My sister thought she was a scary old lady. I kind of thought so, too. But I wanted to be scary like that. People did what our Great Grandmother Lena said. She was in charge of things. You didn’t cross her. The world took her seriously.
These were all things a skinny little freckled girl wanted. No one took me seriously. Not the way I wanted them to. At the time, I blamed the freckles. No one could take me seriously when my freckles and dimples made me look like a cute little girl, instead of the very serious writer I was inside. Really, it was probably because I was an eight-year-old girl. I just wasn’t supposed to be this serious and ambitious yet.
I was a writer! It was my identity. I was Jo from Little Women and, if my family had needed me to, I could have written books to buy our firewood. Never mind that we didn’t have a fireplace. I wrote poems, stories, essays, histories, whole books. My teachers and parents and aunts and uncles all thought everything I did was just wonderful. I enjoyed the praise, of course, but I knew they weren’t taking it seriously. They weren’t offering any critique.
Great Grandmother Lena was the only one among my relatives who didn’t just respond with blanket praise when I showed her my poems and stories. Sometimes this made me want to cry, but it also made me value her opinion. She knew that I would grow to write bigger and better things. Things that mattered. Through her eyes, I could see this, too. Her praise was worth so much more because it was so difficult to earn.
Throughout my childhood, I heard a lot of things about her, but not from her. She didn’t talk about herself or her history. She wasn’t a grandmother who told stories.
I knew, though, that she had been married, and that her husband had died a long time ago, even before my mother was born. I always had a hard time imagining a husband for her. She seemed so self-sufficient, so sure. Was there really room for someone else’s opinion about how things should be done? Was he dour and dark like her?
Grandma Liz, Lena’s daughter, had adored her father. She said that he was funny and affectionate, that he liked to sing as he walked the little family farm doing the chores. When Grandma Liz talked, you knew it was her father that she had loved with all her heart. It was so hard to imagine this Irish man singing his way through a life beside my German great grandmother. I always imagined him being a little afraid of her, like the rest of us.
Now that story makes me awfully sad. I think she must have really loved her husband, that he had been the lightness of her soul, a lightness that she lost entirely when he died young. I don’t think she ever even considered dating someone again, let alone marrying. He had been it for her. And he died when they were both so young. She lived another half a life without a partner. It makes me hope that there is heaven, and that they are together there.
But that’s all conjecture, probably me projecting how I feel about my own husband into the outline of her story. Grandma Lena never told me how she felt about her husband. That was private. You didn’t talk about private things.
What Great Grandmother Lena did talk about were her convictions. She was a woman with a lot of opinions about life and how one should live it. As my Great Grandmother, she obviously felt she should teach me these life lessons.
She told me that you can’t rely on a man to take care of you. She didn’t think much of women who couldn’t handle their own problems. When something broke at her house, she fixed it. It made her angry when she couldn’t. If she hired a repairman, she made him explain what he was doing so that next time she would be able to fix it herself. Being afraid was no excuse. You just bucked up and did it anyway. This was probably why she and my Grandma Liz did not get along as well as they might. Grandma Liz was happy to let her husband take care of things for her.
It really surprises me now to realize that Great Grandmother Lena never got her driver’s license. It seems out of character for such an independent woman to rely on others for a ride. In a way, I’m glad she didn’t. I wouldn’t have known her the same way if my mother hadn’t been the one to take her where she needed to go.
I wonder now if it was part of her general mistrust of technology. After all, her house still had things like an outhouse, a pump, and a wringer-washer in the 1980s. She always said that there was no reason to fix something that wasn’t broken, but I wonder if she was just a little nervous about new-fangled things. It’s a soft thought, imagining this powerhouse of a woman cowed by machinery. I guess she wasn’t all steel after all.
What little help she accepted in life, was not from men. It was my mother, her granddaughter, that she called for a ride. Not her son or any of her grandsons. So, the lesson is, I guess: if you have to accept help, it is better to take it from another woman than a man. And you should always repay your debts, if you are forced to take any on. If people help you, you find a way to help them in return.
She told me that hard work is the most valuable thing we have to give. That God values effort. She had no patience for laziness, physical or mental. Although she never had a paying job outside her home—few women of her generation did—she worked hard every day of her life. She canned. She tilled. She sewed. She kept to a schedule of household maintenance including turning mattresses, re-caulking windows and doorframes, and a house-emptying spring cleaning on top of just ordinary daily cleaning and cooking. I cannot remember ever seeing her idle, except when she read. Which, of course, is not really idle. Just still.
She told me that you should not take anything from anyone. Good people took care of their own needs. “You don’t buy frivolous things then cry that you can’t afford butter for your bread.” It’s irresponsible not to have a nest egg and emergency funds.
But, at the same time, when we have extra, we should share it. You should give at church and support charities to help people who are not as strong as we are. “Strong women take care of themselves. And others.”
She taught me that being pretty was not nearly as important as being intelligent and self-sufficient. She believed this without bitterness. She didn’t wish for the softer life a prettier woman might have had. She didn’t want someone to take care of her or pamper her. She dismissed it with a wave of her gnarled hand. “Women like us, Samantha, we don’t need that useless stuff. We are not decorations for some man. We build our own destinies. We are women of substance.”
“Women like us.” I couldn’t be prouder to be included in any group. I only pray she would still think that we are the same kind of woman.