Great grandmother

Let Us Hear the Conclusion of the Whole Matter

Posted by on May 8, 2007 in Father in law, Great grandmother | 0 comments

I have been told I have a keen analytical mind, but I never really took to the bean counting aspects of programming, even though I have an IT degree and grade point average that states otherwise. Taking a leap based on insufficient information and actually solving the problem in half the time would be my strength. A number of years ago my husband and son went to the computer to labor over the reason why my father in law’s files seemed to have disappeared. I sat down and talked to him while they worked.

“Pop” I asked, “What did you name the last chapter of your book.”

“Memoirs” came the reply.

“…and what about the chapter before” I speculated, sensing I might be on to something. Sure enough, ”memoirs” was the next word out of his mouth. I told the men in the other room to stop, and then I explained to Pop in very simple terms how files work. The light dawned at last when I told him that if he had a file cabinet, and he put everything in one folder, he would have trouble locating the bit he needed again. It was a big “Aha” moment for him. The men hovering over the screen were astounded. They knew so much about how computers work that they assumed the problem would be found in the machine. My analysis started at the most likely flaw in the process, the human who was operating a machine he considered an advanced typewriter.

An intelligent man, Pop was born in 1914 when the newest technology included the telephone, wireless telegraph, x-ray, cinema, bicycle, automobile, and the airplane. Earth shaking stuff, but all things that he could touch and feel. The innovations of today are below the surface, subtle, and full of mystery for those born in at the dawn of the First World War. We settled on a easy and understandable file naming system, chapter 1, chapter 2, chapter 3, etc, and the men recovered as much of the big book as possible. Pop eventually finished the text, a considerably stylized and romanticized version of his life, and presented to us as a Christmas present some years later. Of all the members of his family. I am the only one who actually read it, because I still find the human mind more intriguing than any electronic one.

I am not one of those people always looking back to a simpler era. I embrace changes eagerly, am delighted with the newest gadget, and intrigued with innovations that are on the horizon. I am hopeful this will keep my mind keen, and that as technology advances I will continue to be able to grasp the concepts and revel in the changes. Time travel, a consistent theme in our literary traditions even before the modern technological era, often addresses the confusion of a brain unprepared for new knowledge. In truth we are all time travelers, moving at an increasingly faster pace toward a world that threatens to become incomprehensible. My husband’s grandmother was born in 1891, and lived to age 94. She had a third grade education, more than many women of her era, but woefully inadequate for the circle into which she moved in her adult life. She sent all her children to college, entertained the “best” people in her home in Durham, NC, and had a native intelligence and cunning that I found amazing. Thinking to help her with her accounts, I brought a calculator one weekend and attempted to explain to her how it operated. This bright lively woman had no more grasp of the function or use of the device than a cave man. I took it back home sadly, realizing it would be no more than a paperweight for her desk while she ciphered painstakingly with her yellow pencil.

I have a horror not of growing older in body, but growing older in my mental attitude. I have been making a study of this lately and find that there is far more information available on keeping the body healthy than for keeping the brain at its prime. With the information that I have found, and my own analytical mind, I have come up with theories on how to slow the ravages of time. First, and most importantly is attitude, the belief that the brain may change, but does not have to lose its edge. That is supported by a number of studies. 

Next I will trot out that familiar litany that the things we do to keep the body healthy also serve to keep the mind sharp. Sorry folks, but daily exercise and a sensible diet are right up there at the top of the list of things sharp older people say are essential. Because you don’t want your six pack attached to a vacuous stare, you must also exercise your brain. Reading, writing, and playing games that provide a challenge all seem to keep mental facilities sharp, but whatever you do don’t stop exercising your imagination. Perhaps I should have put this one at the top of the list; don’t take life too seriously. What does it matter if we live to 100 if we find no joy in the living? A day without laughter is a wasted day, and it is rare that life is so grim we cannot find ourselves at least chuckling at the cosmic joke that is humanity.

My last bit of advice is to keep a wide circle of friends of all ages. In the retirement home where they live, my in laws are surrounded almost exclusively by people age 70 and older. The life they have there would be my worst nightmare. To be only with people who have the same mind set as your own soon makes one think that that is the only world view possible. They have nothing to talk about except their health and that has become the focus of their life. A conversation with them starts with the recent death report and ends with what Pop used to jokingly call “an organ recital”, as in, my heart, my lungs, my liver etc. That brings me around again to the reason for this post. I think the preacher said it best in Ecclesiastes, my favorite book of the Bible. Forgive me God if I paraphrase slightly; If a man lives many years, let him rejoice in them all…and whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your strength, for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, where you are going. Live long and prosper. That last bit would have been in the Bible if the preacher had thought of it, and hadn’t been in such a black mood when he wrote. It also goes a long way toward proving he was wrong when he said “there is nothing new under the sun”.

