Tag Archives: grandma

“I Did Nothing Special. I’m just an Ordinary Person.”

My Grandma Helen passed away last month.   She was nearly 99.  I had the honor of caring for her a few times in her later years, and over the course of those visits she told me about her life.  This is the final part of my three-part series on Helen Isobel Norman.

I drove up to Grandma’s house on Arno drive, marveling at how it looked exactly as it did forty-five years ago, with the ivy covered front yard,  taupe paint with brown trim, and white iron filigree handrail along the steps to her porch.  I pulled into the driveway and opened the garage with an old remote Uncle Steve had given me.  Inside the garage was the ‘70s era beige Chrysler, sitting there like always.  Uncle Steve had removed the battery to keep Grandma from taking joy rides.  I parked, walked into the garage and opened the dryer.  Inside were a few towels and wash cloths.  I folded them and carried them into the house.

“Hi Grandma,” I called as I stepped into the kitchen.  “It’s Cheri.”

I listened for a response.

Silence.

Yikes, I thought.  This always makes me nervous.

I quietly walked through the kitchen, took a deep breath, and peeked around the wall into the family room.  Grandma was sitting in the chair next to the Davenport, reading the Wall Street Journal.

“Oh hi Honey,” she said, looking up at me.  “I didn’t hear you come in.”

I exhaled with relief that she was alive, and gave her a hug.  “You look good today, Gram.  Hungry?  How about some macaroni and cheese?”

“I’m not hungry.”

“I know Grandma.”

I went into the kitchen and opened the freezer that Uncle Steve had stocked before he left for vacation.  Inside was a tub of Albertson’s frozen macaroni and cheese.  I microwaved it, steamed up some broccoli, and grabbed a big handful of grapes out of the fridge.  I assembled the food on a plate and brought it into the family room, along with a glass of Ensure spiked with brandy.

“Oh honey, this is too much!” Grandma protested.

But when I placed a spoonful of macaroni and cheese in front of her lips, she opened them.

“Mmm,” she said, after she swallowed.  “You’re a good cook, Cheri.”

“Thanks Grandma,” I smiled.  “It’s an easy recipe.”

I looked down to get a forkful of broccoli, but had to do a double-take.  Did she just wink at me?

I shifted in my seat and switched the subject.

“So tell me,” I said, while she chewed.  “What happened in your life after the orphanage?” 

“Well, I got my first job,” she said.  “I worked in a dime store, doing bookkeeping.   The work was okay, but I often stayed there until midnight finishing the books.  And my boss didn’t pay me anything extra.”

“What a drag,” I said.

“Yes.  So I quit and got a job at Battelle Memorial Institute, a metallurgical research company connected with Ohio State University,” she said, sitting up proudly.  “That was my best job.  They gave me vacation and sick leave.  And I liked the people; they were very educated.”

“You enjoy being around smart people, who are like you,” I complimented.

“Thank you, honey.  I also did a stint as a teacher,” she continued.  “But I didn’t care for teaching.  In my day, girls weren’t offered much in the way of jobs.  You could be a teacher or a nurse, and that was it.  Once you got married you weren’t allowed to work anymore.  Jobs were scarce and they figured married women didn’t need them as badly as everyone else.  So I would lie and say I was single.  I got away with that for a while.  Until I got pregnant.

We laughed.  “It’s a good thing times have changed,” I said.  “Women have more choices now.”

Grandma nodded.  I put another spoonful of macaroni in front of her mouth, which she opened without hesitating.

Guess she was hungry after all.

“How did you like being pregnant?” I asked.

“I was sick throughout all three pregnancies,” she said.   “I couldn’t keep anything down.  I weighed only 93 pounds.  Being pregnant was the only time in my life I was thin, other than now.”

I looked at Grandma’s frail, bony body, so different from how I remembered it growing up.  She was no waif then.  She was five foot two, but had a big bosom and midriff.  To me, she had always been soft and cushy, and I loved her warm hugs.

“I tried every diet out there.  Weight Watchers, Atkins, Slimfast,” she said. “Sometimes all I ate were grapefruits and hard-boiled eggs.  Nothing worked, at least for long.  But now being thin does me no good.  I just wear these robes all day and everyone’s always trying to get me to eat!”

Ironic, I thought.  Like Grandma, I also struggled to control my weight.  But now I wondered if it was worth the trouble.   I had never given Grandma’s weight a second thought.  I always liked how she looked.   Perhaps I needed to keep things in perspective, make peace with my large frame, and be thankful I was healthy.

