Grandma: A life well lived

Filed in Gather Family Essential by on February 1, 2008 0 Comments

Hot and sweaty, my siblings and I rinsed the sand off our feet as we pumped cool water over them from the old water pump next to the back porch of my grandmother's house.  Meanwhile, my grandmother went into her kitchen and retrieved a large oatmeal cookie for each of us from a green glass cookie jar.  In what was a summer ritual during my pre-teen years, we stopped at Grandma's on our way home after an afternoon at the Lake Michigan beach one block west of Grandma's house. 

Near the pump stood a big, wooden barrel brimful of rainwater that Grandma collected.  She used the water to wash her hair, maintaining "Washing your hair with rainwater makes it soft and shiny."  She also used the water to hydrate her flower garden.  Grandma somehow coaxed the harsh, sandy earth of my grandparents' property into a lovely garden that produced huge balls of blue and white hydrangea blooms and Sweet William blossoms in shades of pink, white, and red. 

Grandma was my maternal grandmother and the only grandmother I knew since both of my paternal grandparents died before my parents met.  As a child, I was not especially close to Grandma and thought her old-fashioned.  As a young adult, I came to know more of the difficult life she had lived.  In middle age after she died, I saw her as intelligent, courageous, hard working, and tenacious.  Now in my mature years, I realize Grandma was an independent-minded woman well ahead of the times, something quite unusual for someone with only six months of formal schooling.

A 2006 photo of Grandma's house. Now part of a small Michigan inn, the house originally painted white, mostly retains its basic architectural form.  The front and back porches, however, have been enclosed, and a latticework veranda has been added. Grandma's garden has become a parking lot. Missing are the water pump and the rain barrel.

Nowadays property near a beach suggests wealth.  When Grandma and her family lived in their home, immigrants and the poor lived in the beach area.  They were separated from the town proper by railroad tracks and a high bluff. Over time, the area has redeveloped into summer homes.

I have little information on Grandma's early life, but the few facts I know show it to be one of poverty and lack.  She was born in 1875 to peasant parents in a village in Pomerania, near the Baltic Sea.  Over the years, governance of Pomerania, originally settled by Slavs, changed often.  At the time of Grandma's birth, the village was part of Germany, but since World War I, it has been part of Poland. 

Grandma's mother died, possibly related to childbirth, when she was two.  Three months later, her father remarried her mother's sister, Grandma's aunt.  Grandma had ten brothers and sisters, but only seven lived to be adults.  Grandma's youth didn't include much formal education.   At age 11, Grandma went to school for five months.  At 12, she had one additional month of schooling. 

In 1899, Grandma came to the United States.  Eventually she made her way to Philadelphia where she met my grandfather while working as a cook in a tavern.  They married in 1904 and soon after that moved to Milwaukee where my grandfather's mother and several brothers lived.

My maternal grandparents wedding photo.  Grandpa and Grandma are the couple in the middle.  Philadelphia, April 1904.

Life was hard during the years my grandparents lived in Milwaukee. Four days after Grandma gave birth to their son Harry in 1911, their two-year-old son William was killed when an out-of-control horse-drawn milk wagon ran over him.  Grandpa not very successfully operated a butcher shop.  In addition to raising her five remaining children, Grandma cared for the children of relatives, including the tubercular child of a relative whose whole family contracted tuberculosis and died.

One summer, Grandma took her children and traveled to southwestern Michigan where the family picked fruit to earn money.  For several summers after that, she continued migrating to Michigan to pick fruit.  And in 1917, Grandma decided she liked Michigan better than Milwaukee and decided to stay in Michigan. Grandpa followed her several months later.

In Michigan, Grandma became the primary support of the family and did a variety of work to earn money.  She cooked, cleaned house, and did laundry for wealthy people in the area.  Summers she and the children took a horse-drawn wagon and went berry-picking. Grandpa was a well-groomed and kind man, but he never worked on a regular basis in Michigan.

Astute, thrifty and practical, Grandma saved enough money to buy property with two structures on it.  The property gave the family rental income.  The larger structure, the house in the photo above, had an apartment on the first floor and also one on the second floor.  Grandma's family lived in either the upper or lower unit of the larger house and rented the other apartment.  The downstairs residence brought in more income.  During the depression and before I was born, my parents lived in the upstairs apartment with their then family of three daughters for a few years.

I vividly remember one particular visit to my grandparents when they lived upstairs.  Climbing a stairway at the back of the house, we came to the long, narrow, straight hall that cut through the apartment and had rooms on either side.  The first door on the left, only a few feet from the stairway, opened to a large, bright bathroom with a west window.  The room was meticulously neat and clean. But spoiling the primness of the room was the reek of tobacco.   The stench emanated from Grandpa's pipes arranged in an orderly fashion in a circular pipe stand on a small, green-painted table covered with a crisp white cloth.

The smaller structure was remodeled to make it into a house and eventually became the home of Grandma's daughter Emily and her family.

A recent photo of the smaller house on Grandma's property, which is now a part of an inn.  My cousin, Gather member Alice Burroughs, grew up here.

