I enjoyed Eric’s “Welcome Autumn” post the other day. As the seasons were changing this weekend, the seasons of life were changing in our family, as well.
On Friday, I received a call that my grandmother—my last living grandparent—was not doing well, and not expected to live much longer. She’d been in the nursing home with a variety of problems, including Alzheimer’s, for not quite 2 years, so while this wasn’t unexpected, it was certainly something of a marker of change.
As family gathered in Grandma’s room over the next two days, coming and going, we enjoyed one another’s company, talked about warm memories, and said our goodbyes to our 94 year old mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother. The oldest child of a German immigrant father and first generation German mother, born in 1918, she lived her share of physical and economic hardships—as did most of that generation that is now slipping away from us.
Her father was a farmer; her mother was was the traditional farm wife and mother, doing everything from butchering the dinner to raising the vegetables, to feeding the crews of harvesters that showed up seasonally. My grandmother, in what would have been her middle school years, was called upon by her father to feed the work crew for lunch, because her mother was off acting as a midwife and helping someone’s child into the world. When my grandmother asked what she should feed the men, he told her to go butcher some chickens. How many of us can imagine our 12 year old children being capable (much less, willing) of butchering chickens and preparing a meal suitable for a half a dozen or so farm workers?
I’m sure most kids adore their grandparents. My siblings and I were extraordinarily lucky, though. We were fortunate to grow up in the family hometown, where both sets of grandparents lived. All 5 of us made it to adulthood with all four of our grandparents living—as the oldest grandchild on either side of the family, I was 34 before I lost my maternal grandfather. All of our grandparents were exceedingly kind and giving people, and would have done anything for their grandchildren. When we were able to give back a little bit in return—for all they’d given us--in their later years, they always wanted to “pay us”—for fixing running toilets, replacing thermostats or sprinkler heads, and a variety of other minor repairs that one of us could do that prevented them from having to call in professionals. My brother’s comment, which sums up the end of that generation in our family so well:
It will forever amaze me that someone who spent her entire life selflessly giving to me and everyone else would think that the very little I gave in return amounted to anything worth more than a little Snickers out of her cupboard stash and a drink of milk out of one of her magical aluminum tumblers…I’ve known four people of that kind in my life. Three went before her, and Grandma Junk was the last.
Rest In Peace, Elsie Katherine Schanze Junker. Your 3 children, 9 grandchildren, and 21 great-grandchildren could never repay the love and love of family that you gave to us.