Reflections on 98 Years
I’m not sure that my grandmother would call herself a ‘feminist,’ but she would at least hear you out. Her favorite expression is “it takes all sorts,” which is how she explains everything from Michelle Bachmann’s presidential candidacy to the advent of reality television. She enjoys talking about history, and she celebrated her 98th birthday last September.
My grandmother’s first boss signed his name with an ‘X,’ which wasn’t to save time, or distinguish himself from everyone else. It was because he was illiterate.
This was 1930: my grandmother was 17 years old, a recent graduate of Iowa State Teacher’s College, and she had just landed her first job as a country school teacher. Her favorite part about that first job, the one with the illiterate boss, was that she was in charge. To most people, this would seem like a recipe for disaster – a one-room prairie school, a young inexperienced teacher, and a classroom full of students ages 5 to 18 – but she enjoyed the challenge.
It takes all sorts.
A point of pride for my grandmother is that her parents raised eight healthy, hard-working children to adulthood during the Great Depression.
A point of pride for me is that the chain that led me to become a third-generation-college-graduate began with a woman. I have my grandmother’s college diploma on display in my apartment, something she laughed about when I told her.
Esther Greiman met Earl Schuettpelz while he was working as a hired hand on her family’s farm in Northern Iowa. He had an eighth-grade-education, a German-Midwestern upbringing, and he took her on her first date to a hayride sponsored by the local Lutheran church. I found a photo from the hayride in her old scrapbook, dated: 1931, captioned: “Ain’t we got fun!” I can’t really see my face in hers, but I can see my sarcasm.
Esther and Earl Schuettpelz moved to Eastern Iowa after they got married, she continued teaching, and he began his career as a welder. My dad was a year younger than everyone else in his class, because my grandmother couldn’t wait another year to get back to work.
Several evenings per week after work, my grandmother would tutor adults at no charge. One was a 20-year-old, mentally impaired man who the local school had barred from admission because of his disability. He was illiterate; she taught him to read. My dad doesn’t have fond memories of his mother’s home cooking, but he does remember being the first family in his neighborhood to make pizza from a mix.
I was never one of those kids who loved hearing old stories, but I suppose that’s not uncommon for someone growing up with easy access to 100+ channels of television, video games, and, eventually, the Internet. It was only recently that I had that same moment of silent regret that I bet a lot of people do, when we realize all those years with a now-elderly family member could have been spent differently. I could have been writing down everything my grandmother said, cataloguing her beautifully simple stories, hoarding the verbal artifacts of a bygone era. Now, when I go to visit her in her assisted living community, I feel like I’m overwhelming her with questions. I bring her ‘old-looking-stuff’ that I found in her house and ask her about its ‘story.’ This sudden onset of interest entertains but also confuses her, and the answer is almost always that this dish, or this frame, or this lantern, or this pitcher was something they ‘just always had.’
One time, though, was different.
One time, after several minutes of patient prodding, I finally got it out of her that ‘this pitcher’ had belonged to my great-great-grandmother, brought over from Germany when she immigrated to rural South Dakota. Where, together with her husband, she built a sod-house out of prairie grass and mud. Where, for 60 years, she withstood harsh Dakotan winters and scorching Dakotan summers. Where, despite losing several babies to inadequate food and fast-spreading disease, she nevertheless managed to raise ten children to adulthood.
“Wow, that is really neat,” was all I could muster, as I now, more delicately, held up the chipped, robin-egg-blue, ceramic relic.
“Yes, my grandmother was an amazing woman,” my grandmother quietly said.