My grandmother was born just before the Great Depression. She was the daughter of a successful farmer and his wife who grew up, married, and raised four children. She was a polio survivor, a nurse, and liked to hold onto everything including the Velveeta boxes. Due to poor health, it was expected that she would not live to see the birth of her first grandchild in the early 1970s. Her oldest great grandchild (she has 16 now I think) is in high school. She has been, to date, one of the ever-present things in my life.
As a very young child, I remember the excitement of getting to stay overnight at her house. I had a little red hard-sided suitcase and staying there meant I got to sleep in the big tall four poster canopy bed and fall asleep listening to the clock in the dining room tick. At her house I learned the Prayer-We-Say-in-the-Morning and the Before-Anyone-May-Be-Excused-From-the-Table-Prayer, which was said in addition to the standard table prayer I said at home. I learned how to play Euchre sitting around her family room table on various laps. She always talked about giving the dishes a bubble bath and somehow that sounded more exciting than merely washing them.
Her home, which was actually her childhood home, is a two story yellow farm house that people have given directions by for years. I imagine they do less so now, but it’s still a well known landmark in the county. There is a big swing on her front porch, big enough for several grandchildren to sit together and swing and play children’s games. When I was very little there were still sheep, though they converted an acre of pasture to a tree grove that is known as The Lord’s Acre. Those trees are huge now.
In the aftermath of my grandfather’s heart attack and my parent’s divorce, we moved in with her for a few months. I don’t remember a lot about that time period other than that she used to make me eat (my method of dealing with stress is not eating) and she left me alone to spend hours playing songs on the big, upright and dreadfully out of tune piano in the formal living room. I have spent over two decades of Christmas evenings in that room, surrounding a tree and surrounded by as many of the family as we could pack in. With 4 kids and 11 grandchildren, once you started adding in all of the spouses and children, it added up quickly. And with a very few exceptions, the decorations haven’t changed in that house in my lifetime.
And so there were family dinners, summers spent with various grandchildren taking lawn mowing duties (I got out of that–by the time I was old enough, so were younger male cousins!), and holidays gathered at her house. I spent a summer repainting her patio furniture. I remember having to stay with her when I was 14 or 15 because my mother was going to be out of town. While I could understand for my little brother (7 or 8), I resented strongly laws that claimed that I wasn’t responsible enough to stay at home and sleep in my own bed.
We always joked that my grandmother had a direct line to God. If she was praying about it, something was going to happen. Very occasionally, I would ask her to pray specifically for me. The last time was as I was interviewing for my current job.
While I spent a lot of time with her, we were not particularly close. Though communication was frequent, it tended to be superficial and our conversations grew much more edited after I left for college. Generally she seemed pleased with what I was doing and she liked to hear about my travels. It would have made her much happier had I permanently settled within 30 minutes of her house and all of the other cousins having done likewise but she was still pleased to see me whenever I came home.
Her children threw a huge 80th birthday party for her. My sister took pictures all day. Being the image of my mother and my great-great-grandmother, I am instantly recognizable as one of the family. One doesn’t quite get the sense of extended family until you realize that you’re distantly related to a large gymnasium full of people and realize that’s only one side of the family.
She was not an easy person. I can recognize her flaws pretty honestly for knowing some of the damage they’ve done to other people. I think she and I only seriously squared off once. The last five years in particular have been increasingly challenging, as health issues have increased and other issues of aging have made things hard.
And in some ways, what comes now is a relief. She hasn’t been happy in some time, taking a list of medications so long it makes my head spin, needing 24 hour care, finally being confined to a wheel chair and then bed. She was certainly still lucid the last time I saw her, though the past few weeks saw her not really conscious anymore.
My grandmother will be a woman known for her never ending lists and I hope that now she will have the opportunity to finally get that minute she always said she was planning for–to sit down and do whatever it was she wanted.
Ruthanna Fenter September 12, 1923-November 8, 2011