Well hello there! Hope you’re having a great week. In my last post I shared Part One of “Talking with Grandma.” You may recall that as a child she lived on a farm in Ohio with her parents and two younger sisters. Life wasn’t easy, but it gets even worse as she approaches adolescence. Here’s Part Two of Grandma’s three-part story. Enjoy.
I was down from L.A. to visit Grandma each day while Uncle Steve and Aunt Susan took a well deserved vacation. To pass the time, Grandma and I were going through a box of old photos stored for decades in her back bedroom closet. The day before, Grandma had surprised me with her candor about her early childhood. Some of what she shared I’d never heard.
I’m glad she’s opening up, I thought. Especially since she’s getting up in years– her 98th is in a few months.
I had also noticed some changes in Grandma. Sometimes she repeated stories and asked me the same questions about my kids. Uncle Steve had mentioned signs of dementia. To me, because her childhood memories were so vivid, the dementia didn’t seem too pronounced. I hoped she would be up for more reminiscing.
I got to the house about 1 p.m and turned the key in the front door.
“Hi Grandma, I’m here,” I called as I walked inside.
She didn’t respond. My heart started to pound. I peered around the wall of the family room. Grandma was lying on the sofa, her deep blue eyes barely open. Whew, she was
alive awake. I walked over and gave her a kiss, then picked up a half-empty glass of cranberry juice on the coffee table.
“Oh hi, Honey,” Grandma said, her voice cracking and barely audible.
“I’m making you some lunch, Grandma.”
“Cheri, I’m not hungry.”
“I know. But you need some food to nourish your body, and calories for energy.”
I went into the kitchen, re-filled her cranberry juice and assembled a plate of cold red grapes, extra sharp cheese and water crackers. I grabbed an Ensure from the fridge and poured it into a glass. I took a whiff; it smelled like SlimFast on steroids. I topped off the creamy drink with a splash of Brandy from the bottle on the counter.
“The Brandy cuts the sweetness,” Grandma had once confided in me.
I topped the mixture with a sprinkle of nutmeg and stuck in a straw, and brought the lunch into the family room. Grandma was sitting up now.
“Here you go, Gram.” I held the Ensure in front of her. She grabbed the glass and took a big sip.
“Mmm, tastes good today,” she said.
I plopped into the boxy tweed chair next to the Davenport. As Grandma bit into a cracker I pulled the box of photos closer.
“Ready to go through some more pictures?” I asked.
That was easy.
I pulled out a black and white photo of several people.
“Who are these people?” I asked.
“That’s my mother’s family, during a visit to our farm.”
I peered more closely at the picture. Several women and girls were wearing white dresses and standing next to a man in a black suit. I pointed to each person and Grandma rattled off their names. I grabbed a pen and wrote the names on the back of the photo.
“How old were you in this picture, Grandma?”
“So it was 1922 or so,” I calculated. “You told me yesterday your mom was teaching you to cook?”
“Yes, about the same time as this picture. But we didn’t get very far.”
“Because the United States was in the middle of a flu epidemic and my mother caught the flu. She couldn’t shake the illness and it got worse and turned into pneumonia. She was always coughing. She’d get better, but then the pneumonia would come back. The third time she got pneumonia, she died.”
Grandma’s eyes brimmed with tears, and I grabbed her hand. Seeing her sad made me tear up too. Her skin was papery thin and I could feel the bones of her fingers. We sat together, in silence for a moment. I understood the pain Grandma was feeling. Even though it had happened eighty-nine years before, I was sure the memory of her mother’s death was still vivid, because my mother had also died when I was a child, and the details were etched in my mind, forever.
“Tell me about that day, Grandma.”
“I was nine, my sister Margaret was five, and Pauline was three. They put my mother’s body in our front parlor. White lilies surrounded her.”
“I always thought that was strange, displaying people in their parlors after they died.”
“Yes, a lot of people came to pay their respects. But what I remember most is the smell of those flowers. To this day I can’t stand lilies.”
“What happened then, Grandma?”
“My father had a tough time raising us. We girls became a problem for him.”
“How so?” I asked.
Grandma paused and sighed. I looked at her, and gave her a pleading grin. She smirked in surrender and continued. “We would go downtown and shop-lift from the stores.”
I gasped. I covered my mouth with my hand to stifle a giggle.
“Wow Grandma, you don’t seem the type,” I said, shocked. But I appreciated her openness.
