My grandmother, like my father, was born prematurely in an era when there was little anyone could do to ensure the survival of babies that young. She was a sickly child who struggled to get through school because she got ill so easily. She had virtually no support from her parents, good German folks who’d left Kansas to avoid the dust bowl.
When Grandma was two years old, her older sister (four years) was bitten and killed by a rattlesnake. Until Grandma was a young teenager, her mother used to say, “Why couldn’t it have been you? Why couldn’t the weak one die?”
One of my grandmother’s proudest achievements was the pin she was given for her perfect attendance at school the year she turned thirteen. She used to get it out now and then to show it to her grandkids and talk about how important it was to go to school everyday. I wish I knew what happened to that pin.
Despite her parents, Grandma was a sweet, loving woman, and I think she had her older brothers to thank for that. They adored her, pestered her, and looked out for her. There was no reservation in their love for her at all.
Grandma loved her children, but she couldn’t shelter them from Grandpa. I can only imagine the confused hurt that came from the fact that she never stopped the abuse that went on. I remember the torment that came out in some of my aunts and uncles when she died. They loved her, but there was a lot of anger in them too.
All my life I’ve felt that Grandma had a special place in her heart for my father. It wasn’t until the day she died that I found out why it was. We knew the end was coming, so the family was gathered around to say goodbye. Grandma’s eyes were closed, but when my mom said, “Hi Mom, it’s C. and N. and the kids,” Grandma stirred and said, very quietly, “C? There’s my baby.” And my aunt K. told about how my dad was so little when he was born that they put him in a shoe box and how aunt K (oldest daughter) and Grandma had to stay up in shifts so make sure that he kept breathing while he was asleep.
When I heard the story, I immediately made the connection to what Grandma had told me about herself.
I also learned that day that my aunt K. was my dad’s godmother. They’d had to rush to christen and baptize him since they weren’t sure he’d live, and aunt K. had asked to have that honor.
All of this kind of explains why Grandma and Aunt K always did special little things for my siblings and me even when our other aunts and uncles and cousins were being remarkably unkind.
I have a piece of jewelry that Grandma gave me when I was twelve. I knew at the time that it was something special, and though I’ve had many of my family members remark on it when I wear it, I never tell them where it came from because I worry that one of them will try to take it away.