Hurricane Agnes and my grandmother

My grandparents

Sarah Frances Sanford Davis was my grandmother and, like all almost all grandmothers (I’ll provide the counterpoint in a future post), was the most amazing person ever. She was born in 1903 in Washington, DC to parents who rubbed elbows with some of the DC big shots at the turn of the last century. Her father was a captain of police with the Metropolitan police force who befriended Walter Johnson, the famed Washington Senators pitcher, and Sammy Baugh, one of the best Redskins players ever. I have letters my great-grandparents exchanged with Johnson and Baugh; they’re some of my favorite treasures.

But the famous guys aren’t really my point because I don’t think my grandmother cared much about that kind of world. She was raised with a brother and sister in an affluent neighborhood in Northwest Washington and attended Eastern High School right behind the Armory and the now defunct RFK Stadium. After graduation, Frances trained at Wilson Normal School to be a teacher. She went on to teach elementary school in the District.

Eastern High School

I realize that so far she sounds like everyone’s grandma but stay with me. This is starting to get good.

The scandalous past

At some point in her twenties, Frances married. I’ve tried to get the scoop on her first husband but so far the only thing I know is that he was married to another woman when he married my grandmother. Yep, my little white-bread family has a skeleton-laden past and I love that.

I have a few theories about this whole thing but no proof. What I suspect is that Frances found out that Mr. Bigamist had another wife and another life and ended the marriage quickly. What I know is that she suddenly moved in with her aunts Bessie and Maud on their farm in Montross, Virginia, which at that time was pretty much the same as being banished to Siberia. My guess is the move was made to 1) head off the gossip that this society girl married a jerk; and 2) deal with a nervous breakdown.

Marriage and family

Eventually Frances found her way back to DC where she met and married my grandfather George Davis in the late 1930s. She would have been about 35 or 36, ancient by the standards of the early 1900s. Even as a young kid I was perplexed by their relationship: George was the foible to Frances in every possible way. She wore Lucille Ball dresses, smelled like gardenias and carried an air of humble refinement. He wore overalls, tended pigs, and was raised in a huge family on a South Carolina farm. And yet they adored one another.

Mary Elizabeth, Frances, and George

George and Frances had one child, my mom Mary Elizabeth. They lived in Arlington for years until they retired to a small farm near what is today Fair Oaks Malls in Fairfax. When my parents divorced, my grandmother drove the 20 miles or so every day to come stay at our house to take care of me, my brother Matt, and my sister Lee Anne, all of us under the age of six, while Mom went to work. My grandmother baked the best chocolate chip cookies and tried hard to teach me how to make homemade biscuits but I never quite got the hang of it. While Matt and Lee Anne napped, Grandma and I watched “her stories” while eating snacks on TV trays. Ever the teacher, she impressed upon me the value of always having a book in hand and of respecting the importance and the impact of words.

50 years ago

On June 21, 1972, Grandma spent the day with us at our house in Sterling Park as was the custom. Mom came home from work in the middle of an awful thunderstorm and tried to convince my grandmother to stay the night because the roads were bad. My grandmother refused, saying that she needed to get home to my grandfather. She said goodbye to me but I just grunted a “Bye” from behind a book.

We never saw her again.

In the days before The Weather Channel and incessant news coverage, we had no way of knowing that we were in the throes of Hurricane Agnes, a freak storm that developed in the Gulf of Mexico and inexplicably bolted up I-95. Grandma left our house around 6 p.m. to drive the half hour to her house. In doing so, she drove down Braddock Road. Where Braddock crossed Cub Run, the sleepy creek had overtaken the two-lane road. Her Chevy Nova was swept off the road and into the raging river. Apparently she managed to get out of the car; her body was found miles downstream against a barbed wire fence.

Damage on Route 15 south of where my grandmother died
I-95 in Richmond (I think), just for some perspective

While her death destroyed all of us, her life made a tremendous impact on mine, even though I only knew her for 8 years. Today, the 50th anniversary of her senseless and horrific death, I celebrate the myriad ways that my life reflects hers and I try to imagine how thrilled she would be to know that she has 6 great-grandchildren and 12 great-great-grandchildren. If you get a chance, raise a glass to my grandma Frances and hope that you can find ways to be as good as she was.


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