Thursday, October 11, 2012

A Tribute to Grandma

Today is my Grandmother's birthday and even though she passed away 10 years ago now, I still think of her nearly every day and miss her greatly.  She saw many changes in the world in her 99 year lifespan, encountered many trials and heartache, and was the quintessential mend-and-make-do kind of woman.

Born October 11, 1903, she was the oldest of 9 children, so she was "motherly" at a very young age, helping out around the house and with her younger siblings.

Retro Gran | Photo circa 1905
My Grandmother, bottom right, circa 1905, with her parents and baby brother.

Retro Gran | Photo circa 1915
My grandmother, second from left in back row, circa 1915, with most of her siblings.

Retro Gran | Photo circa 1920
Grandma, circa 1920
She became an actual mother at the age of 21 from an out-of-wedlock "forced" encounter while working at a boarding house.  The baby, a little girl, lived only a month before succumbing to pneumonia related to whooping cough.  

That same year, 1924, she married my grandfather and they wasted no time starting a family, but she suffered the loss of their first seven children, most all of whom were born prematurely.  

Just when it looked as if she would never have a child of her own, her eighth pregnancy resulted in a full term healthy baby girl.  She lost two more children to premature birth, suffered an additional two miscarriages plus lost a son at 12 years of age due to complications from Rheumatic Fever.  The last child she delivered was when she was 42 years old and he was a special baby boy born with Down's Syndrome.  All in all, she experienced a total of 21 pregnancies with only 9 of them producing a child to live to maturity.  

Retro Gran | Photo circa 1930s
Grandma, circa 1930s

Retro Gran | Photo circa 1930s
I love this hat she is wearing - Circa 1930s
Some years into her marriage, my grandmother suffered more heartache with the discovery of my grandfather's unfaithfulness with her own sister.  The affair subsequently produced a child, although the baby only lived for one day.   (I recall my grandmother telling me that she expected that of my grandfather, because he was a man, but what hurt her the most was that her sister never once apologized to her.)

It was during this period of time that the family left city living and moved into farm life in the hills of Virginia.  My Grandfather worked at jobs that kept him away from the home for much of the time so my Grandmother was left to raise the family and run the farm, essentially alone.   During the time he was away, my grandfather stayed with his brothers and sisters in the city.  He would usually come home to the farm on the weekends, gathering up what little food there was, taking it with him when he returned to his family in the city.

Retro Gran | Logging train circa 1930s
My grandfather, far right, and his brother next to him, working for a logging company.
Having lived through the Great Depression, I'm sure my grandmother knew how to stretch a dollar and a meal, but these were hard times and the family struggled greatly.  Knowing that my grandfather would take what food they had when he returned, she began to work furiously during the weeks to gather, can, and store it into a safe place, leaving only a minimal amount for him to take when he arrived on the weekends.  She and the kids then lived on what she raised on the farm and canned from the garden.  What clothes she did not make for them were hand me downs from other families.

As the years went by, her children grew and began to have families of their own, relying on my grandmother as care taker for their children while they worked.
Retro Gran | Photo taken 1964
Grandma and a baby me, 1964.  This is my most cherished photograph and it sits proudly framed on my desk at work.
In the late 1940s my grandfather became ill and in 1948 required surgery to remove his left lung.  He recovered and continued to spend much of his time in the city with his family, but eventually he was no longer healthy enough to travel and work outside the home as he had done for so many years of their marriage and he finally came home to stay.  For more than two decades he battled health problems, and until his death in 1972, my grandmother maintained the farm, cared for a son with special needs, and took care of my ailing grandfather.

Retro Gran | Photo taken around 1965
My maternal grandparents, circa 1965.
It was during this period of time that my parents purchased property from my grandparents and made plans to build our family home close to my mother's childhood home.  This afforded me and my siblings the pleasure of growing up next door to our grandparents.  (Keep in mind that this was the rural hills of southwest Virginia, so next door in this case was about a half mile over the hill.)  I would traipse back and forth over the little dirt driveway every afternoon after school and spent essentially every summer day playing with the farm animals and roaming the fields.

In the years after my grandfather's death, my grandmother remained on her farm, caring for my uncle, and became an integral part of my upbringing.  Some of my fondest childhood memories involve my grandmother - joining her at the barn on those early mornings to milk the cows - which she did by hand, laying by the wood stove at night while she cut out my chosen "paper dolls" from an old Sears & Roebuck catalog, having her explain to me why Morning Glory's only bloom in the morning hours, watching her take a plain feed sack and transforming it into something wonderful - the list of memories could go on for hours.

Retro Gran | Photo circa 1995.
My Mom and Grandma, circa 1995.
She taught me many things, shared so much wisdom and faith, but most of all, she gave me unconditional love.  I still hear her sweet small voice whispering in my ear telling me that I was her favorite, even though I am sure she said that to all of her grandchildren, I remember how special it made me feel to hear those words from her.

Retro Gran | My beloved Grandmother in her late 90s.
Grandma, in her late 90s, a few years before her death in 2002.
What strength she must have had to endure such devastation in losing so many children, surviving rape, the heartbreak of betrayal, the hardship of raising nine children alone, the trials and joys of raising a child with special needs, the back breaking work of maintaining a farm - all while keeping her faith.  She is my inspiration.

Happy Birthday Grandma, until we meet again, you will always remain in my heart.


  1. Such a beautiful post Denise! Thank you for sharing, one day I'll be able to show this to Ellie & say "this is who you were named after, this is the strongest woman I have ever known!" Happy Birthday Gramma Ellie!!

  2. What a loving tribute to an incredible woman. Her story is truly amazing! Thank you for sharing it; I enjoyed reading it very much.

  3. What a tremendously beautiful post and tribute to the life of a very venerable, wonderful lady. My own grandma is turning 82 years young tomorrow. How special that both of our beloved grandmothers had October birthdays.

    Thank you for sharing some your memories and family history with us, this was a truly lovely read.

    ♥ Jessica

  4. Oh what a beautiful story! Thank you for taking us into your history. It's really interesting to hear all the adversities your grandmother had to overcome and I can see in your writing the strength she had. It's so nice you had the opportunity to live close by and have her as a part of your upbringing. A wonderful tribute!


I'd love to hear your thoughts, suggestions, and opinions. Please leave me a comment. I read every single one, even on older posts.

**Due to the amount of spam comments that I have been getting lately, I will no longer be accepting comments from Anonymous users. Sorry for the inconvenience but hopefully you understand.**