Grandma’s voice interrupted my thoughts.   “Luckily the pregnancy health costs were not a problem,” she said.  “Carol and James were both born in a Ohio State “teaching” hospital.  Clyde was a medical student there, and med students didn’t have to pay for care.”

Carol Gay in 1939, at age three.  Helen sent this picture to a children’s beauty pageant

“What was it like raising your kids?” I asked.

“Well, your mom and Jimmy were pretty easy,” she said.  “But Steve was another matter.”

“Really?”  I laughed.  But then I thought of my outgoing and talkative uncle.  “Actually,  I’m not surprised to hear that.”

“Steve was born in 1947.  Right afterwards Clyde got a Navy transfer to Guam.   Carol and Jimmy were ten and four years old.  What I remember most was Steve being terrible on that  international flight to Guam.  All the Navy people were ready to throw him off the plane!”   Grandma rolled her eyes.

Carol, Jimmy, and Steve, 1947.

Carol, Jimmy and Steve, 1956.

“But even if it wasn’t always easy raising them, I was proud of my kids.  Carol went to school after college and became a nurse, which wasn’t easy for her because she met and married your dad when she was young, just 22.  She was still going to school when she was pregnant with you.”

“That’s neat she was a nurse.”

“Yes.  She had a warm way about her.  Like you, honey.”

“Thanks Grandma.”

“And Jimmy was a really good swimmer.  He started swimming at a public pool when we lived in Hawaii.   The guy in charge thought he was a better swimmer than the other kids, and offered to coach him.  After that I spent half my life carpooling Jimmy to swim meets.  But his hard work earned him a spot in the Olympic Trials.  He never made it to the Olympics, but the Trials were a good experience for him.”

“I bet he could have made it to the Olympics,” I said.  “He died when he was just 20, right?” I asked.

“Yes.”

“Tell me about that, Grandma.”

Grandma didn’t even pause.  She must have needed to talk about it.

“It was 1962, and Jimmy was at the University of Cincinnati where he’d gotten an academic scholarship.  In March he was on the front page of the Cincinnati Sunday Tribune, for an article about the swim team.  Three weeks later, on his Spring Break, he drove with a buddy, Jim Marchetti, to California to visit friends and family.  He and his friend drove thousands of miles in a Renault, a small European car with the engine in the back.   Marchetti was driving toward San Diego on a two lane highway when he fell asleep at the wheel.  Their car hit another car, head-on.”

“Oh Grandma, how tragic.”

“Yes, both boys were killed.”

Jimmy Norman

“What happened to the person in the car they hit?”

“It was a Cadillac, being driven by a middle-aged woman.  I’m not sure what happened to her, but she was not killed, I know that.”

I was just one and a half, I thought.  My mother was pregnant with Laurie.  Gosh, that must have been so tough, I thought.  I had heard I was not an easy baby and cried a lot.  My mother was 25 and had to deal with me, her crazy pregnancy hormones, and then the senseless and sudden death of her beloved younger brother.

“It was really sad because he had such a bright future,” Grandma said, with tears in her eyes. “Your mother and Jimmy were very close.  They wrote each other all the time.”

“His death triggered her depression, right?”

Grandma looked at me, a forlorn look in her eyes.  “Probably, Cheri.”

“Did you ever talk to her about her that?”

“Yes.  I was very concerned about her.  One day she came over to talk.

Grandma paused.  I grabbed her hand and squeezed it.

“I know this is a difficult subject, Grandma.”  I said softly.  My heart was racing, and I was feeling shaky, but holding Grandma’s hand calmed me down.  I needed to hear what she had to say.  “Tell me more.”

“I asked Carol to describe her depression, because I didn’t understand it.  She said she felt she was in a dark hole, and there was no way out.”

I envisioned my mother, trapped in a deep cave, with no light, feeling lost and lonely and hopeless.

“She went to several psychologists, but they couldn’t help her,” Grandma continued.  “She suffered with depression for five years.”

“I wish she’d tried harder to find the right psychologist,” I said.  “I’m sure there were some good ones, even in the sixties.  And I wish they’d had good antidepressants back then.   I believe if she’d been born a few years later and gotten the right help and medication, that she’d still be here today.”

“You’re probably right, Cheri.”

We sat for a moment, our hands clasped, in silence.

