dressed up like a lady: Happy 100th Birthday to my Grandma

Sep 6, 2013

Happy 100th Birthday to my Grandma

My grandma turned 100 this week. 



She's still sharp as a tack. She'll talk about what politicians are idiots, which crime novels are worth reading. Her hearing has weakened, but if you call her up and she can't quite make out your name (Debbie? Peggy?), she'll figure it through logic: "Wait, tell me who your mother is, dear. If her name's easier to hear, I'll have you figured out."

I love my grandma. She's the only grandparent I've ever had and the only one I've ever needed. She's smart as hell and loves to read, which had a big effect on me as a kid. These days, she relies on books on tape because her eyesight isn't great, but when she was a little girl, her parents would catch her staying up past her bedtime, reading books in her window by streetlight.

My grandma, looking adorable as a child throughout the 1910s. Is she feeding that horse spaghetti?

But being born in 1913 means the Depression hit by the time she was 16. My grandma was born into a working class family, so when things got bad, she started working to help support her parents and younger siblings. She wouldn't stop working for the next several decades.

(left) My grandma, hanging out around 1930 (right) Standing with her mom and little sister around 1925.
(left) In the center with her sister and sis-in-law during the 1940's (right) Wearing her husband's Willow Run B-24 Bomber Plant Fire Brigade Cap during the 1940's

During the early 1940's shortly after the births of my dad (left) and uncle (right)
During World War II, my grandma worked at the Willow Run B-24 bomber plant (workplace of Rosie the Riveter) here in the city I live in, Ypsilanti. She drove all over the plant delivering parts in a little truck with six trailers attached to it in a train. She was awesome at maneuvering that crazy thing, parking and snaking it. 

She would go on to work nights on the line at the Argus camera factory, and as a shelver for Sanders' confections. She often joked that she made more in her elderly years, collecting pensions from all her past employers, than she ever made working for one of them. It was hard work, all of it. That had a big effect on me too, as a person and as a woman in particular. Generationally speaking, the folks in my family have had kids later than average -- my grandma was 28 when she gave birth to her eldest, my dad; pretty old by 1941 standards. My dad was 40 when I was born (he does curls with 100 lb. dumbbells and has no interest in retirement, but he's a whole other story). But I always noticed, even as a little girl, that my grandma was older than most of my friends' grandparents, and yet she was by far the least old fashioned. 

My grandma, seen throughout the 50's with my dad (far left) and my grandfather (far right)

My grandparents in the mid-1960's
While idealized women on TV were doting housewives, my grandma was kicking ass in an assembly line all night and then taking her three boys to the lake the next day. She was taking the swing shift at a distribution center so she could make cocoa for her son after his paper route during her scheduled meal break.

Consequently, the idea that a woman's place is somehow behind her man -- presumably because he's the breadwinner -- was pretty obsolete in her world. She brought in half the income (my grandpa worked in the Ford plant but paid alimony to a gal he married briefly in his youth, which was standard practice back then), she used her own strong arms and agile hands to support her family, and in light of what she did to provide for them, the idea of a woman satisfying herself with housework and elaborate dinner planning seemed pretty ridiculous by comparison.

Additionally, I love fashion, but I also love that my grandma didn't give a hoot about clothes. She'd always been a straight shooting, straight talking kind of lady, and she'd always cared more about a good novel than a pretty dress. And I happen to know, despite her being an endless source of hugs and 'I love you's', that she spent most of her life being tough as nails whenever she had to be. She consequently never had time or money for fancy clothes when she was younger, or patience for any of that crap when she was older. She'd rather go to Atlantic City in a pair of knit pants than get dolled up for some man (especially since my grandfather died in the late 60's), so that's exactly what she did. 

It weirds me out hearing about how many elderly folks resist moving out of their old houses, because my grandma was pleased as punch to retire at age 60, sell her house and all the junk she didn't need, and settle delightedly into a modest little one bedroom apartment where she would happily devour crime fiction and plan vacations with her girlfriends for the next 40 years.

My grandma, adoring old-womanhood during the 70's and 80's

Being a doting grandmother during the 1980's

My grandma, still rocking it with her utilitarian purse and wash-and-go perm throughout the 90's

Going on cruises, vacations to Hawaii, and to various casinos with her best friend Mildred throughout the 90's and 2000's

My grandma finally moved into an assisted living center about a mile from my parents' house this year. My dad and uncle hang out with her almost every day -- because the woman's not batty or senile, she just needs help getting around. About 10 years ago, she spent time in a senior rehabilitation center for a broken leg, and she complained to me that the place was full of "old ladies."

"I'm 10 years older than these women!" she said, "But they're going around in skirts and cardigans like it's the 1950's. Didn't anyone ever tell them 'You don't have to do that crap anymore?!'"