“And the shop-lifting wasn’t all,” she confided.
Good, she’s on a roll, I thought. “Go on.”
“One time we visited a relative with indoor plumbing,” she said. “And filled their upstairs bathtub with water. The tub overflowed and caused a lot of water damage.”
I nodded. “Yeah, you were handfuls alright.”
Grandma shrugged and nodded.
“My father was furious. He sent me to live with an aunt. But times were tough and my aunt couldn’t afford to feed and clothe me. Three years later my aunts convinced my dad to send us to the Oesterlen Home, an orphanage in Springfield, Ohio.”
“Wow. How old were you?”
“What was it like there, Grandma?” I asked.
“They had a bus that took us to school, so I didn’t have to walk the five miles there and back anymore. But I hated to arrive at school because “Oesterlen Home” was written on the side and the other kids would yell ‘It’s the orphans!’ I didn’t want to get off the bus. I felt ashamed because they thought we were poor and abandoned.
“Did you feel poor and abandoned, Grandma?”
“No. The Orphan’s Home wasn’t too bad.”
“Really,” I said, surprised. When I thought of orphanages I envisioned the classic Dickens scenario of barefoot children forced into labor under freezing conditions with little to eat.
“I met your Grandpa Clyde there. His mother died when he was young too, of tuberculosis. He was one of eight kids, three girls and five boys, and his father couldn’t handle them either. Clyde’s sister Martha was a good friend of mine.”
“How did you and Grandpa Clyde meet?” I asked.
“We met in the basement during chores. He worked in wood shop with the older boys fixing desks and chairs and things. I worked across the hall with the older girls making peanut butter sandwiches.
“For how many kids?”
“About a hundred.”
“Wow. You made a hundred sandwiches, every day.” And I thought it was tiresome to make dinner for three every night.
“Somehow Clyde and I met. I think I brought him a sandwich.”
Grandma went on to describe their courtship.
“We never went on dates, because the boys weren’t allowed to see the girls.”
“That’s strict,” I said.
“Yes. The closest thing we had to a date was on the bus. The Orphan’s Home took us Christmas Caroling and Clyde shared my bus seat. He held my hand.”
“That’s sweet, Grandma.”
“Well, Clyde didn’t let the rules get in the way of us seeing each other. He’d sneak out of the boy’s dorm at night and climb to my windowsill on the 2nd story of the girl’s dorm. That was how we got to know each other.”
The late night windowsill “dates” eventually led to marriage.
“I don’t remember a proposal,” Grandma said. We both received academic scholarships to Wittenberg University in Springfield. I got a teaching degree and Clyde went on to medical school at Ohio State. He lived in Columbus and I lived in Springfield and we wanted to be together so we decided to get married.
“Gosh, you both got full scholarships. It’s impressive how you and Grandpa thrived at the orphanage after enduring tough childhoods.”
“I never thought of it like that. We just made the best of our situations.”
I liked Grandma’s attitude.
I gave her a hug. “What was your wedding like?”
“In those days few people had weddings, Cheri,” she said. “It was 1932, during the Depression.”
“Did you wear a wedding dress, at least?”
“No. We just went to a Justice of the Peace, and afterwards I moved into Clyde’s studio apartment. I worked as a bookkeeper to support us while he was in medical school. Clyde was intelligent and a good student. That was why I was attracted to him.”
“How long were you married, Grandma?”
“Forty years, until he died in 1972.”
Helen’s Secret to a Successful Marriage
“So what was your secret to your long marriage?” I asked.
“Patience,” she said. “To put up with someone with different interests. Clyde ruled the roost. We did whatever he wanted to do.”
I thought about that. If letting your husband make all decisions was the secret to a long marriage, then it was a miracle mine had lasted over twenty years.
“What did you like best about Grandpa Clyde?”
She paused a moment. “There was one particular quality.”
“Yes?” I prodded.
“He was reliable. He followed through on his promises. That was important because even though life was difficult I knew I could depend on Clyde.”
It was a good thing Helen and Clyde had each other to rely on, I thought. Because more tough times were on their way.
Coming up in “Talking with Grandma.” Raising Three Children.
A memorial service will be held at Fort Rosecrans cemetery for both Helen and her daughter, Carol, who will be reunited with her immediate family, on Friday, March 9, 2012 at 9:45 am, at Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery in Point Loma, San Diego, followed by a Celebration of Life reception.