers read to the bubble of percolating coffee. Ammie attracted spiritual people, including a gentleman from India named Appadurai Aaron, who made the rounds under her sponsorship to raise money for his village back home. When I was in fourth grade at Blake School, he gave an inspirational talk in chapel, a holy man in a Nehru hat, a Mother Teresa with balls.

Ammie was a religious experimentalist. Raised in the Episcopal Church, she took up Christian Science as a young woman, then returned to Episcopal worship when she realized that she could not deprive her children of medical care. Then during World War II, she reverted to Christian Science, because of Ada Cunningham.

A singular black presence on my altar of ancestors, Ada, born 1884, was the child of parents born into slavery. Her father, James Alexander Baudette Cunningham, came north after the Civil War and became the coachman of Frank H. Peavey, founder of Peavey Company and Ammie’s maternal grandfather. Ada entered the family’s service when she was twenty and Miss Mary (Ammie) was born. Ada lived long enough to help raise two more generations of Heffelfinger offspring, including Miss Nan (my mother), and Webby (me, never “Mister”). By the time I knew her, Ada was an old woman who smelled exotically, maybe of Mentholatum and the scent of her balsam pillow. Solidly built and beamish in hair net and calico, Ada never had children of her own but folded us into her broad lap as though we were they. She once told Ammie that she didn’t want to bring black babies into this world, it would hurt her heart so.

Ammie’s second husband, Henry Terry Morrison, our “Grampa,” had served in the First World War. After Pearl Harbor, he reenlisted in his fifties and was assigned to the Air Force base in Fort Worth, Texas. When Ammie and Grampa went one Sunday with Ada and the children to the Episcopal Church in Forth Worth, they were turned away because Ada was black. So Ammie went back to the local Christian Science church, where Ada was welcome.

Moving to suburban Minneapolis after the war, Ammie and Grampa felt obliged to attend the Episcopal church favored by the local gentry, descendants of the grain and lumber barons who had made some of Minnesota’s first fortunes. (Peavey was a leading grain company.) Ammie strained against this leash, heeding her own angels. Annual trips to Rome, especially after Grampa’s retirement, brought her to the threshold of the Catholic Church. Grampa kidded her that he would not be cold in the ground before she had crossed the Tiber. In fact, she waited only a bit longer than that. 

Ammie’s son Truck Morrison said he was not surprised when his mother became a Catholic after Grampa’s death in 1978, though she felt obliged to write a letter to each of her six children explaining the move. If Ammie’s conversion story rattled a few Minnetonka teacups, she didn’t care. She insisted privately that she felt more comfortable kneeling in her Catholic parish “across town” than she did amid the hoorah of an upscale Episcopal clan. In a way, maybe she was back in church with Ada. Or maybe it was just that, as her father’s youngest child and only daughter, Ammie was raised believing she could do what she damn well pleased. So, hell, she became a Catholic.

There is a photo somewhere of Ammie straining behind a crowd-control rope to touch the sleeve of Pope John Paul II as he passes. She looks like a hysterical teen on The Ed Sullivan Show in conniptions over John, Paul, George, and Ringo, completely out of her mind.

The last time I saw Ammie, she was a sweet, shriveled lady in her late eighties . She instructed me not to worry if I heard that something had “happened” to her. She was certain that after death she would be united with Grampa and with God. I found her certainty convincing.

NOTE: This is a brief excerpt from my book-length memoir The Long Walk Home, copyright © 2015 by Webster L. Bull. All rights reserved.

To read the next excerpt, “Dad Again: Golf Gets Me Home,” click here.

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