Claire Henley's Grace Notes - Mema's Gifts

  • Monday, October 26, 2015
Claire Henley
Claire Henley

The year I was 16, I drove my great-grandmother Mema on her errands every Saturday. This was part of the deal my mom made me for having my own car. At the time, my Saturdays with Mema were a bit of a chore. In the early morning I would enter through the glass-sliding doors of her assisted living facility off Parkwood Avenue. The foyer always smelled of boiled eggs and day-old socks. Then up the elevator and down the hall, to great-grandmother’s apartment I’d go. Mema’s white-walled, banana-scented pad felt like being in a furnace with how high she kept the heat, even during the sweltering months of summer. I’d already be wiping the sweat off my brow as I walked over to Mema who–with a blanket over her petite frame–would be sitting in her Lazy Boy by the window that overlooked the courtyard. Mema would turn down the book on tape she was listening to, slowly extend her tiny arms, and say to me in her cotton-soft voice as I embraced her, “Hello my little Chicken Pot Pie! Today you are my Grace Note.”

This was the greeting Mema gave me every Saturday of that year. She had called me Chicken Pot Pie all my life, but not until I became the one who could get her out of the house, so to speak, did she refer to me as her Grace Note. One Saturday I asked her what Grace Note meant. Mema was sitting at her vanity, combing her silver hair as I stood behind her to make sure she covered the dime-sized bald spot on the back of her head. She looked at me through the mirror and answered, “Darlin’, Grace Note is the phrase I came up with long ago for the new gift God gives me every day.” She applied her anti-aging cream then put on her light pink lipstick, and it was time to hit the town.

After that conversation, I soon discovered Mema really found Grace Notes in her every day. She would tell me about them as we waited for her prescriptions at Moore and King Pharmacy, or as we perused the aisles of Walmart–I on foot, desperately trying to keep up with Mema as she sped off in the motorized shopping cart. Her Grace Notes came in the form of the littlest things, like a lilac sunrise or pretty poem or a nurse who gave her a little extra apple pie for dessert. And Mema loved dessert. She was the most giving woman–always offering me a glass of orange juice or a ginger snap from her kitchen–except when it came to dessert. I’ll never forget when Mema was hospitalized near the end of my year as her chauffeur. The doctor diagnosed her with a number of things that all basically boiled down to old age. When my mom and I went to see Mema in the hospital, my mom, against doctors orders, brought Mema a petit four from Federal Bake Shop. Now Federal Bake Shop is, hands down, the best of all bakeries in Chattanooga. When my mom presented the little square cake to her grandmother, Mema instantly had us help her from the hospital bed into her wheelchair. Then my great-grandmother placed the petit four in her lap and wheeled to the far corner of the room. For the next several minutes Mema ate the coveted sweet while facing the wall–silently and with great pleasure–to the very last crumb.

My mother and I couldn’t help but laugh. Mema laughed too after she finished the confectionary. “That was today’s delicious Grace Note. Thank you, darling Jenny,” she said to my mom then licked her lips.

Mema passed away the following November. I was 17; she was 92. It wasn’t until she was gone that I began to see how my Saturdays with her had been Grace Notes of my own. I would be brushing my hair at the bathroom mirror, or running a personal errand in Walmart and, suddenly, I would remember Mema and clearly see the absolute beauty of our time spent together. I don’t know why I didn’t notice this beauty as I was living it. But in my memory, Mema radiated like a lilac sunrise. I began to realize the amazing things she told me during those fifty-two Saturdays–like how she never went to college but needed to help make a living for her family and so taught herself to be a speech therapist, the profession she excelled in until she retired. I began to realize my great-grandmother wasn’t just a great-grandmother, but a strong and passionate woman named Martha who studied literature, who wrote poetry, who eloped with my great-grandfather during The Great Depression, and who lost her third child, Diane, to crib death.

And who didn’t take for granted the gifts in her days even on those that brought loneliness and pain.

Mema called these gifts her Grace Notes. Nine years have passed since I was her Saturday driver, but my great-grandmother’s fond acknowledgment of her daily Grace Notes resonates with me today. Life is too fleeting not to seek, find, and cherish the precious treasures that are all around us right now. Mema was a treasure in my life because she showed me this truth. I don’t think she let a day go by when she didn’t find her Grace Note. I don’t think a day went by when Mema didn’t open a brand new gift.

* * *

Claire Henley is a Chattanooga writer who can be reached at

Her first book on her adventures while living in Colorado can be ordered here:

She is also working on a book on her adventures hiking the Pacific Coast Trail, where she met her husband Caleb. They live in North Chattanooga.

Mema, aka Martha Hooton Barker (1915-2007)
Mema, aka Martha Hooton Barker (1915-2007)
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