That broken leg fully healed, by the way. She's also fully recovered from a broken arm and fractured hip, and though she developed symptoms of Type II diabetes and emphysema during her 80's, by her 90's, her doctor couldn't find any trace of them. They were gone. I suspect that the secret behind how she fully healed from these maladies, even at her age, is the same secret as to how she's lived this long: she doesn't take anything bad personally, including pain.

I love this about her, and I love how she imbues my whole family with the strength of this perspective, more today than ever.

9 comments :

  1. What a beautiful post about your grandma!
    May she continue to kick-ass forever more. :)

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  2. Awwww Happy Birthday to your grandma! She sounds like a gem! I loved reading her story... very ambitious, smart and strong. And she also sounds hilarious... haha! Love that quote about the women 10 years younger than her still walking around like it was the 1950s LOL!

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  3. Love this post. I love a fiery badass pull-no-punches woman.

    My great-grandma was the same about being in a home. She ended up in a nursing home entirely due to mobility, and stayed there for over a decade. She basically rant he place - her paintings were the art on the walls, the staff deferred to her when it came to meal planning. For her 100th birthday the German cousins flew in and the nursing home gave us basically half the damn place to throw the party in. She was sharp as a tack and lived another four and a half years afterward.

    In all this bickering over stay-at-home vs. work, there's a bit of something lost in it; that women throughout history have always squared their shoulders and done exactly what they had to do. Your grandma is a great example of that. What a stellar lady, and what a great birthday post :)

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  4. congratulations to your granny! getting 100 - wow!
    she seems to be a smart lady...
    your post really made me miss my granny. she is in her late 80s and still taking care about my grandpa (wheelchair, hemiplegic). she is doing hard work everyday. when she was in her 70s she invited me to a 3 weeks journey to india. and we did. :)
    she was a fashion addict her whole life and she must have been a fashion icon in my home city. back in the late 40s and 50s she got asked several times, if she was working in fashion ... she is still proud of that. i love to listen to her stories about her family and siblings (who i never met), about wwII, the big bombing of my hometown, how to get nice shoes in this time, how to make nice dresses from almost nothing... surviving and being a young girl. in the 60s they started to travel ... she saw almost every country!
    since i live in berlin it takes me around 7 hours to visit my family and granny. talking on the phone to her is hard - because she is hearing not to great anymore, too. miss her, miss her, miss her.

    i hope your able to spend as much time with your granny as you can. have fun, girls.

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  5. What a super sweet memento to your Granny, I loved reading about her experiences in life! I hope someone read your sweet words to her :)

    Reading through this, I couldn't help but think what a long line of badass women Gbear has to look up to and how someday she will look back at this post and remember some sweet memory from the time she spent with her great Granny. That's probably because my grandfather, Papa Woody, would send letters to my Dad when we were kids detailing his war adventures, life on a depression era farm, or first dates with my Mimi. He enjoyed reminiscing but mostly I think it was preserving his story for his grandkids.

    Like you, I've recently been crying at strange moments like commercials and seeing veterans on the street, but all these loving grandparent tears feel normal.

    Thank you!

    xo
    vividvoltage.com

    I also had a Granny as well as a Mimi, I love the crazy names kids pick for their grandparents!

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  6. What a lovy post ... And great pictures too :D

    Sal xx

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  7. Awww what a lovely post ... And great pics too :)

    Sal xx

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  8. I have somehow managed time to read this now... but the moment I saw this on fb days ago.. I bookmarked it as I knew this post would be magical...

    and It surely was!! I can somehow see that the woman you are today may have a lot to do with your family and upbringing... I was mesmerized reading this account of your grandmother... ! I really want to wish her belated happy birthday now... and if you can then do let her know... that the woman she is...the character...what she does and did with her life.. never growing old in the heart....and everything else.. all those qualities are so close to the woman I want to grow up into... that is my romantic-rosey-eyed view of myself.. lol


    And I just can't seem to say it enough... this post is probably one of your best till date... and you wrote it soo well too... I loved every bit of it!

    Swati @ The Creative Bent

    ReplyDelete
  9. I have somehow managed time to read this now... but the moment I saw this on fb days ago.. I bookmarked it as I knew this post would be magical...

    and It surely was!! I can somehow see that the woman you are today may have a lot to do with your family and upbringing... I was mesmerized reading this account of your grandmother... ! I really want to wish her belated happy birthday now... and if you can then do let her know... that the woman she is...the character...what she does and did with her life.. never growing old in the heart....and everything else.. all those qualities are so close to the woman I want to grow up into... that is my romantic-rosey-eyed view of myself.. lol


    And I just can't seem to say it enough... this post is probably one of your best till date... and you wrote it soo well too... I loved every bit of it!

    Swati @ The Creative Bent

    ReplyDelete

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