The weather turned. We had some pretty heavy rain and now almost all of the leaves are down from the many trees in our yard. Today is chilly as a gusty, cold wind is blowing. November is much more November now. When I was a kid, each Thanksgiving we would pack up the station wagon and make the drive to my Grandma’s house. This time of year really reminds me of that.
So let’s chat a little about a lady you have never met, and how much I wish you could have. One of the single most shaping factors in my life was my Grandma F (your Grandpa M’s mom). There was no one else like her. As I type this a cardinal just flew up and perched right outside the window which makes me think that she is here in my heart right now. She lived in southern Illinois where there are more Cardinal fans than Cub fans. I also remember seeing many cardinals in her backyard at the birdfeeders. So let me start with a little about her life. It is a pretty crazy tale, and I am not going even come close to encapsulating it here.
Your Great Grandma F was born March 10, 1913, in Aviston, IL, and passed away Wednesday, May 7, 2014 when she was living up here by Grandpa M and all of us. She was 101 years old…which is pretty amazing and she was herself right up to the end. GGF (which is a lot easier to type) was the petite, middle kid of a whole bunch of brothers and sisters. Her family lived on a dairy farm that either her father or grandfather had claimed as German immigrants in the late 1800’s land rush. This same farm is still in the family today and operated by Grandpa M’s cousin. Hopefully you can go there sometime. It is really cool and still very big, even though they have sold off some of the land. So, Four, part of your heritage is from hard working farmers, even though I often forget that about myself having always only known suburbia. Anyway, GGF was responsible at a very early age. All of the kids had to help “Pop” (as she called her dad) with daily farm chores. She was the one who had to help get chicken ready to eat. It didn’t mean going to the grocery store…there was no grocery store. Everything that GGF made for food came from the land they lived on. She fed chickens, sorted their eggs, and when it was time for chicken dinner, well…she had to butcher the chicken that was going to feed the family. She used to tell me how hard it was to take off the feathers and what a mess it made. She learned to cook all kinds of from-scratch goodies. One of her favorites from childhood were molasses cookies. I used to love these and I have never ever found anything like them to replace a cookie that she could do in her sleep. The molasses that was on the farm came from the sorghum crops the family grew. GGF would later complain that store-bought molasses just was never as good as the molasses from her farm – and that is probably very true. Sadly, when GGF was just 14, her mother passed away. As the kids were getting older, school was less of an option and something else happened in 1929. The stock market crashed and suddenly GGF had to go to work. She never had better than an 8th grade, one room schoolhouse education. I still have many of the letters she wrote me and if she used the word sorry, she always spelled it sorrie. I think, even though she didn’t get the privilege of continuing school, she was very wise. She was always learning and the next part of her life was where she learned the most.
When she was just a teenager, she became a nanny/housekeeper for a German family in the more urban town of Belleville. At the time, Belleville was quite a cosmopolitan place and the town, while impacted by the Depression, still had families that could use the service of a nanny. GGF went to work taking care of three boys, the oldest just slightly younger than her. She was already experienced with childcare as she had long been taking care of her younger siblings on the farm. The wife of the doctor, Mrs. B. became a real mother-figure for GGF and they remained close up until Mrs. B passed away when I was old enough to remember visiting her with GGF. Mrs. B was a fancy lady with a whole different background than what GGF came from. GGF was taught all about upscale dinner parties, proper etiquette, and being a fine young lady from Mrs. B. She also learned about sewing, cleaning, and social graces. GGF had access to books and read, which was a great way for her to expand her world, which until then only consisted of her original farm town and Belleville. Grandpa M can tell you a whole lot more about GGF and her husband, GGV. They are pretty amazing for all that they accomplished during a time when life was very, very hard for most all Americans. I often would try to imagine that their strong blood was in me when times were hard. That doesn’t mean that other people’s struggles aren’t a struggle because a different generation in a time long gone suffered more, but just that we have made it and struggle provides us all a chance to grow strong. I hope that is the case right now as I struggle with my health throughout my pregnancy. GGF was one tough cookie, and no doubt if she was here, she would tell me to pray and just do what I can do to the best that I can do it, there is nothing more that can be done and God is truly in control. I can hear her voice in my head as I type that.
So your GGF lived through a time when people were dirt poor. She sent money back to her family on the farm, she helped raise boys into young men, and then she met your GGV, who while handsome as he was, had a bad crossed eye. Luckily, the doctor she worked for was able to fix that, and I only ever saw GGV with normal looking eyes…your Grandpa M’s eyes are the same as his dads. GGV worked hard to get GGF to even like him. She was hard to get because she, and I can’t repeat this enough, was a strong woman and only wanted a guy around who was going to be worthy of her. Pretty awesome considering that she was getting older and it was considered a little strange that she was still single. Then another really bad thing came along that messed with every person in America: World War II. GGV was in the Army and had to go to San Fransico to train and then get deployed to conflicts throughout the Pacific. I have seen some pictures from where he went and I simply can’t wrap my brain around the horrors witnessed by the gentle giant who was so grandfatherly with me and my sisters. Anyway, GGF got super tough in that she went with GGV to California by train and saw him off wondering, like so many other women (your GGA especially) if she would see him again. Luckily, she did.
