My grandma was 96 years old when time caught up with her. Her body started breaking down in a variety of ways even while her mind remained alert. One of my last memories of Grandma was visiting her in the hospital several hours before her death. She had been hospitalized with complications from congestive heart failure and and diverticulitis. She looked at me, and she apologized. She said, “Pami, I’m sorry you have to see me this way. How did this happen? I never thought I’d find myself in this situation.”
What I remember most about Grandma’s words was her shock that her body was letting her down and her embarrassment over that fact. I smiled at her, and we both laughed a little bit. Grandma and I had the same sense of humor. She and I were both able to see the irony of her shock that at the age of 96, her body was letting her down. I sat beside her on the bed and rubbed her swollen legs. The sparkle remained in her blue eyes. Of all the women I have known in my life, I had the most admiration and respect for my grandma.
Grandma had delayed marriage in order to spend years caring for her sister who was ailing from tuberculosis. As the oldest of fourteen children, it had been Grandma’s duty to be self-sufficient, strong, and to care for others. Eventually, she fell in love. Grandma and one of her sisters married two brothers. At the outset of the Great Depression, they set off for a new life in Illinois. Leaving behind her family and the farm, she followed her husband to where he and his brother had found work on the railroad. She and Aunt Pearl cared for babies, grew a fine garden, and stored away supplies to feed their families each winter.
Not long into her new life, her dear husband Robert, became ill. Grandma divided her time between caring for her sick husband and two small children. She supported them all by cooking pies for a local diner and working in the kitchen of a nursing home. Her life had not allowed her the opportunity for an education. Her employment options were few, so she made money doing those things she knew best. By the age of 40, Grandma was a widow with two small children. For the next 56 years, she honored the memory of her dear husband, Robert. She raised their children in their family home, often working several low-paying jobs. She continued to garden and preserve the harvest. She often cared for others. Though there were offers, she never remarried. Through it all, she maintained her faith in God, her sense of humor, and her incredible dignity.
When I was a little girl, Great-Grandma moved in with her daughter for several years until her death. Grandma’s brothers were living on the farm in Kentucky now with their own growing families, and Great-Grandma moved to Illinois to be closer to her three daughters. I spent weeks with them each summer. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was gaining the most valuable education of my life. I was learning how to follow in the footsteps of these strong, self-sufficient woman. Grandma wouldn’t allow me to sleep late. We were up near dawn, and we spent hours each day working in the garden, pulling weeds, shelling peas, snapping beans, cutting corn off the cob, along with hours spent stirring steaming pots in a sweltering kitchen. There was never a time when I saw any of this as work. It was just what we did at Grandma’s house. Grandma and the Aunts never complained. There was an abundance of lively conversation, much of it about people I didn’t even know. They would fill each other in on letters received from loved ones back home. There were always piles of letters on Grandma’s desk with flimsy pages of stationary filled with lines and lines of squiggly handwriting.
During those summers with Grandma, I was surrounded by women. There were great aunts, Great-Grandma, visiting kin, and various old neighbor ladies. Grandma taught me to love navy beans and cornbread. She taught me to drag green onions through a pile of salt, sprinkle a little sugar on slices of warm, fresh tomatoes, and enjoy sweaty glasses of icy sweet tea. We often sat on the wide, old porch during the hottest part of the afternoon in the hope that a breeze would happen along to cool us off. Throughout the day was the constant hum of women’s voices and laughter.
At night, Grandma would wrap her head with a length of toilet paper clipped together with bobby pins in the center of her forehead. Next, she would fasten on a sheer pink cap to preserve her “hairdo.” The sight of Grandma with her toilet paper and cap always made me double over in a fit of giggling. It was contagious, and Grandma would laugh right along with me. Giggles became our nightly routine. When Great-Grandma was visiting, she wore the same strange nightcap and shared in our laughter. Three generations in white cotton gowns would spend a good fifteen minutes before bed each night bent over in fits of giggling. There is nothing so good for the soul, and a good night’s sleep, as laughter before bed.
It has been almost a decade now that Grandma has been gone. As my own daughters grow into adulthood, I worry that their lives have not been filled with the same wonderful examples of strength, perseverance, and dignified womanhood that surrounded me as a girl and young woman. I miss the sorority of generations that taught me, protected me, and guided me. I smile often as I see the aunts and Grandma appear in the faces, movements, voices, and actions of my own daughters. In a way, I have all of these now-gone women from my life with me still. I hope that those who have guided me will continue their watch over the women of this family. I hope that I can make them proud as I guide my own daughters into adulthood.