dressed up like a lady: Rest in peace, my wonderful grandmother

Mar 24, 2015

Rest in peace, my wonderful grandmother

My beloved grandma, Ann Albertson, passed away today at the age of 101. This is a reworking of a post I published about her in honor of her 100th birthday.

My grandma was a strong, strong woman. She remained sharp as a tack even as she became a centenarian. She'd talk about which politicians were idiots, which crime novels were worth reading. Her vision went out, so she took to spending hours listening to mystery novels on tape. Her hearing weakened, but if you called her up and she couldn't quite make out your name (Debbie? Peggy?), she'd 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 loved my grandma. She's the only grandparent I've ever had and the only one I've ever needed. She was smart as hell and loved to read, which had a big effect on me as a kid. 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 took a job to help support her parents and younger siblings. She actually intended to drop out of high school toward this end, but the proprietor of the dimestore she worked at after school was a kind person, who promised her a full time job if she graduated first. He followed through on that offer, and after finishing school, she walked a mile to and from work every day in high heels, which her father, a carpenter, frequently needed to recap. 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 through the Byzantine labyrinth of assembly stations.

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 27 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 1960's), so that's exactly what she did. In fact, when my mom once asked if she ever wanted to remarry, my grandmother remarked, "I spent 30 years as a married woman being a maid, why would I want to go back to that?"

It's discombobulating when I hear 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 her 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 at the age of 99. My dad and uncle would hang out with her almost every day -- because her mind stayed clear and coherent up until the last few months of her life. 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 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 never took anything bad personally, including pain.

As no-fuss as she was, nothing ever gnawed at her or stuck in her craw. She never bemoaned her circumstances or felt victimized by anything. She even endured the unspeakable loss of her son, my uncle Robbie, being killed in Vietnam three weeks after his deployment. And it's not that she wasn't horribly hurt by the devastation of his loss, it's just that she wasn't burdened by the tendency to assign blame or ask "Why me?" Living that way allowed her to accept every single moment with the kind of peace that great saints and mystics strive for. I love this about her, even now that she's passed. I love that the way my eyes disappear into dark little eyelash smiles when I laugh comes from my grandma and I can see it in every picture of her. I love how I can hear her in my voice when I'm getting down to business. And I love how she imbued my whole family with the strength of her loving perspective, more today than ever. ♥


  1. My condolences, Cammila.
    Your grandma seemed to be a strong woman, who lived through many tough moments, but still remained vivid and alive.
    May she rest in peace.

    1. Thank you, Zuba. You always say the right thing. :)


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