May 2017

by Marshall Chapman

Photograph by Anthony Scarlati

My two grandmothers were polar opposites.

Nannie, my paternal grandmother, was the saintly one. She had a sunny disposition and always gave you the benefit of the doubt. She also had the good fortune to predecease both her cook and her chauffeur. A family story tells of the time her cook was unable to come to work due to an illness. So when Nannie went down into the kitchen to cook herself some grits, she somehow ended up with a broken arm. (Nobody’s quite sure how this happened.)

My other (maternal) grandmother … we called Mama Cloud. To label Mama Cloud a force of nature would be an understatement. She lived out in the middle of nowhere on the edge of a sand and gravel pit near Lilesville, North Carolina. She bought a new black Buick every year and drove like a bat out of hell. She rarely smiled. And if she laughed, it was with derision. We grandchildren were taught to fear her. She never touched alcohol, but it’s my personal belief she was on a dry drunk her entire life.

For some reason, when I was a child, I loved visiting my maternal grandparents. Mainly because they were such characters. Mama Cloud and Papa Cloud. Trust me when I say I could write a book. There was a lot of passive-aggressive behavior going on in that household.

One time I heard Papa Cloud singing happily in the kitchen. He was standing at the sink with the water running.

“Papa Cloud, why are you so happy?” I asked.

“Oh, because I’m washing these coffee grinds down the disposal, and your granny just hates it when I do that!”

Mama Cloud kept a pistol in her bedside drawer and a rifle on her back porch. One moonless night, a pack of wild dogs went running and howling through their yard. When she heard the commotion, she stepped out on the back porch and blindly fired two shots into the night.

The next morning, my Uncle Jeff dropped by.

“Mama,” he said. “What are those two dead dogs doing out in the driveway?”

When Mama Cloud died, we all went to her funeral. After her casket was lowered into the ground, a woman came up to me. (I later learned this woman was Mama Cloud’s best friend.) Taking both my hands into hers, she looked me right in the eye.

“Child,” she said, “I had to pray to love your grandmother.”

Marshall Chapman is a Nashville-based singer/songwriter, author, and actress. For more information, visit

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