Sunday, May 27, 2007

Remembering Gram on Her Birthday

Today would have been my grandmother’s 93rd birthday. She passed away 18 years ago, of cancer and a broken heart.

Although I was closer to my other grandmother, both relationally and in geographic distance, I loved Gram a lot, and I learned a lot from her, too.

Gram did not have an easy life. She was the only child of a couple that did not get along very well. They divorced when she was nine years old. Her father wanted custody of her, but her mother fought him and won, as was usual in those days. Gram said her fondest memory of her father was of him hugging her through the schoolyard fence at recess.

Once Gram’s mother got custody of Gram, she put her into foster care and moved eight hours north (not far from where I now live), where she worked as a nurse in a mental hospital.

Gram was very unhappy in the foster home. She ran off, and took the long train journey north to her mother, whose response was to send her back south again.

Gram had some bad experiences in foster homes; in one, she was abused by an older boy whose parents did not believe Gram when she told them what he had done. They sent her away, and she was put in another home, where she was not treated much better.

At 14 Gram met a man eleven years older than her. Trying to make the home she wanted so badly, she married him, and soon found herself pregnant. Within two years she had two children, my uncle and my father. Two more soon followed, and by the time she was 20, she had four children and a husband who used his paycheck to buy rounds at the local bar.

This was during the depths of the Great Depression. Gram had a hard time feeding her children on what little money her husband brought home, when he was actually able to keep a job. She took any odd job she could find, but it wasn’t enough.

In frustration, she told her husband to leave because he was no help, and was more like a fifth child. She had a hard enough time caring for four children. He left, and she became a single mom at the age of 20. Single motherhood was not chic in those days; she lived in fear that someone would find out about her situation and take away her children.

But she was determined to keep her three boys and one little girl together at all costs. They moved from town to town, wherever she could find work. At one point things got so hard she was forced to ask her mother if they could live with her for a while. Her mother said she could bring the little girl, but would have to put the boys in an orphanage. Gram refused to do that, so she was left with no help.

The family ended up in Chicago, where Gram found work as a welder during World War II. Her boys began working when they were very small; my father recalls selling gum on the city trains when he was five. They had a hard life, but Gram was resourceful.

She made the kids’ toys by recycling what she had around the house. For example, one of their favorite toys was the set of stacking cans she made by collecting food tins of various sizes that she covered with paper. She took her old suits and coats, cut them up and used them to make clothes for her children. My dad recalls eating canned peaches over a torn-up slice of old bread for dinner. They stretched what they had as far as they could. She reminded them that they could get through anything as long as they remained a family. Inside of her lived the little girl that wanted a family so badly, and she made sure the family she finally got stayed together.

The kids saved up their earnings, Gram tried to put away a little something from her pay each week, and eventually their pooled funds bought them a house. How proud they were to have a home of their own!

By then the kids were teenagers, and Gram soon found that she could no longer keep her family together. My dad went into the Air Force; later his younger brother would join the service, too. My aunt, the youngest, married a young man who had been living with them because he needed a home and Gram took him in. Soon her other children got married, too, and Gram was left alone.

Her first three grandchildren, including a set of twins, died soon after birth. But before long more grandchildren started coming, 13 in ten years, and she loved seeing her family grow. She greeted each of us with a bear hug the minute she’d see us.

She retired and moved back south to care for her mother, even though her mother had never cared for her properly. I always admired that about Gram, especially because her mother was not very grateful for the care.

In her late fifties, Gram built herself a new house, and even helped dig the foundation herself. She designed it so that there was room for each of her children and their spouses. Then she turned the finished attic into the grandchildren’s room. She put mattresses on the floor for us to sleep on, and encouraged us to draw on the walls to make the room our own. She even put in a dumbwaiter so we could have snacks sent up from the kitchen. Once my cousin tried to use it as an elevator and got stuck; that was interesting!

It was around this time that tragedy struck Gram’s life: her oldest son was killed by a drunk driver. Gram was devastated. The little family she had worked so hard to keep together was now missing one of its own, and she never really got over it. She lived for 15 more years, but once she found out about the cancer, she never really fought it as most people would.

The saddest thing about Gram is that she was not a Christian, and so she had no hope when faced with the loss of her son. In her final days, I would talk to her about God and it would make her mad. She had no use for Him or Christians, because she had been very hurt by Christians during her lifetime. The foster family who believed their son instead of her was a Christian family. During the Depression, Christian families turned down her requests for help. She was very bitter about Christians all her life. Ironically, many of her grandchildren are now believers.

I wish Gram’s life could have been different. Faith would have helped her get through the death of her son, and over her bitterness against those who wouldn’t help her and her little family when they needed it.

But despite all this, Gram had a huge heart. She adored her family. Even in her seventies, as her health gave out, she would get down on the floor and play with her great-grandchildren. It was clear that she had as much fun as they did.

One of the most poignant memories I have of Gram is when she stayed with us for a day or two when my daughter was a toddler and my son only a few months old. I asked her to give the baby his bottle while I made dinner. I peeked out of the kitchen to see how things were going, and there was Gram on the sofa, rocking my son and singing to him as she fed him. As she sang, she called him by the names of her sons, one at a time. She didn’t even notice me, so busy was she reliving the times she loved with her kids.

Gram often wrote poetry as a way of reliving different times in her life. My uncle put her poems together in a volume after she died. Here’s one of my favorites:

My Family

What should I have ever done
Without my family?
Of my three boys and my little girl,
If they had never come to me?
I can hardly remember when
I did not have the first two.
I thought we were lucky when
With two boys with eyes of blue,
We thought it a big surprise
When not long before,
We had another boy,
A redhead, playing on the floor.
Soon we were expecting number four,
And I could not believe it true
When the doctor said, “Look,
I’ve got a little girl for you.”
I did not know so very much,
For I was pretty young, you see.
But we clung together, all for one,
And my kids surely had a tough time
raising me.

Copyright 2007 NJM


Janet said...

What a WONDERFUL post. Your Grandmother was a very strong woman!
I know what you mean about her not being a Christian. My biological father died a few years ago and he was not a Christian either. (And he didn't have the "good" excuses your Gram had either....) It can be very difficult to face. It's a good thing we know how good our God is, and how all His ways are justice and truth. Without that, it would be devastating. Thanks for posting that, it makes me SO thankful for all that we have. We truly have never wanted for anything!

Barbara Frank said...

Thanks, Janet, for your kind words. You are right, of course, that we have that assurance from God.

I wish more people in our society understood just how good we have it these days materially!