Saturday, March 28, 2009

Helped what I could

My Grandma Effie died just over 20 years ago, having spent the last 11 years of her life in a nursing home due to a stroke that left her left side paralyzed. She had been out weeding on the morning of her stroke, and my younger brother, who was 5 at the time, came running inside to tell us Grandma was "taking a nap in the garden."

Dad had tried to get her to stop doing so much heavy labor--well, heavy for a 77-year-old woman--but Grandma would have none of it. She had worked hard her entire life, caring more for others than she had for herself, and she wasn't about to let her age or the heat get in the way of getting things done. Physical therapy eventually allowed her some mobility with a walker, extended stays with our family, and some hope that she would walk again, even if with a cane. But then successive strokes landed her permanently in the nursing home. Dad visited her a couple of times a week, my young women's group at church visited her almost every Wednesday night, and we visited her as a family every Sunday after church, and sometimes on Saturdays as well.

A number of years ago, after she died, my father gave me all of her old journals. She had kept them daily since the 1950s and he had encouraged her to keep them again when she was in the nursing home, trying to persuade her that she had a life history to write, trying to give her a purpose again.

Because Grandma needed a purpose. My grandfather died of lung cancer when he was in his mid-50s, and Grandma never married again, although she had two proposals, and instead opened up what she called then "an old folks home." She cared for people who couldn't care for themselves but also didn't need nursing help yet. She made all their meals, ran their errands, got them to their doctors' appointments. It was her purpose.

After she retired, she moved to be close to my family. One of my aunts by marriage complained about the attention Grandma gave our family, and Grandma responded with a lengthy but kind letter in which she said, "You had the same privilege as Sylvia [my mother], but you never asked me, or offered me a home. . . . George and Sylvia gave me something to do where I could work to suit myself and gave me a feeling of home. They shared their children with me."

I was going through Grandma's old journals today, trying to finally shelve some books that have been sitting on our floor since our move in August. I scanned through the ones she kept during our years in Tucson, where I was born and where my family lived before moving to Virginia. Page after page tells what she did that day, how she helped my mom or an older woman in the trailer park with her or another of her sons. And sometimes the entry simply read, "Helped what I could." And one read, "I don't know what I would do if George and Sylvia didn't let me help them."

Grandma needed to help. And in order to be able to help, she needed someone who would ask for help.

When she was 85, she wrote: "The three essentials for happiness are someone to love, some work to do, and something to hope for." Being loved wasn't on her list. But she was loved very much.

Obviously, I'm feeling a little sentimental today. And I'm also feeling proud to be the granddaughter of a woman like that: not perfect and not even trying to be perfect, just trying to have "work to do," trying to, as she put it, help what she could.

I think, as a society, we often lean either too far toward needing and asking for help, primarily from the government, or of claiming so much independence that we lose touch with our neighbors. We think asking for help is a sign of weakness and that refusing help is a sign of strength. There's a balance to be struck, but we have to find it first. I think Grandma found it and was happier for it. I hope I can someday say the same. I hope all of us can.


Shankar said...

The last paragraph was very close to something I've just written in my own journal.

It's amazing your grandmother kept a journal for that long. Great example to all of us. I hope they are all in good condition.

One of my friends runs a website called, and one of the selling points is that you can type out old journals and then have them printed out in a published book format. He used a journal from a great-grandfather, or someone, from the mid-19th century.

Bobbie said...

I'll have to check out your friend's website. The journals are all in good shape and I've been wanting to do something with them. Some are very sad, such as when she realized she would never be able to walk again and was just ready to see all of her deceased family members again. But I'm so glad I have them.

rachel said...

Bobbie, thank you for sharing. Your entry was very touching. I can tell that your grandma was an amazing woman! And so are you!!! I work with a lot of older patients at the hospital, some very near the end of their life, and I find so much joy in being with them and their families- to talk about accomplishments and fond memories. I never hesitate to ask them about their lives when they were younger, etc. and I imagine you are blessed to know so much about your grandma.

Bobbie said...

Thanks, Rachel. I'm glad to have her to look up to. And I've always thought I should have entered some kind of field that would have put me in touch w/older people regularly. Our neighbors here in Chicago are in their 80s and I love their stories. On Halloween, we hung out with them while passing candy out to the kids. I was most fascinated w/how they interacted w/each other, the tenderness between them after a lifetime of shared joys and sorrows. There are so many stories to be heard, aren't there? I can picture you being incredibly good w/your patients and am sure you're really great at your job.

Maryanne said...

Have you read Well Behaved Women Seldom Make History by Laurel Ulrich? I think it's great, and one thought that struck me reading it is that it's the women who keep records that make history (or at least are remembered) and I think it's so great that your grandma kept that record. What women do with their lives is often forgotten (I have a series of letters my mom wrote to her parents, but I know even she has forgotten a lot of how her day-to-day life was with little kids). Now if I could only get myself to stick to keeping my own record.

Sherry said...

Our grandmas died a day apart...