| by S. Alaine |
Swish. And that’s the game. My 65 year old grandma had beaten my eight year old self and my 11 year old basketball star brother in a backyard game of HORSE. We were in shock! Disbelief! Amazement! At that point, we were both already taller than she but we didn’t have her game. She never made us feel badly or rubbed it in our faces. Just a sweet smile of contentment on her face showed that she still had it. For Christmas that year, we went to “Skinner the Printer” and had a t-shirt made for her which told the world that she was, indeed, “#1 Grandma HORSE Champion.”
Life wasn’t easy for grandma. She was a depression era baby; one of nine children. Eight girls and then, finally, a boy, aptly named Junior. While women were not equal in status nor rights, they were most definitely equal in the amount of farm labor that was required of them. If the hand of God had not shined favorably upon you by giving you a house of boys, then girls would have to do.
Grandma didn’t talk much about her childhood. At least not around me. The few stories I heard over the years broke my heart and made me want to hold her and let her know she was loved, even if her childhood may have made her feel otherwise. Her father was very controlling and not a kind man. While large families were common for that day, it was an embarrassment for some reason. When the preacher was invited over for Sunday dinner, the older children had to stay upstairs. Silent. Any peep, footstep or sound would result in a beating once the preacher had gone. The younger few were allowed to eat at the table with the guest but not the first born.
Everyone was responsible for keeping the farm operating, from the oldest to the youngest. My grandma was charged with driving a team of horses pulling a plow once spring day. Unfortunately she was not feeling well and was overtaken by menstrual cramps during her chore. In order to gain back strength, she rested briefly at the back of the field under a tree. Just a moment. Surely that couldn’t hurt. But her father saw this lapse in work and beat her for her laziness upon her return to the barn. She was 14 years old at the time.
While it may not have been a match made in heaven, she married the first man that asked. She had been forced to drop out of school after the eighth grade in order to work the farm. Plus, why would a woman ever go to school despite her dream of being a nurse. By the age of 21, she was bordering on spinsterhood when she finally was able to leave her father’s home. The man she married was also a farmer, a sharecropper, and she knew how to work hard. They raised dairy cows, sold eggs to the grocery, sowed and harvested grain, baled hay and straw, butchered their own meat, and canned their own fruits and vegetables.
Their first daughter arrived four years into their marriage. And then three years later, a second daughter, my mother. As the family tradition seemed to dictate, a third daughter was born two years later. But she was born in the dead of winter and illnesses were abundant. A healthy little girl at first, she contracted pneumonia and was dead before she was one month old. She was buried on my grandmother’s 31st birthday.
There was a lot to do and other children to care for. Grieving was a luxury that was not affordable at that time. But grandma suffered. And she was angry. Maybe the baby would have lived had she not been sent home into a house full of illness. And maybe she would have gotten her to the hospital in time if grandpa had not selfishly taken the car to Grange that night. What would be treated with therapy and medication today was left to fester and haunt a person in those days. She kept a small box of the baby’s things in the back bedroom. When she needed to cry, she would open the box and hold the only mementos she had left of the baby she lost.
But she went on. Albeit a shell of a person at times, she had to go on. A few years later a fourth daughter was born and then, eventually a son. As the children grew, they were able to take on more and more responsibility around the farm. Driving tractors, milking cows, collecting eggs, and feeding animals. Eventually grandma’s joy returned. Singing of silly songs. Weekly baking of sweets. Loving on all of the animals; from chick to kitten, from cow to dog. All of God’s creatures were loved on the farm. Even those who didn’t have the best fate. While they were alive, they were loved.
The years went by and the children grew. The first two daughters married and moved away from the family farm. Thanksgiving had come around and grandma invited my father’s parents to celebrate the holiday as one big, happy family. The aroma from the kitchen was a sweet mix of many kinds of pie, roasting turkey, home grown potatoes with butter from the cows outside the window. Everyone was anxiously awaiting the time when they could finally dig into the feast. But my grandpa was late coming in to wash up for dinner. A little aggravated with his insensitivity in front of the in-laws, my grandmother sent my other grandpa out to the barn to retrieve him.
He returned alone. He yelled to my grandma to call the ambulance and told my aunt and uncle to stay in the living room and to not go outside. He was harsh with them and they remained terrified of him for decades after. Grandma wanted to go assess the situation before bothering anyone on Thanksgiving Day but she was made to stay inside. It was much too late. Grandpa had been changing the header on the combine to switch from soy beans to corn when the jack failed. Grandma became a widow in the last year of her 40’s.
