By Karl Terry: PNT Managing Editor
My family lost its matriarch and a big bundle of energy last week. My grandmother, Musette Terry-Burkett, passed away Tuesday.
More accurately her body passed from Earth this week — fogged by Alzheimer’s, her mind and essence was taken from us more than a decade ago.
God will judge whether it was right or wrong but I made the decision when Grandmother went into the nursing home not to go see her there. I didn’t want to remember her that way, and since I lived a long way from the area during most of that time, I wasn’t going to be able to help out with her care anyway. A short visit, once or twice a year, to a lady who didn’t know me seemed pointless.
But I did love and admire the “Energizer Bunny” I knew as Grandma Terry. I knew her as a farm wife alongside my Granddaddy Bob, working literally from before dawn each day until the chickens went to bed at dark. I also knew her as a hard-working sales clerk at JCPenney on the square in Portales.
She wasn’t the doting, milk and cookies, warm and frilly stereotype grandmother, but being with her, whether you were working in the field or visiting after Sunday dinner, was always a pleasure.
She was always ready to pitch in anywhere needed on any chore and if you asked her what you could do to help, you better get ready to work. She was a short, spry little lady, just a little over 5-feet tall, but she could out-work, out-walk and out-talk anyone I know. Like a nervous little bird, she flitted around non-stop until a task was accomplished.
One of the best things about her was her desire to be right in the middle of any action going on, especially if it involved her grandkids. We would freeze ice cream with an old hand-cranked freezer nearly any Sunday we were at her house. She froze ice in milk cartons in her freezer and would break those blocks up with a claw hammer and get us kids started cranking. We took turns cranking and sitting atop the quilt on the freezer and she took her turn at the crank right along with the rest of us.
After my family moved to town, she would come to our house every year to help pick cherries off the two trees in our back yard. With one dish towel wrapped around her head and another slung around her neck and knotted to the handles of a cast-iron pot, she would climb to the top of those cherry trees, where nobody else would go, to get the cherries at the top.
When skunks moved in under their house. Granddad tried gassing them out with the exhaust of the pickup but it didn’t work too well and someone had to go retrieve the skunk bodies. Grandma quickly volunteered, being the smallest, wiriest and, frankly, the only one willing.
When the doctors told her she should exercise by walking, while she lived south of Dora with her second husband, she couldn’t stand to expend that energy without some tangible benefit. So she took a sack with her and picked up cans along the highway on her walk.
One day my mom and dad were driving along that highway and my dad remarked about how that old woman had no business picking up cans on the highway. My mom admonished him, saying that’s probably someone’s mother. As they got nearer, sure enough, it was someone’s mother — his.
As a sales clerk she worked mostly men’s wear. Not being the frilly, fashionable sort, she felt more comfortable making small talk about cows and the peanut crop with a farmer in town to buy overalls and a shirt than she did selling women’s undergarments.
She knew her stock well and kept it organized and she knew her customers well, too. She tried to call each by name and she knew pretty much everyone in the county. If she couldn’t bring their name to tongue immediately she had an arsenal of pet nicknames like “Lady Bird” for the women or “You Old Rascal You” for the men. The familiarity and warmth set people at ease immediately.
Once during a promotion to push JCPenney credit accounts, employees were asked to talk to each customer about charging their purchase and using the tactic to stretch the sale. She went to her boss (she called him Mr. Nick) and refused. She told him most of the folks around Portales didn’t have much money and the last thing they needed was credit debt. He relinquished.
The last time I partnered with her at the domino table, sadly she called me every name but my own. Fortunately she hadn’t lost a trick at dominoes though, and we beat the pants off everyone that day — or that’s the way I remember it anyway.
I’m lucky to be a part of her legacy of common sense, honesty and hard work. But the little woman left some big shoes no one can fill.
Karl Terry is managing editor for the Portales News-Tribune. Contact him at 356-4481 ext. 33 or e-mail