Wednesday, November 21, 2012
My Grandmother's Legacy
I found a treasure the other day as I cleaned off a bookshelf. I had completely forgotten about this black binder that I brought back from Illinois with me after my Uncle Max's funeral last January.
My grandmother, Helen Firebaugh, was a woman of strength, grace, and action. She started a school lunch program—a warm breakfast and lunch—during the Depression before there was such a thing as a school lunch program. As chairwoman of the Democratic party in her county in the 1940s and 50s, she picked up people and took them to the polls. (She may have even strongly suggested they vote for FDR.) She taught Sunday School forever, counseled people, took care of the sick, visited her neighbors, raised her family, and did all the things that mothers and wives did and a whole lot more.
And my grandmother loved poetry. That black binder that my Uncle Max left to me contains pages and pages of mostly newspaper clippings of poetry and words of wisdom. As she called it, "Poems for Every Occasion."
Many of the poems are ones I would call cheesy. They rhyme and have a "message": don't give up, grow strong, have courage, live well. But here's the thing: it isn't the quality of the poems that strikes me when I read my grandmother's collection, but that she chose these poems because they reflected the person she was and the person she strove to be.
She was an optimist, an activist, and a nurturer. She was a woman who lived life well, without whining about how she wished she had more money or how her hips ached every single day. She embraced people and made them feel loved. She was an encourager.
Flipping through the pages I came to the real treasures for me: three poems written by my grandmother, in her familiar handwriting. Such a pang of sweet memory hit me when I read this one especially. She would have been in her 80s when she wrote this, and I would have been 12. (She passed away when I was 19.) I love the last lines because I can exactly hear her reading them and chuckling. "But Alas! with arthritis that makes me hurtle, I move around like a turtle." She had a wonderful sense of humor, the kind that kept a family going.
My mother was the youngest child in her family, and I the youngest in mine, so my grandmother was in her late 70s when I came along. My mother, who is now 85 herself, tells me stories of my grandmother in bits and pieces. I am delighted by her stories, mesmerized by the strength and courage of my grandmother, and very, very grateful for her legacy. A love of poetry, yes, but more than anything, I am grateful for the legacy of optimism and expectancy, of looking for beauty in simple things, of embracing life, of just "having some fun."