My mothers’ mother, my grandmother, passed away three years ago this coming June. She was one hundred and one years old when she left us, and she lived in her own home, without much assistance, until she was ninety-nine. Her name was Claribel Martin O’Neil, and in her own way, she is my hero. I’ve had cause over the last few years to sit back and contemplate her life, compare it to mine, and enjoy both the commonalities and the complete disconnects.
My grandmother was called “Peg” by all who knew her. She was the only child of a logger and his wife who lived in the Rocky Grove area of Pennsylvania. She was born March 4th, 1913. NINETEEN THIRTEEN!! Can you even wrap your head around that? While automobiles came out in 1885, there were very few in this area. Horse and buggy all the way! Grandma was seven when women got the right to vote, and she probably didn’t even realize at the time what it meant for her. At the time, she was walking to a one-room schoolhouse.
At some point during my Grandmothers’ upbringing, her hard-working logging father was at work, when a tree came down wrong. The horses were in the way, Great Grandpa Martin tried to save the horses (an expensive asset), and was crushed by the falling tree. There was no “ambulance,” “Life flight,” or “trauma unit.” He died. This was before there was such a thing as “Life Insurance” and way before Social Security benefits. He left behind a wife who had never worked a job, and a daughter.
I called my mother regarding this blog; wanted to check my facts and dates. I asked her how Grandma and Great Grandma survived the time following my Great Grandfathers accidental death. She paused, and thought, and then had to admit that she genuinely didn’t know. Was there a settlement from the logging company? Did all of the relatives chip in? Did the neighbors and church help? We don’t know, because my Grandmother NEVER talked about those hard times. Her generation lived it, sucked it up, and kept it private. It was nobody’s business how they survived.
My Grandmother lived through the Great Depression of the 1930’s. Witnessed World War I, World War II, the Vietnam War, the Korean War, and eventually Operation Gulf War. She was born at a time where women wore dresses, gloves and hats, and long before television. Her whole world was about twenty square miles that she could walk or take a horse and buggy to, and what she read in a newspaper, when she could find one.
My Grandmother actually lived in “Little House in the Prairie” times. With an outhouse and no indoor plumbing, in a time where they lit lanterns and candles because there was no electricity. Over her hundred years of life, she saw houses have bathrooms and showers, she saw light at the flick of a switch. She saw cars become the norm, instead of something to stare at with your mouth open when one passed by. In her day, there was a little airplane landing strip up near what we now call Franklin Heights. An airplane came into the area once every few weeks, and the locals who knew about it went to the airstrip with a picnic or beer to watch it land or take off. High entertainment, back in the day. The boys dreamt of being pilots, and the girls dreamt of their boyfriends being pilots.
She saw the advent of refrigerators, and had the excitement of switching from an “icebox” to one of those “newfangled gadgets.” She also got to stop washing clothes by hand or with a wringer washer – hanging heavy wet clothes on the clothesline to dry, while her hands became red and chapped. Can you imagine her amazement as she watched clothes turn in a dryer for the first time?
She married my Grandfather when she was close to thirty, a spinster, back in those days. Grandpa was a short man, who had unfortunately been born with a “club foot,” which caused a limp, and eliminated him from serving in the Armed Forces. I guess, back in the day, he was “handicapped.” He was also an exceptionally good looking man, with piercing blue eyes, and a dimple that you could not ignore. I wasn’t there, it was way before my time, but I see my Grandfather who was surely under-rated, and my Grandmother who had a hard-knock life joining forces and deciding to make better lives for themselves.
So they got married, and moved into a house on Bredinsburg Road. The “big house,” they called it. An enormous farmhouse, way back a long dirt lane. Grandpa got that particular house because he worked the oil leases. The pumps in fields and forests throughout Pennsylvania in the heyday of Big Oil. They got married and moved into this house, and moved my Great Grandmother, the Widow Martin, right in with them. Because that was how it was done then. Because when Grandpa married Grandma, her responsibilities became his.
Grandma cooked, and cleaned, and planted three gardens, while taking care of a steadily aging mother, while Grandpa worked oil leases during the day, hunted when needed, and to fulfill his “duty” to the Armed Services, which he was not allowed to join, laid on his back in the fields at night as a “spotter” for enemy airplanes.
They produced two girls, my Aunt Darlene, and my mother, Clara. Grandma made their clothes on a sewing machine, and harvested vegetables from the garden. In essence, my Grandmother, seriously, knew how to make anything from nothing. She knew how to filet a fish, how to gut a carcass, how to plant and grow, how to can and freeze, and how to sew. If you left her a board, you would come home to new bookshelves. She could take five unrelated ingredients and turn it into a savory stew, and she knew how to make a cake from scratch. She didn’t need “Pinterest,” as she made her own crafts herself.
My Grandmother, never, not once, in her one hundred and one years of life, ever held a paying job. Every penny she ever spent at a store came from her family or her husband. She (to my knowledge) never felt guilt or shame. She was a housewife, as she was supposed to be, as she was raised to be, and she did it well. Exceptionally well.