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Miss Annie’s House

Posted by on May 7, 2005 in Great grandmother | 0 comments

She was barely 17 when this wedding picture was taken on July 4, 1907. The childhood she remembered was a golden dream, and her father, a magical figure. She loved to talk about his farm in Hickory NC, a mini factory that turned out every item used in daily life; woolen and cotton cloth, shoes, cured meats, cheeses, canned and dried vegetables and even the coffins for the community. She never said who built the coffin her father was laid in 1909, but she grieved always for the years the typhoid had stolen from them. She kept true to her rural roots as much as was possible, while living on a small city lot in Durham. The backyard was an explosion of beautiful flowers in all seasons, kept with such care that no random weed or leaf was allowed to lie peaceful in it for a day.

Her stiff-necked German husband built her an exquisite house, but he did not agree with her ideas on appropriate interiors. To furnish the house in the style she wanted Grandmother took to her sewing machine and made quality clothing for “the finest families”. When Mr. Gantt refused to waste money on a college education for their girls, she sewed up enough money to put them both through Duke. When I met her in 1972 she was as tiny and fragile in appearance as a sprite, but I soon discovered she had an almost magical strength of body and spirit. She told me stories that her granny had related to her about the civil war, and held tightly, against all reason, to a hatred for the Yankees. She talked about barn raisings and corn huskings and grand parties that went on for days. With a twinkle in her eye she told me that when a boy pulled back the husk on an ear that contained colored corn, he got to kiss the girl of his choice. Even in her last days she had a style that made me certain that she was the girl most often chosen. I treasure those talks, because she gave me a window into daily life of a bygone era, and introduced me to my children’s relatives.

They were all gone when we met, taken like characters in Greek tragedy. Eva, her daughter, and the namesake of my own child, died after a valiant struggle with cancer in 1961. Her husband went in the summer of 67, spared from the awful blow of their grandson’s suicide that fall. Early the next year, her only son fell from the top of the winding stairs he helped build, and died after striking his head on the needlepoint loveseat at the bottom. She was left alone in a 20-room mansion where ghosts lived like invisible cobwebs in every corner. When we came to visit we slept comfortably in the beautiful old rooms filled with their whispers. No one was allowed to sleep in “son’s room” which was kept as if he had just stepped out for the night. Left alone for so many years, she was in the habit of talking out loud to them, keeping them tied tightly to her side as she had in life. It was a house where one could imagine pathways into other worlds, perhaps through the doors of a massive wardrobe, or taking an extra turn on the stair. My children were fearful on the winding staircase, because I cautioned them so often. I did not mention the tragedy that occurred there, but I’m sure they could sense it in my tone. I always felt safe with the ghosts of the house, and imagined them brushing past me, smelling of magnolia and the slightly acid-musty odor of mahogany wood and heating oil. Even today when I open the china cabinet grandmother left me, a tiny whiff of that smell still lingers, but the ghosts seem to have departed with her.

In February of 1984 my daughter Eva awakened one morning and startled us all by saying, “Grandmother will die in the spring, after my birthday.” It did not take a seer to know that a 94 year old had little time left, but we never spoke of the possibility and could not imagine a toddler having a concept of death. We celebrated Eva’s 3rd birthday on March 31. The call came from Durham in mid April that grandmother had a stroke but was doing well. I called her in the hospital and assured her we would come down and stay with her when she was able to come home. I told her about my garden full of new peas and asparagus, so she asked me to save a few for her. She related an odd dream to me that was recuring every night. She was in a garden with a tiny picket fence, only a foot high. All her dead family members were standing on the other side of the fence, hands outstretched, asking her to take the one step over and join them. We got the call that she had taken that step on May 7, the eve of her beloved grandson’s birthday. Even with every warning, death always surprises.

When my husband remembers his dreams they are often of that house, cool in the evening breeze, the kitchen warm with the smells of cooking. As the son of a minister who moved every four years, Durham was the home of his heart. I have had a recurring dream that I go to her attic and find amazing treasures and mementoes that were forgotten when the house was emptied and sold. It is a dream of nostalgia for all things we have romanticized about the past and a longing for those ghosts to have been flesh for just a bit longer. My children barely remember her now, but her mark is on them, clear for every eye to see, passed as an organic memory from generation to generation. Someday they will inherit the furniture she defied her husband to purchase, but they will not understand the price she paid and they will not turn to search for her when they smell magnolias in the summer.

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