Grandma was busy on many fronts.   As a housewife and mother, she nursed her son Harry, who was bedridden with tuberculosis of the leg bone for a time during his childhood.   Grandma was also active in the community.  If someone was sick among the beach residents, she visited them and brought food to the family.  When for a time during the depression Mrs. Underwood, one of Grandma's wealthy clients, could not afford to pay her for doing the Underwood's laundry, Grandma continued to do their laundry for free.  Grandma and Mrs. Underwood developed a lifelong friendship.  

Grandma enjoyed puttering in her garden.  Before I knew her, she sometimes went swimming in the lake with her grandchildren.  My sister Ruth, who is five years older than I, remembers her wearing an old-fashioned bathing suit and swimming briskly into the lake.

Through all of her activities, through all of the difficulties, Grandma somehow managed to teach herself to read and write, not only her native German, but also English.  She taught herself to write English in her sixties to be able to correspond with her youngest son Elmer who was in the Air Force during World War II.  To me, she spoke only English and had no discernible accent.  Grandma always kept a dictionary nearby and called it her "dear friend."

Grandma's efforts, in addition to supporting the family, were earning respectability and middle class for herself and her family.

Family picture circa 1925.  Left to right:  Ed, Harry, Elmer (seated), Emily (mother of my cousin, Gather member Alice Burroughs), Grandma, Grandpa (seated), Gretchen (my mother). 

Grandma took care of me when my brother Jerry, my parents' first son, was born. She was 63 and I was 15 months old.  During the short time I was under her tutelage, she toilet-trained me, thereby making me an overachieving toddler and lessening the amount of diapering my mother had to do.

While I was at college in the late fifties, Grandma sold her property and came to live in an upstairs apartment in my parents' home. From that time on, she ate most Sunday and holiday dinners with my family.  Her appetite was excellent, and she particularly liked mashed potatoes.  My mother always made extra food for Grandma to take with when she went back upstairs to her apartment.  During after-dinner cleanup, Grandma insisted on drying dishes.  I saw Grandma frequently during those college years when I was home for holidays and summer breaks.

Christmas dinner 1961 at my parents' house.  Grandma, age 86, is in the left foreground.  Also around the table are my former husband, my father, my brother Don, my sister Ruth, and my mother.  Absent from the dinner are two sisters and a brother and their families.

When I got married, for a wedding present Grandma gave my husband and me a white Bible with the hand-written inscription:

In remembrance of your wedding day Sept. 19th 1959
From your 84 year old Grandma
And as it is God's book, I hope and pray that it [will] be a blessing to both of you.
But you only you [will] be blesst (sic) and have peace and sweet rest if you give him your body and soul.
Love, Grandma

Grandma continued to be mentally sharp until her death.  In her apartment at my parents' house, she surrounded herself with photos of her many grandchildren and great grandchildren and could name each person in the photos. When she turned 90, the local newspaper published an interview with her and noted that one of Grandma's favorite pastimes was to write letters and cards to her grandchildren and great grandchildren.  In the article, Grandma asks the interviewer, "What would I do now if I hadn't learned to read and write?"

Grandma at age 90. This photo accompanied an article about her in the local newspaper shortly after Grandma celebrated her 90th birthday in 1965. Note the crowd of photos in the background.

Grandma died at 94, outliving Grandpa by 19 years and two of her children.  At the end, her material wealth was slight–less than $300 and a sturdy rocking chair.  But she left a far more precious legacy to her heirs.  Grandma's desire to learn, her courage to become the best she could be, has permeated through to her descendents.  Almost all of her grandchildren attended college with about half getting master's degrees.  A number have done considerable traveling in the U.S. and around the world.  Of the great grandchildren that I know and who have passed college age, all graduated from college.  They include PhDs, an attorney, artists, and business leaders. 

I'm sure Grandma, like all of us, had her faults, but none particularly sticks out in my memory.  My dad sometimes thought her stubborn, but in retrospect, being "stubborn" was probably her way of asserting the independence she developed in response to the exigencies she encountered in life.

In her life, Grandma played many roles.  She was–to name a few–a daughter, stepdaughter, peasant, immigrant, cook, wife, in-law, mother, housewife, migrant, servant,  entrepreneur, friend, nurse, householder, landlord, grandmother, gardener, swimmer, reader, correspondent, and learner.  Grandma made hard choices, rebounded from setbacks, developed new paths, and helped others in need.  Hers was a life well lived.

Information Sources

  • A genealogical survey form completed by my grandmother on April 28, 1966.  I developed the form and sent it to close, living relatives in 1965.
  • An interview of my grandmother published by a local newspaper in 1965 when she was 90.
  • Notes (date unknown) on my grandparents' life handwritten by my sister Ruth.
  • Conversations with my siblings and my cousin Alice Burroughs regarding their memories of my maternal grandparents.
  • An email, dated May 5, 2005, from my daughter Pam, an attorney and history buff, clarifying the national boundaries for Pomerania during the time my grandmother lived there. 
  • Grandma's handwritten inscription in a Bible she gave me for my wedding in 1959.
  • My memory of events and of what my mother and grandmother told me.

These sources do not always agree.  In such cases, I have consulted relatives or other written sources to clarify the discrepancy and/or have used my best judgment to determine accuracy of the material.  


About the Author ()

I am a retired environmental, health and safety manager who has done some work in communications. I have a knowledge of and passion for sustainability issues. In temperament I am a peculiar mix of stable soul and free spirit.

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