“Do you know where she’s laid to rest now?” I asked.

“No.”

“Hmm.”  Interesting, I thought.  Why doesn’t Gram know this?   I know she went to the funeral.

But before I could question her, Grandma changed the subject.

“Clyde and Jimmy are buried at Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, in Point Loma,” she said.

“I remember when Grandpa Clyde passed away.  It was 1972 and I was in the seventh grade.   I’ll never forget the beautiful grave site on that cliff, and the 21 gun salute they gave him.  All those men in uniform, and the guns going off.  Scared me kind of, but I was proud too.”

“Yes, Clyde was a Captain in the Navy, and a war hero.  He was on the USS Bennington during a fire explosion in 1954, the only doctor to survive.  He recruited a bunch of sailors on the spot to help with first aid.  Over a hundred men died in that explosion, and over 200 were injured.  It was the worst Navy disaster since Pearl Harbor.”

“Wow, Grandma.  And to think he met you in the orphanage.  You both came such a long way.”

“We just made the best of things, Cheri.   Jimmy, Carol and Clyde are gone now, but I’m grateful I have Steve,” she said.  “He amazes me.  When he was 11 or 12 he was awful, always getting into trouble.  I was forever running to the principal’s office.  But he became a really good person, and he and Susan take very good care of me.”

Steve and Susan with Helen, on her 96th birthday last year, March 11, 2009

“And now I have four grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren.”

Helen’s sister Pauline, granddaughter Laurie, granddaughter Cheri (me) and Helen in 2006

 

Bee Gibbs and Helen Norman with four of their great-grandchildren, December, 1993

One Thing to Remember About Helen

“Grandma, is there anything you want people to remember about you?”  I asked.

“Cheri, I did nothing special.  I’m just an ordinary person.  I had no big accomplishments, other than my full academic scholarship to Wittenberg.”

“Well I’m impressed at how you handled difficult situations, Grandma.  You lost your mom as a girl and got sent to an orphanage, but you turned your life around.  You met Grandpa Clyde and got a college scholarship.  And when you became a parent and lost two children,  you never seemed to feel sorry for yourself.   You picked yourself up, and went on with life.  That is inspiring!”

“Well Cheri honey, we just made the best of our situation.” she said.

We nodded and smiled at each other.  I lifted up the glass of Ensure with Brandy, and Grandma pulled the straw to her lips.   She took a long sip.

***

Grandma passed away on February 17, 2012, peacefully in her home.  We had a lovely memorial ceremony for her on March 9th, and we were able to reunite Helen with her daughter Carrie at Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, in Point Loma, San Diego, California.  They are in a grave site shared with Helen’s husband Clyde and son Jimmy, overlooking the Pacific Ocean.  And some days, when the wind and tide is just right, you can hear the waves crashing below.

Grandma Helen was a special, wonderful woman.  She will be dearly missed.

Helen Isobel Norman

March 11, 1913 – February 17, 2012

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Filed under Diet, Family, Grandparents, Happiness, Life, Marriage, Parenting, Parents, Time

Tragedy, the Orphanage and Clyde.

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.

October, 2010.

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.

“Okay, honey.”

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.

Helen Norman, far left, with her mother's family.

“How old were you in this picture, Grandma?”

“About nine.”

“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.”

“How come?”

“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?”

“Twelve.”

The Orphanage

“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.”

Clyde Norman (center) with Helen Lowry (right) and a friend, left.

“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.”

Dating Life

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.”

 No Proposal

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.

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Grandma Helen. The Early Years

Well hello my friends.  

It’s been a sad couple of days, because Friday afternoon my Grandma Helen passed away.    She died peacefully in her home as she had wished, less than a month before her 99th birthday.  During her long life,  Helen endured many difficult days, but she always maintained a positive outlook and a cheerful attitude.  She inspired many with her engaging personality, keen intelligence, and caring love for family and friends.    She will be greatly missed.   I am so grateful to have had her in my life for fifty-one so many years, and  in her honor I am posting  this three-part story about her life, which may remind you of a story  I posted here a couple of years ago.  I was lucky to spend some time with Grandma in her later years, and wrote this series after several interviews with her. 

Rest in Peace, my dear Grandma Helen. 

Helen Norman,  March 11, 1913 – February 17, 2012. 

“Cheri, we’re wondering if you can come to San Diego in the Fall for a week,” my Uncle Steve said one July afternoon in 2010.  “Susan and I will be out-of-town in October and it would be great if you could be here to check on Grandma.”

