A journey can be an actual trip or it can be a pathway to spiritual or emotional growth. It can describe the change of a relationship, the sharing or ending of a marriage, the details of a career, the recognition of a calling. It can describe the faithfulness of God’s work in a life or the dark night of a soul in that same life. It can even describe our paradigm shifts, the changes in thinking and the unlearning we have to do throughout our lives.
A few weeks ago, in the process of “downsizing” (quite a journey in itself), I offered my antique desk to a friend. She agreed to the gift (as opposed to a purchase) if I promised to share with her something about the person who first used this desk, my grandmother. Here’s my perspective my grandmother’s journey.
GRANDMA WAS A LADY
My grandmother was a lady. She wore fox fur stoles (whose beady green eyes scared me to death), was impeccably dressed, and always had her hair professionally “done.” She was obsessed with genealogy and the work of the Daughters of the Revolution (DAR). She hand painted china plates, kept every post card or birthday card she ever received, and loved Disney movies. Born in 1884, she was the granddaughter of Isaac Fairbanks, an agricultural agent who welcomed the Dutch settlers of Holland, Michigan to his territory and invited their leader, Albertus Van Raalte, to stay in his cabin while Van Raalte built his own. (He also had the unenviable job of attempting to persuade Native Americans who called this territory home to farm. )
At the age of 24, against the “better judgment” of her English parents, my grandmother married a Dutch boy who played semi-pro baseball on Sundays. He became a well-known entrepreneur and politician; she, whose childhood task was leading the cows home from pasture, became a society wife. Her first son died soon after birth, something I never heard her (or anyone) talk about. Her other children, a son who carried the burden of the name Bill Jr. and my mother, brought their own stress to her life. Bill, Jr. had an alcohol problem most of his life – something else we never talked about. My mother suffered through a serious case of rheumatic fever which kept her in bed for a year during elementary school and turned her into a feisty fighter who did not want to be protected by her parents.
While she spent a few years as a kindergarten teacher, for most of her married life Grandma was the wife of a successful businessman. But for several years she also was a politician’s wife. I often wonder how she felt about being thrust in that limelight. Grandpa served as a Holland city councilman in the 1930’s, was elected in 1944 as a Republican state senator and was reelected in 1946 and 1948. During his six years as a state senator, he remained very active in local projects, including arranging for Parke Davis and Company plant to locate in Holland and also aiding in negotiations to establish Baker Furniture Company in Holland. He was a strong proponent of a bridge over the Straits of Mackinac and active in early studies of that project. In 1950, he was elected lieutenant governor, serving under Democratic Governor G. Mennen Williams. In 1952, he was unsuccessful in a bid for the Republican gubernatorial nomination.
I was young during grandpa’s political career, but it had a big effect on me. My life as a (closeted Democratic) political junkie began then. I lived with my grandparents off and on during that time as my mother struggled to cope with my father’s death in WW II. I remember helping grandma in a tiny apartment kitchen in Lansing, MI and riding my tricycle in the capitol rotunda while my grandfather conversed with other politicians.
I also remember grandma sitting at the big dining room table in their home in Holland (the place that had also been her childhood home) addressing Christmas cards to hundreds of friends, politicos, and constituents – no staff for this senator’s wife. I remember her perched at her beautiful desk in a little alcove, writing letters or working on her genealogy projects, framed by the view of a large white trellis filled with red roses. I remember stuffing celery stalks and spreading date nut bread with cream cheese and sliced olives, a ritual she supervised every Sunday night before our whole family watched Ed Sullivan.
Grandma died at the age 84, forty-four days after Grandpa died unexpectedly of a heart attack. They were married for more than 60 years. I know her life could be difficult. I know she slept alone, but not well, upstairs and often didn’t come down until late morning. I never heard my grandmother raise her voice. I never saw her argue with my opinionated grandfather. I never heard her cry over her son. I never heard her fight with my headstrong mother. Perhaps these events occurred, but not in my presence. When my life was difficult, she was the one person I knew would be the same today and tomorrow as she was yesterday. And that was the most important legacy she could have given me.