Your Grandpa M was born in December of 1947. GGF was older and he would be her only child. She was a tough mom because it wasn’t like she was going to get another chance at mothering if anything went wrong with the pregnancy. When he was little, GGF made Grandpa M go to church, study hard, and mind his manners. And because of that, he became the amazing man that I am blessed to have for my dad, and you are lucky to have for a grandfather. Even through both GGF and GGV didn’t have any high school education, they were both very smart and Grandpa M inherited that. Amazingly, Grandpa M got his act together and was convinced by others when he didn’t think that big for himself, to pursue going to college. At one point, Grandpa M thought that he didn’t have to try to hard in school because he would just get some no-college-necessary-job. He didn’t have the best grades and he wasn’t the most self-confident of kids, but GGF and GGV were going to do their very best to help him achieve more with school than they ever had the chance to do, so Grandpa M buckled down and got into U of I’s Engineering program, which at the time used to fail out more than half the freshmen who couldn’t cut it. Even though Grandpa M is pretty calm and gentle, he knew the sacrifices his parents made in order to get him to college and he never forgot that he wasn’t doing Engineering just for him, but for them too. After four years of hard work, he graduated and got a very good job. He was the realization of all that GGF and GGV could have hoped for in their sacrificing so that he could have a life way, way different that what they experienced at that age. And Grandpa M has never, ever forgotten that, which is why he is highly sentimental and deeply grateful for all of the blessings in his life. So much of his nature is due to GGF’s constant presence and impact on his life. Through all the years, she was the foundation of the family…and that is saying something for a tiny, little lady. So again, remember kiddo, that no matter your physical body, your personality is what people will respond to (maybe not at first, but eventually). I bet my big, strong, German GGV never thought he would get bossed around and told to behave (and behave he did) by my little GGF. She was strong, wise, and held to her standards so much that she made everyone the better for it. Sure there were times when we thought that she was a little too harsh, but in reflection, it was her expectations on me, my sisters, and my dad that made us step up to be good, be successful, be decent.
If you reflect on your heritage, it does make you think about if you are worthy of all the hard work, struggle, and sacrifice that miraculously got the spark of life from one generation to the next and ultimately, to you. It makes you find something to live up to, even when you might be coming up empty on your own. I know I’ve tapped into that on several occasions when wanted to crawl under a rock and hide. You realize that your life, where ever it goes, is the unmapped realization of so many others’ hopes and dreams before you. They didn’t know you, but they may have imagined you; and imagined you thinking of them. It is all deeply spiritual if you start to meditate on it. I am forever aware of GGF’s impact as I count myself so blessed to be living my life with her strong presence in my heart, still supporting and guiding me as I go into uncharted waters. I am thrilled she got to meet your dad, just once right before she died. There are family friends who said that she hung so long just to make sure I would be okay, and that her approval of your dad reassured her I would be. She had listened to me describe him as I would visit her early on when I was dating your dad. She liked that he reminded her in many ways of GGV. I can see those similarities too, and they are all admirable traits. She was always very invested and fiercely protective of me. She loved me deeply and unconditionally, and it was so much that you could nearly touch that emotion in her presence. When I think about how much she would have loved to have held you, it makes me cry. But, I also know that she is well aware of all that is happening. No doubt she has her well earned place in heaven, and is able to send love and blessings to me and all who she took into her great big heart. I firmly believe that.
I am so glad that GGF wrote so much across the span of my life. I have a notebook where she journaled all about the visits I would take to her house. Then there are the constant little letters that she would send me all throughout my college years. Sometimes she would come across an article and cut it out to send to me if she thought it could help with my life somehow. She was always thinking of me and it showed. When she passed, just how much she thought of me was made incredibly apparent by all of the different people who came to her funeral and stopped me to say how they always got these colorful updates on my life from her, and how she beamed when she talked about me. Even though I wasn’t sure that I any of my antics were worthy of bragging rights, total strangers knew that she was proud of me for going back to school to be a teacher, proud of me for getting a poem published in the college’s literary magazine, proud of me for making really good chocolate chip cookies with her recipe. You see kiddo, what you will do matters to your family – even the little things, and I do make some pretty awesome cookies, GGF’s cookies were what inspired me – well for cookies and more. I can’t believe that she lived so long, survived so much, and after 101 years still had a great turnout at her funeral considering she outlived most of her peers, meaning almost everyone there were the extended family and friends she had gained along the way and through my dad and her involvement in the community. I would hope that I can live my life like that too. I think that lives are like candles. I remember being little and going to the midnight Christmas mass. During part of the mass small candles were passed out and one candle was used to light the people who were sitting at the end of a row, and then the flame was passed down the row. One by one everyone ended up with their candle lit and the church was filled with this warmth that only candlelight can create. Grandma’s flame, and all of these other points of light are all from that same original spark. It is very beautiful to think of the light that she was in my life and so many others. Even though her flame went dark, it is still there in me, Grandpa M, your Aunts A and J, your cousins, and now you. And so is the flame from other amazing people that have all contributed to this new light that you will bring to the world. And, Four, I believe you have a special light because I have prayed and prayed for it, as have many other people. Even though my being on bedrest makes me squirmy, it is forcing me to really reflect as I sit in the quiet of this amazing home. I think about the line of amazing people both in your genetic make-up and the people who are part of the stories that, like dominoes tip from one life to the next all moving into you. You will be this new candle in family’s collective light and I can wait to see how you shine.