I was happy to help.  Grandma was 97, and though her arthritis made it difficult for her to care for herself, she wanted to continue living in her home.  So Uncle Steve and his wife Susan graciously cared for Grandma–   they drove to her house every day to make her meals, help her shower, change her bedding and keep her company– and they had done this for several years now.

“And if you get around to it, there’s a box of old pictures in the spare bedroom closet,” Uncle Steve said.   “You and she could go through it if you like.”

I liked his suggestion.   I loved organizing, and I also wanted to learn more about Grandma’s life.  The pictures might trigger some memories.  She rarely talked about her childhood, but lately Grandma was opening up more.  I tried to ignore my next thought:  I can talk to her before it’s too late.

“That sounds great, Uncle Steve,” I said.  It’ll give us something to do together.”

In October I walked into  Grandma Helen’s family room.  She was lying on the sofa, wearing one of her five navy blue flannel robes.  A blanket covered her legs.

“Hi Grandma,” I said, leaning down to give her a kiss.

The room was dark, so I opened the vertical blinds at the sliding glass door, and pulled on the lever to the one-inch slatted window shutters to let in some light.

“It’s a pretty day.” I said.

Sunshine entered the room and I looked around.

The family room looked just as I remembered from countless visits over the years.  It never changed.   Grandma Helen and Grandpa Clyde had moved into the house in 1960– the same year I was born.  The furnishings were like a time capsule from fifty years ago:  lime-green shag carpet, woven wallpaper, huge table lamps with large cylinder lampshades, and a nubby tweed sofa.

Funny, I thought.  Since Mad Men had revived an interest in all things ‘sixties, the room would have a current vibe if the furnishings weren’t so worn.

“How about some poached eggs?” I asked Grandma.

“That sounds good, honey.”

I made poached eggs with spinach and toast, two for each of us, and placed the plates on the coffee table in front of the sofa next to Grandma.  She called the sofa a “Davenport.”   In the past few years the Davenport had become Grandma’s bed because she liked being in the center of the house with the television and telephone nearby.

“Grandma, we’re going to go through some pictures,” I said after she’d eaten a few bites of the eggs and toast.

“Okay Honey,” she said.

Grandma was particular about a lot of things;   she liked two pillows,  her meals home-cooked, and a splash of brandy in her Ensure.

But for some reason she was easy-going about the pictures.

I retrieved the cardboard box from the back bedroom closet, and carried it to the family room.  I plopped it beside us and pulled out the top picture.

“It’s been so long I don’t think I can remember who’s who,” she said.

“You’ll remember, Grandma,” I assured her.  “I bet the memories will come flooding back.”

The Early Years

The picture was of a young woman holding a child.

“Who is this?” I asked.

“That’s me and my mother,” she replied.  “Her name was Elsie Marie Johnson before she married my dad, Homer Lowry.  That picture was probably taken the day I was baptized in 1913, because it looks like I’m wearing a white baptism outfit.”

“Your mom was pretty, Grandma, and she looks like she was nice.”

“Yes, she was.”

“Do you know why you were given the name Helen?” I asked.

“I have no idea why my parents named me Helen,” she said.  “But Mom named me Isabelle after a good friend of hers.”

Helen and her mother, Elsie Marie Johnson Lowry, in 1913 on Helen’s Baptism Day

“Do you know what your heritage is?” I asked.

“My mother was Swedish, and my father was Irish,” she said.  “My grandfather, Frank Lowry, came from Ireland in the 1800’s to start a farm.”

“Do you know why he left Ireland?”

“I’m not exactly sure, but it had to do with the potato famine,” she said.  “There were lots of problems in Ireland, so my grandfather had to leave the country.  But he had no money, so he came to the United States in the boat’s steerage section.”

No Family or Friends

“Tell me about your family,” I said.

“I don’t remember any extended family members living nearby, as our home was quite isolated,” she said.  “The nearest neighbor was five miles away.  I didn’t have any childhood friends, so I looked forward to the two weeks out of the year when my mother’s relatives came to visit.  I loved my mother’s family,”  she said.  “It was always so much fun to play with my cousins, too.”

Sisters Pauline and Margaret

“What were your sisters like?”  I asked.

