My eldest relatives that I got to know were two of my great-grandmothers. Great-Grandma Delilah Fischer was a lady that I would get to see each summer when we would come back to Nebraska to visit family. She always seemed to be very warm and welcoming. I remember going to her house and watching Wheel-of-Fortune with her and hearing stories about how she was still going to dances and driving around town, even into old age. My last memory of her was of a visit that I had with her when she was in a nursing home.
By that time, she was in her late-90s and her perceptions of reality were starting to become distorted. I recall that she would start laughing hysterically. At one point, she looked out the window and asked, “Is that England?” (Which, although heart-breaking, led to a humorous moment when my mom thought that I had told Great-Grandma that. It took a bit of talking to assure her that I hadn’t done so!)
Delilah Fischer was an oak. What I learned from her is to LIVE. That may sound like a fairly simple, basic thing to do. And yet, there are days when I find myself chained to my desk or computer. Days when the thought of DOING something seems difficult. But in those days, I remember Great-Grandma Fischer. She lived a full life, staying active to the very end.
My other great-grandmother that I got to know was Cecilia Einem. Great-Grandma Einem–as I got to know her–was a very tough lady. She was honest, unafraid, and disciplined. Whereas some grandparents tend toward spoiling grandchildren, Great-Grandma Einem made sure you behaved and worked hard. I have several memories of her. Her house was located in a changing part of Milwaukee. It wasn’t a bad neighborhood, just very busy. She had an alarm system in her home and for a while, when I would wake up in the middle of the night for a glass of water or to use the restroom, I would contort myself to avoid the beam that ran the length of the house. I thought I was getting pretty good because I never set off the alarm. But then I found out that the system was no longer hooked up. That ended the late night gymnastics to get a drink!
Great-Grandma Einem was fastidious. She had the plastic cover on the couch and when we would come to visit, we would be put to work. I recall one time when I was tasked with sweeping the driveway. I went outside… and couldn’t see what there was to sweep. So I began to sweep in a disinterested way. Pretty soon, Great-Grandma came outside and began to lecture me on how to sweep properly. I spent the rest of the morning sweeping her way.
Great-Grandma was a tough person, too. When she got older and was confined to a wheelchair, she refused help and would roll herself along by using her feet to inch the chair forward. Her toughness wasn’t just physical. I recall some blunt and heated discussions. Probably the one that sticks out the most in my memory is when she got into a heated discussion with another relative about whether or not the cookies she was served at the nursing home were Metamucil cookies. (She was sure that they were.)
And yet, under all of that tough exterior, Great-Grandma was a very caring person. In fact, the most clear memory I have of her voice is of a time that we spent the night at her house and I was to sleep on her couch. I said, “Good night, Great-Grandma.” This was unusual, because we usually just called her “grandma.” I think the slight change in address, coupled with her hearing loss, made her not understand what I had said. She stood there–all 4-foot-nothing of her–and stared at me with her Lombardi stare. (She had a great stare that was strikingly similar to the great Green Bay Packer coach Vince Lombardi.) She said, “I love you too.”
I have often thought about that moment and I still regret that I didn’t REALLY say, “I love you” to her. Why? Because I don’t recall every saying “I love you” to Great-Grandma Einem. Frankly, I mostly remember being somewhat afraid of her.
Great-Grandma died when I was in eighth grade. I remember because it was the weekend of a large basketball tournament. I didn’t get a chance to go to her funeral because of that tournament and that bothers me to this day.
But Great-Grandma Einem was an oak. She was not an affectionate woman, but I learned lessons on precision, perfection, and hard work from her. I learned that it is not just enough to do a job (like sweeping a driveway) but you need to do the job well. She was my Vince Lombardi: the tough disciplinarian who taught life lessons. Honestly, I didn’t appreciate those lessons at the time. But now, I do.
Now, that may seem over dramatic–sweeping the driveway isn’t necessarily on par with the Super Bowl in terms of public exposure and cultural significance. But not all of us get to play in Super Bowls. For the rest of us, our Super Bowl is in the little every day moments that add up to the sum of our existence. As Lombardi said, “You don’t do something right every once in a while, you do it right all the time!” That commitment to being the best, to giving maximum effort in all things, stayed with me, even during times of life in which I thought I was too cool to put forth effort.
Thank you, Lord, for the gift of my great-grandmothers. You placed them in my life and allowed me to get a chance to know them. I pray that I can pass on what I have learned to my children.