This lovely lady is my grandma, circa 1940.
Her parents were migrant farm laborers, the hardest-working and the poorest of the working poor. They had several children who were all put to work early to help support the family. Grandma, a sensitive and artistic soul, hated the ugly, hardscrabble life they lived, and she vowed that not only would she escape it, but her children would never have to work and suffer as she had.
She married at the age of 20 to a shy, prosperous bachelor farmer twice her age, and kept a series of gracious homes in which she raised five children who all earned college degrees. She also played a strong supporting role in the lives of her seven grandchildren. When my grandfather died after 40 years of marriage, she traveled the world and relished her independence for several years before marrying for the second and last time (she outlived him, too). She was a voracious reader (Reader’s Digest condensed books, Louis L’Amour novels, and Robert Schiller books were favorites), and she liked to write, including keeping a diary for decades. She grew orchids from seed; she could make anything grow and always kept a lovely garden. She made macaroni and cheese that I dream about to this day. She was a farm girl to her core and always kept a keen eye on the weather and the crops. She was a strictly observant Catholic most of her life, but less so after my grandfather died.
She paid attention when people–including children–talked, and our family’s visits with her always consisted mainly of sitting down and talking: not watching television, not arguing, not rushing from one vigorous activity to the next, just talking with one another. When I was young, children were not catered to continuously and we did not expect every adult in the room to fix his or her attention on us and work hard to entertain us. We were allowed to take part in the adults’ conversations, but were expected to do so appropriately and respectfully. Mostly, we just listened to the grown-ups talk, and from these visits with my grandmother and the rest of both my mother’s and my father’s family, I learned what polite conversation is and how to spend time with people in a gentle, civilized way. We all liked one another, for the most part, and everybody got along. I don’t remember ever once seeing anyone in our family engaged in real argument. I suspect that if a disagreement ever started brewing, someone else would adroitly change the subject or offer to fix everyone a snack to redirect their attention. We always enjoyed our time together, and my fondest childhood memories are of being at grandma’s house.
But I digress.
I have heard it said that poverty passes from generation to generation through the mothers. My grandmother could have chosen (or allowed circumstances to force her into) the unstable, unhealthy, violent, impoverished life that her own mother had chosen, which would undoubtedly have sent my mother and me as well straight down that same path. But she turned her back on it all and said “no more” because she wanted better for both herself and her children. And so my mother went to college and became a nurse, married my father, and raised me and my siblings in a stable, middle-class, white-collar home from which we went off to college and careers. Both my mother and her mother made good choices, which in turn gave us choices among several good options.
In 1993, I wrote grandma a letter to tell her all that I appreciated and loved about her, and shared every memory of her I had that I did and do still treasure.
So much of my childhood is defined by the memories of the times we spent with you. … You were always on my side, always loved me, always were glad to see me, always had time.
I’ve told you before but it bears repeating: Everything I am and have, I owe directly to you and to the choices you made about how you were going to live your life and raise your family. … I hope someday to have children of my own that I can introduce to you and to whom I will say, when they are grown up enough to understand, “your great-grandma made everything possible for your grandma and for me and for you. Don’t ever forget that.” I truly do want to have children who will stand on my shoulders as I have stood on my mother’s and on yours to move ever higher in the world. … So thank you, grandma, for the time and love and opportunities you have given me.
After she died, this letter came back to me among her papers. I remembered writing it but had no record of it in my own files, so I was happy not only to see it again, but also to know that she carefully saved it for more than 15 years.
I did not end up having kids of my own, but my sister’s and my cousins’ kids will carry their great-grandmother’s legacy forward. She was a blessing to us all.