“I spent all my free time with my sisters Margaret  and Pauline.  Margaret was four years younger, and Pauline was six years younger.     We lived on a 150 acre farm in Byesville, Ohio.  Woods surrounded the farm, which we loved to explore.  We climbed trees all day long and nobody ever worried where we were.  It was so different from today, with parents hovering over their children all the time.”

Grandma lowered her voice to a whisper, like she was telling me a secret.    “Growing up it wasn’t much fun playing with Margaret,” Grandma said.  “Margaret was a heavy child, and she couldn’t run very fast or climb trees.  The only way she could climb a tree was if I pushed her up,” she sighed. “Her heaviness was a big problem, because climbing trees was all we did.”

Grandma looked at me.  “But things changed,” she continued.  “For the rest of our lives,  I got heavier and Margaret got thinner.”

We laughed.  “Payback’s a bitch, huh Grandma?”  I patted my thick thigh and winked.

Grandma’s head bobbed up and down and her piercing blue eyes crinkled.  Hearing her laugh made me laugh more.   This was fun!

Helen, Pauline, and Margaret with their dad, Homer

The House

“What was your house like?” I asked.

“There were no bathrooms in the house, and we had to go outside to use the privy,” she said.  “We used the Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward catalogs as toilet paper in the outhouse.  The catalog paper felt slick.  I hated to go in the middle of the night.  If you didn’t want to go outside to the privy you had to keep a pot in your room.”

“Did you have electricity?” I asked.

“No.  There were no telephones or electricity, only oil lamps.   We had an organ, though.  My mother knew how to play well, and my little sister Margaret could play too.    And  the sitting room  had a pot-bellied stove in it.”

“What else did you do to pass the time?”  I asked.

“We would sit with our grandfather on the big porch surrounding the house and look at the clouds.    My grandfather was nice,” she said.    “He had an understanding of kids, and he would tell us stories of his childhood.”

She continued her musings about those evenings on the porch.  “And we would catch lightning bugs.  I’d put mine in a jar so they’d light up my room.”

“Hmm,” I murmured, thinking how I loved catching lightning bugs as a kid too, when we lived in Virginia.

“The lightning bugs were my electricity,” she said.  “That was my entertainment.”

Getting into Mischief

“What kind of mischief did you get into, Grandma?” I asked.

“Cheri!” Grandma gave me a long look.  “I don’t know if I should tell you about that.  Plus, do you know how long ago that was?”

I smiled my most charming smile.  Grandma gave me a defeated look.   I waited, and soon she began to talk again.

“My sisters and I used to tease a bull.   We would wave something red in front of him to make him charge us,”  she laughed.  “He would run toward us and I remember running away as fast as I could to jump over the fence and save ourselves from getting killed.”

“My God, Grandma!  I’m glad I was not your mother!”

“My mother had no idea what we were up to, Cheri,” she said.

“Did you ever get punished?” I asked.

“Always, but it was my father who punished me.   I got a lot of switchings.”

“Really?”  I found this interesting, because Grandma didn’t seem like the trouble-maker type.  “Tell me about that.”

“My father would yell, ‘Go pick the finest little branch you can find, and come back in here!’  So I would go outside and find a branch, and go back inside to get my switching.”

“How awful, Grandma.”

“Yes, and it hurt.   Those tiny branches would leave little welts,” she said.

“What did you do to deserve such punishment?”

“Most of the time it was because I tore my bloomers.”

“Really?” This shocked me.  “What a trivial thing to get punished for.  What did the bloomers look like?”

“They were big, black, billowy things—just horrid!”

Toys and Things

I moved the subject away from Grandma Helen’s father, because she didn’t seem to want to talk about him anymore.

“Did you have any toys or things growing up?” I asked.

“I didn’t have many material things.  I never had a sled or a bicycle, but I didn’t mind,”  she said.  “There was no place to ride them anyway.”

But she did remember one toy.

“One year for Christmas I got a doll that my mother made,”  she smiled at me.  “I loved that doll.”

I smiled at her.  “Was that the only gift you got at Christmas?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said.  “And I was happy.  And the next Christmas, my mother sewed clothes for that doll.”

“Your only gift?” I asked.

“Of course!” Grandma replied, shocked I asked.  “My mom was a really good seamstress.”

“Tell me more about your mom,” I said.

“She had the tiniest waist, and my sisters and I would try on her clothes in the trunk in her bedroom,”  Grandma said.  “And we loved to brush her hair, which was long and wavy.”

She paused, thinking about something.  She was frowning.

“Go on, Grandma,” I said softly.

