We visited my eighty-five year old grandmother yesterday. She lives in an integrated, multicultural, working class town in the Midwest that refuses to die.
We lost Grandpa in January. The side table by her recliner has become a shrine, home to his award pins and belt buckles from a lifetime of service to Davey Tree, handsome photos of him as a younger man, the rose left on his pillow by the mortuary the night they came to the house to take his body.
In all of my time in the medical field I’m still processing that my grandfather was the first person I ever had to pronounce.
She’s good. Really. She dreams of him. This makes it feel as if he’s not quite so far away. She talks to him. She shares her day, as she did for the sixty-seven years of their marriage. Yet, I know she feels alone. They had a rhythm. A pattern. One: director of family life and house. The other: author of his domain. It was a symbiotic relationship, one she says was built on trust.
Living in the same town for scores of years and never knowing a stranger affords one a rich life, diverse with friends.
As his health began to fail and they were seen out less and less in their usual haunts – mom and pop restaurants, diners, and family owned places that have been there for years – word got around that Dwight was dying. In the six weeks that he was in the rehabilitation center following his final surgery he enjoyed over one hundred twenty visitors. Grandma received cards and notes from check out clerks at local markets and waitresses and staff from favorite restaurants. They tear up now when she comes in. “I loved that man” a Turkish manager at their favorite eatery recently told her.
She loved him. They never quarreled, she said (though I might have to verify that claim with their daughters). They’d just be silent if they were mad at each other, she recalled.
We saw a teal, white-topped Cadillac on our way out to lunch.
“That looks like our Caddy!”
“It does doesn’t it. Was that the one that was owned by Betty White?” (Not the Betty White, but a Betty White.)
“No, that was the Lincoln. The Caddy I bought with my Avon money and in my own name. One of the men on my route said when he saw it, ‘Maybe I need to start selling Avon.’”
She registered to vote for the first time in her life a few weeks ago. Her son-in-law, my uncle, a retired UAW member, collected all of the paperwork for her. She said she watched the convention speeches on both sides and really enjoyed them. She especially loved hearing the President’s wife speak. “You can tell they really love each other,” she said.
Out of respect, I didn’t ask her for whom she planned to vote.
She volunteered, “There were two things that Romney said that really troubled me.” She held up an index finger, looking far bonier than I ever recall. ”First: He said he’d end Planned Parenthood. And two: He said to students trying to figure out how to pay for college that instead of taking out loans they should borrow money from their parents. I heard one student say, ‘If our parents had any money we wouldn’t need to take out loans.’”
My grandmother is the second of five children whose coal miner father died before she was a teen, whose widowed mother raised them through the Depression by taking in laundry and mending and who grew used to eating lard sandwiches at school. If it weren’t for food commodities (food stamps today), snaring rabbits in the yard, a family garden, the kindness of family and strangers and the grace of God – they wouldn’t have survived. She married my grandfather when he was sixteen and she was eighteen – not because they had to – and was very proud of having earned her GED. My grandfather escaped the draft for WWII because he was too young. The youngest of four, his mother died when he was a young child, and it would not be an over-exageration to say that he mostly raised himself. He lied about his age to get a job with Davey Tree where he worked his way up over forty-seven years from crew member to a regional supervisor. He took down a thirty foot pine in his grandson’s yard just weeks before he died.
My conservative Christian grandmother is voting for the first time in her life in this election for Barack Obama because she’s one of the 47% who knows that the President understands her life story and that life is more complicated than a balance sheet and an ideological worldview.
I’m very proud of her.
Copyright © 2012. Christina Caine. All rights reserved.