Last week, my maternal grandmother passed away. This past Saturday, family and friends all came together to remember her and celebrate her life.
It’s funny how little we know about our parents and grandparents until we become adults ourselves. Growing up, my grandmother was just a sweet old lady who was good at sewing and lived on a farm. It wasn’t until I got older, that I heard more stories about her life.
And on Saturday, as I listened to my Uncle Tony deliver the eulogy and talk about my grandma’s journey, it really hit me what a strong and inspiring person she was.
A life of resilience
My grandmother was born in Henryetta, Oklahoma in 1931, right in the midst of the Great Depression. She was the oldest of five children and had all the added responsibility that comes with being the oldest child (as an oldest child myself, I can attest to that!).
She excelled in school, making top marks in her classes and lettering in basketball. She even wrote an award-winning essay about the freedoms granted by the First Amendment. Her teachers urged her parents to send her to college, but this was a time and place where you didn’t send many of your children to college, especially not the girls.
But my grandmother was determined to get out into the world! After graduating high school, she got hired as a flight attendant for American Airlines. But at the last minute, she was disqualified from the job because at 5’7”, she was one inch too tall.
And so, like many women of that time, she got married. And in these first years of her adult life, she would face heartbreak. She had her first child, Debbie, who died six days later. By the time she had her second child, Christopher, her husband was out of the picture.
Christopher had cystic fibrosis, a disease that was just beginning to really be researched at the time. My grandmother recounted that everyday she would need to rub his back to clear his lungs. Tragically, at 4 ½ years old, Christopher died.
My grandmother married her second husband and had my mom and my uncle. This husband was also in and out of the picture, so my grandma was often full-time caretaker and breadwinner, cleaning houses and picking up work as a seamstress.
A knack for entrepreneurship
She would later put her sewing skills to good use when she opened her own dress shop with a friend. My grandmother ran the shop and did a lot of custom dresses. Eventually, though, they couldn’t get enough business from the small town, so they closed the shop.
My grandmother then worked at a large corporate construction company, where she learned bookkeeping. Shortly after, she married my grandpa, who was a marine. As with most military families, they had to move a lot, but my grandmother was always able to find bookkeeping positions.
When they settled in San Diego, my grandmother worked as a bookkeeper at a CPA firm. One of the clients was so impressed with her work that he poached her to be his bookkeeper year-round! And then the business owner’s partners hired my grandmother to do their books.
Soon enough, my grandmother had her own bookkeeping business. She would often be hired by small businesses to set up their bookkeeping system. The business was so successful that when my grandfather retired from the marines and they were looking to move, my grandmother was easily able to sell her business.
Defying norms and the odds
My grandmother had already defied many social norms at the time. She twice ignored the threat of social stigma and had the strength to divorce men who didn’t treat her well.
She not only worked, but owned two businesses!
And in the mid-1960s, my grandmother was diagnosed with breast cancer. A disease that still claims the lives of so many, my grandmother fought breast cancer and won.
When my grandpa fought in Vietnam, my grandma had to play the role of mother and father. My uncle fondly remembers my grandma taking him hunting and attending every football game.
A writer at heart
After my grandpa retired from the marines, he and my grandma moved from San Diego to Oklahoma, for a quieter life, with more space. They built their own house on a large plot of land, and my grandpa raised cows for years.
It was during this time that my grandma returned to one of her earliest loves — writing. She took a night class on creative writing and really enjoyed it. She wrote and submitted articles to magazines, many of which ended up being published, including a couple in Reader’s Digest and one in Mother Earth News about how they built their barn.
Then, her local newspaper, the Bristow News, needed a part-time writer to temporarily cover for one of their reporters who was going out on maternity leave. My grandmother got the job and learned a lot about journalistic writing. When the reporter decided not to come back to work, my grandma was hired as a fulltime reporter. So much for retirement!
My grandmother covered everything from local news to state events, even once meeting the Governor. The sheriffs would call her out to crimes scenes so she could get the story — sometimes in the middle of the night!
She also learned how to take photos for the newspaper and became an accomplished photographer. One year, she won 2nd place in a state-wide journalism photography competition.
Inspiring my own journey
I look back on my grandmother’s life and am inspired. She had far fewer opportunities than I do and accomplished so much. She refused to do things the way they are “supposed to be done”. She found strength in loss and rose up to challenge after challenge.
And as I reflect on her life, these are a few things that I’ll hold close, as I go through my sabbatical journey:
- Forget about social norms
- Take advantage of surprise opportunities
- Always come back to the things you are passionate about
When the time comes and people are looking back on my life, I hope they see the same determination, courage and strength that I see in my grandmother’s life.