“Sometimes my father would say, ‘why don’t you brush my hair?’”

“What did you do?” I asked.

“We refused,” she said.  “Nobody ever wanted to brush his hair.”

And that was the end of that subject.

The Animals

I took a drink of the diet coke I had found in Grandma’s garage refrigerator, then lifted up the glass of cranberry juice I had placed on the table and put it near Grandma’s chin.  She pulled the straw into her mouth and took a long drink.  The years of golfing in the sun had taken its toll;  age spots covered her face and hands and a yellow cast colored her fingernails.   But her mind was sharp and she showed no signs of wanting to stop talking, so I asked another question.

“Did you have any pets?”

“No.  But we had nameless dogs and cats that roamed the farm.   There were gobs of cats.   And there were little kittens everywhere.  There were so many cats they became a problem, and we had to get rid of them,”  her eyes filled with tears.

“What’s the matter, Grandma?” I asked.

“To this day I resent my dad because he would drown the cats,”  she said.  “But in some way,  I understood it.   Nobody wanted the kittens.  And it was over pretty fast when my father put them inside the rain barrel.”

Chores

I pictured Grandma’s father drowning helpless little kittens, and felt sick.

I tried to change the subject.  “Did you do any chores?”

“Of course.  My primary chore was to tend the chickens.  I had to feed them and take care of them.”

She paused and turned to me.

“The funny thing is,  my dad would bring the chicks into the house, so they wouldn’t get cold and die.”

I thought about that.  “That’s interesting,” I said.  “Why did he save the chicks but not the kittens?”

“Because they were part of the food chain.”

“Hmm,” I nodded, in understanding.  “So what other chores did you do?”

“My dad would send me to get the mail, usually at dusk.  The mailbox was a mile away, and I would run through the woods, which was terribly frightening.    My family said they could hear me screaming the entire time I was gone. The woods were scary at night.  There were all these noises!”

“Oh Grandma, how awful!”

“Yes, and to this day, I have a fear of the dark, perhaps because of those scary runs to the post box.”

Allowance, Church, School and Birthdays

Gosh, I thought.  Grandma had some pretty awful memories about her father, but she never talked about any of this when we were kids.   Why was she talking so openly now?   I knew the answer, but pushed it back, choosing instead to think of more questions to ask her.  I needed to keep Grandma talking.

“Did you receive an allowance?” I asked.

“Never.” she said. “I don’t know what I would have done with money anyway; we were miles away from everything.”

“How about  church?” I said.

“Occasionally, on Sundays, we would dress up and go to the Presbyterian Church, ten miles away.  But we didn’t go often because it was a big chore hitching up the horse and buggy.”

“What was school like?”  I asked.  We were on a roll.

“We really did have to walk five miles to school and back,” she said.  “It was a little country school, eight grades in the same room.  I  learned a lot from the upper classes– when I was in the lower grades I listened as the teacher taught the upper grades.    I did  well in school.   Reading was my favorite subject.

I looked around at the stacks of magazines and books and newspapers in neat piles around the room.  “That makes sense, Grandma, because you are the most well informed person I know.”

Grandma waited for me to ask another question.  She was enjoying this.

“So, how did you celebrate birthdays?” I asked.

“I don’t remember ever celebrating a birthday when I was a kid.  Our family usually ate dinner together at a big oblong table.   When I was nine, my mother was just starting to teach me how to cook a few things.”

I was curious to hear more about my Great Grandmother, but I had been there several hours and Grandma needed some rest.

“Wow Grandma, you did a good job remembering so much,”  I said.  “Let’s see.  All this happened in the early 1920s.  You’re memories are ninety years old!”

“I guess my mind is still okay.”

“Yes, Grandma, it is.  And you also did good eating your eggs.”

I helped her to the bathroom, and while she was up I changed the sheet on the Davenport.  I walked  her back to the family room, got her settled, and gave her a kiss.

“I’ll have more questions for you tomorrow, Grandma.”

“Okay honey,”  she said.  “Sweetheart, before you go, can you turn on the patio light?”

I looked out the patio door and saw it was dark outside now.  I had almost forgotten;  Grandma always liked the back light on because she was afraid of the dark.  I flipped on the switch, put the wood pole in the sliding glass door track, gave her another kiss, and drove back to Uncle Steve and Aunt Susan’s house, where I was staying for the week.

Coming Up Next:  The Tragedy that Changed Helen’s Life

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