Grandma’s two girls, my mom and my aunt, graduated from high school and got jobs. Certainly not her path. They got married young, and had kids. My Aunt worked while her child (my cousin) was young, while my mom stayed home until my sister and I went to school. She then went back to work. Eventually, my Aunt opened her own Ceramic Shop, and later on in life, partnered with her husband to open a Maple Syrup Business. When my sister and I left home, my mother went back to college, eventually earned a Bachelor’s degree, and became a United Methodist Minister.
My cousin graduated high school and went to advanced training to become a dental hygienist. Years later, she went back to college, became a Physical Therapy Assistant (PTA), worked a few years in this area, and now lives in one of the nicest areas of Colorado. My sister got a law degree. And then there was me. Who got a Master’s degree. Be bopped all over three states. Opened her own business. Then two more. Now another.
The three of us Granddaughters of Peg have flown in airplanes, traveled throughout this country and out of it, and all three have changed careers multiple times. The three of us granddaughters (any one of us) makes a salary that would be virtually incomprehensible to my Grandma.
Here’s the kicker. As my grandmother watched the world unfold before her, I think she welcomed every change and every technological advance with wonder and open arms. She learned to embrace the washer/dryer, the fridge, and eventually the microwave. She learned to embrace civil rights.
When I was sixteen, my Grandfather went out to mow the yard with a push mower the day before they left for their annual fishing trip to Canada. My Grandmother found him face down in the driveway, mower running beside him, dead of a massive heart attack.
It turned out, later on, that Grandpa had gone and visited every one of his friends the week before. Just showed up at their houses for a chat. He had also had a full physical, just prior. We all agreed that it was a blessing that he died at home, and not while driving on the eight lane highway in Toronto, or out on the lake in Canada in a boat while my Grandmother sat at the other end, grief stricken and unable to move in her life jacket, as she couldn’t swim. But, despite our reassurances to each other that it was better this way, surely the way we all wanted to go, we kept looking sideways at Grandma, wondering how she would EVER, in any meaningful way, resume her life.
I volunteered to stay with her the night Grandpa died. He had a full wallet of cash, because they were leaving the next day for Canada, and this was before the days of debit cards. I watched Grandma sit at the kitchen table, take the money out of his wallet, and try to count it three times. After the third time, I put my hand on hers, got her to make eye contact, and asked if we could count it together. We counted the money, twice, agreed on the amount, and agreed where to hide it.
Long story short, we had a heart to heart that night that I have carried in my soul to this day. We talked about many, many things. Leaving the conversation, I knew several things. That despite the fact that she wasn’t a huggy/kissy kind of person, she loved me deeply. That she liked my willingness to be the one that stayed with her.
My Grandmother lived the next thirty years, on her own, in her own house, without a man. If she ever dated again, I never knew about it. She drove herself, paid her bills, fixed broken things…. she handled herself like a Queen.
She planted vegetable gardens, and beautiful flower gardens. She loved wildlife of all kinds, and put out dozens of bird feeders. She watched the squirrels, and the occasional bear.
Grandma was old fashioned. Old school. She got up every morning in the dark, her entire life, until she was elderly. She started every day with coffee, the Daily Bread devotional, a bible reading, and prayer. She worked like a dog all morning long, and at some point in the afternoon, knew enough to get a glass of iced tea, and go sit on her front porch on her glider. While she was sitting there, the loose neighborhood cats and dogs would come visit to “get a pat.” The neighborhood children would come visit. A friend might come visit. Or, the phone would ring, and it would be one of her best friends, or one of the fire hall auxiliary ladies, and they would chat. Mornings were for working hard. Afternoons were for relaxing and visiting. Evenings were family dinner, taking care of animals and children, and closing it all down until the next day.
Despite the fact that Grandma was “old school,” not once, never, did she pass judgement on her granddaughters. Not once did she suggest, even subtly, that we should forego our careers and stay home with our children, as she did.
From the time I could look at other peoples’ lives and analyze them, I always viewed my Grandmother as “content.” Content with what she had. If she ever coveted her neighbor’s or friend’s things, I never saw it. She loved her little house. She loved her property, even if it was quite “soupy” in the spring. She loved to create, whether it was food, or crafts. She appreciated the phone call from a friend. She was most content sitting on her front porch, watching the birds come into the feeders she filled, while a sweet neighborhood kitty crawled up on her lap for a belly rub. She didn’t need much to be happy.
My generation, and certainly the generation following mine, has forgotten how to be content. With our electronics, our never ending sources of “news” and opinions – we are acutely aware of so many places to travel, so many things to experience, so many gadgets and thing-a-mabobs to own.
I find myself now intentionally seeking out those places where contentment can be found. In a cabin in West Virginia, with no signal and no TV. Where sitting on the porch for hours on end watching for deer and foxes while reading a book turns out to be just what the mind required, to reset itself. On the patio of my girlfriend’s house in Arizona, where we watch the golfers, the geese, and the people walking their dogs with interest, while the sun bakes us, and we share dreams and ideas. Places where we slow down, where we pause, where we stop running.
Our ancestors, many of them, worked physically harder than you and I ever have, had much fewer material goods to show for it, and were, in many ways, much happier for it.
Wishing you contentment this spring as you look around at what you have, what you have accomplished, the wonder of your family, and the love of your friends.