Perspective: a quick glance back to put the present in focus

Growing up in Iowa, I was lucky to have grandparents that were a big part of my life. Five that I remember events with, six if I count the picture of me with my great-grandfather when I was about two years old.

Grandma Mills is a letter writer and she went “green” before it was the thing to do. She, like her mother, is from the waste-not-want-not generation. From the letters Grandma has sent me over the years, I could publish quite a collection of recipes and pieces of advice – from how to remove a catsup stain to how to deal with cancer. She is a breast cancer survivor. I keep her most recent letter, written in July, on a shelf in my living room. It’s on stationery with a collection of tiny song birds and the words “Faith brings strength and hope.” This is what she wrote to me about her experience: “Well, I survived all that and am still kicking at 91 years. With age comes a lot of aches and pains, but they soon go away and don’t develop into anything. I just enjoy the beautiful world…” Grandma turns 92 this year. Hence my 50 year request to the surgeon… I’m 43 now. I’ll probably be close to 44 when I get to challenge Grandma to our next game of Scrabble.

Great Grandma Whittier, Grandma Mills’s mother, took care of me when I was little while Mom was out selling Avon. Unfortunately, I do not remember her voice, but I do remember the sound of her dentures clicking. She looked like a tiny Aunt Bea from Mayberry. Dress, apron and step-stool next to the kitchen counter. She taught her great-grandchildren the importance of self-sustenance. She kept graham crackers in the drawer under the oven. We all remember where the graham crackers were stored, and we all knew how to open the drawer and help ourselves.

Grandma Murphy’s orneriness drove us all a bit crazy at one point or another throughout her 89 year life. Few could argue that that spunk is what undoubtedly kept her alive for so many years. In her mid-80’s, she fought hard to keep a leg that was slowly succumbing to poor circulation. Finally, she realized to get rid of the pain the leg had to go. After she came out of surgery and recovery, she looked at me and said, “I haven’t looked at it yet.” I said, “Do you want to?” and she nodded. So I took the covers off so we could see her “stump” as it had been amputated just above the knee. It was all wrapped up meticulously in white gauze bandages; no sign of the pain she had endured for years. She looked down and said, “Aw hell, that ain’t bad.” This woman was gored by a bull in ’55, struck by lightning in ’60 or ’61, and poisoned by carbon monoxide from a furnace in ’71. Her fingers were mauled by an end gate seeder in ’77. Neighbors attest that she worked harder than most men. She milked cows by hand and threw bales of hay to the rack as they came off the baler. She sweated. (Truthfully, no one in Iowa perspires – farm work makes you sweat.) Looking at this pristine white bandage seemed tame compared to her catalog of life experiences. Her standard reply when asked how she was feeling: “Like I could kick the side out of hell!” I’m sure the devil flinched.

Grandpa Murphy was called Scoop. Although incredibly gruff and at times downright scary, he had a soft spot for his grandkids – as long as they were quiet and behaved. He could let loose a line of cussing and bellering that was simply unbelievable… and then he wouldn’t talk for a week. My last memory of Grandpa was when I was 10 years old. He called me into his bedroom and told me he was going to die. His fight was the first time I remember hearing the word cancer. His farm gusto was no match for colon/pancreatic cancer, probably undiagnosed for years.

Granddad Mills was a man of few words and little cussing, if any at all. Next to his hearty laugh, his prayers before dinners are how I remember his voice. He started grace the same way before every Sunday dinner, Christmas dinner, birthday dinner, and bullhead fish fry. While the prayer fit the occasion, to my ears it was always the same, perhaps more so in cadence than in words. I so wish I could remember the whole prayer; it was full of grace and truly beautiful. One piece of his thanks-giving was something like “Bless the hands that prepared the food for the nourishment of our bodies.” His prayer seems fitting for the many hands that have prepared healthy protein-packed meals for us over the last few weeks.

Thank you for the food, the notes, the help, the thoughts, the vibes, the prayers, the talks, the laughs, and of course, for perspective.

Staying strong, Linda

(Fast forward... Here's a tale about Grandma Mills' plant that is now in my care... Untying the Mother-in-law's Tongue.)