Without grandpa to run the farm, there was no way to stay. The owner of the land allowed my grandma time to find a new home by spring. However it wasn’t as simple as packing up the house. There was grandpa’s favorite tractor that had to be sold. The one he spent an entire winter restoring. Sometimes cussing a blue streak and sometimes lovingly. There was the herd of dairy cows that had to be sold. Some past their prime that were solely kept around due to their sweet demeanor. The chickens sold too. Grandma also had to find a job outside the home. Something she had never done.
They made the move to “town,” grandma and the youngest two kids. It wasn’t long the last two moved on and grandchildren entered the picture. Every two years, a new grandchild was born until there were eight. Four boys and four girls. Grandma delighted in her grandchildren. It wasn’t until we were able to read on our own that we all learned that Huey, Dewey, and Louie Duck did not have a fourth sibling named, Pooy. She also rejoiced when each of us was old enough to drink our milk from a cup. She owned a nondescript white coffee mug that she would fill for each of us around our second birthday. Upon drinking down the milk, we would discover a frog peeking out of the white milky pond. “Foggy, gamma! Foggy in cup!” Each time funnier than the last.
We made weekly trips to grandma’s house to spend time with her and get groceries together. One time my mom told me that grandma was going to make fish sticks. My favorite. But at lunch, I was served a small fish, intact, with a side of cooked dandelion greens. I cried. But grandma may have cooked that for us just to see the looks on our faces when our fish stared back at us. We enjoyed our visits but you never knew which grandma would be there. Sometimes joyful and fun, other times sad and gloomy. She was diagnosed with Parkinson ’s disease after the shaking in her hands made it difficult for her to complete simple tasks. And then the strokes started coming with some frequency.
Home healthcare was unaffordable on her meager budget. She had not worked long enough to receive much social security and famers did not pay into the programs so there was nothing to draw from grandpa. The only option was to liquidate her assets, pay the nursing home with that, and then go on Medicaid.
She did well in the nursing home. She played bingo, participated in pretty nails days, and enjoyed socializing. She did not enjoy the food. Grandma became more or less a vegetarian in the nursing home. Never a big fan of meat, she concluded that the yak they served for dinner had roamed the range one too many times and she was done. During one of our weekly visits, as grandma toddled down the hall, a fellow in a wheel chair slapped her on the bottom. “A friend of yours?” I asked with a lifted brow. She just giggled. Another man decided that each time she left her room, he would get naked, crawl in her bed, and pee. I asked her why that was a comfortable place for him. She just commented that he was a “dirty old coot.”
Grandma had to face the loss of another child in her lifetime. Her eldest daughter had a deep vein thrombosis to the brain at the age of 50 and was gone in an instant. The entire family went to the nursing home to tell her as we didn’t know if she would survive the grief. Even the doctor came too. True to form, she did survive. And this time, she grieved. We all did.
By the time grandma passed, the Parkinson’s disease had rendered her body useless. She had little control over her muscles and could not speak. But you could see in her eyes that she was still there. On our last visit together, my uncle told a story about a group of young men at his work who had been talking about “the one that got away.” My uncle wasn’t involved in the conversation but was listening. One of the guys said, “I went out with this girl. She was smart. She was pretty. And she went on to be a lawyer. I can’t believe I let her go.” My uncle asked this woman’s name and the young man said mine. My uncle reportedly stated, “That’s my niece!” The young man’s face turned red and he muttered as he shuffled from the room, “We didn’t do nothing, man. I swear we never did nothing.” My grandma sat there and giggled until she had tears in her eyes.
Grandma took her last breath surrounded by her children a few months short of her 83rd birthday. I finished school the following year and decided to treat myself to a trip to Australia. Grandma went to Florida a few times with her sister and to a couple destinations around the Midwest but never traveled much. She did, however, go to Australia with me. She was by my side every moment of my trip. I dreamed about her every night. On one occasion, she was teaching me how to cook intact fish in my mother’s kitchen and she was giggling at my ineptitude. Her giggled was infectious. And then she decided to show herself during my travel. As we were ferrying from the mainland to the Whitsunday Islands, a brilliant burst of sun shone through the clouds after a rain. “Hi gram. I miss you too. Thanks for being by my side. I love you.”
Grandma Esther is the woman in the lower right of the image.