The only grandparent I ever had the privilege of knowing was my mom’s mom. Born Mildred Dunn Helm in 1896, she would be 124 today. She died at the age of 87. Her husband Frederick Carl Albrecht died 6 months before my birth at the age of 56. My father’s mom, Catherine Reed Findlay died at the age of 45, when my father was 15 years old. His father, John Thorburn Findlay died at the age of 62. I’ve lived longer than all but one of my grandparents.
Gram, as we called her, held a special place in my life. She was a devout Presbyterian and a faithful church member, active in Sunday School and Women’s Circles for her entire life. I don’t think she ever went to church without wearing a hat and gloves. She also dressed that way for doctor’s appointments, and to fly on airplanes – something she did with fear and trembling every year – to visit her son in Houston, Texas.
Gram was a card-carrying member of the Women’s Temperance Union. According to family lore she made her very German husband drink beer in the basement. My sisters remember that my grandparents were head over heels in love, and if she went down to the basement to give him grief about the beer, he’d give her a big hug and kiss and all would be well.
She was good looking with her blue eyes, trim figure, and attentiveness to dress. I have two photos of her as a young adult, one from the Roaring Twenties in which she looked very much like a ‘flapper’ and one in a modest swimsuit, sitting on a dock and looking like a movie star. Gram played the piano, and back in her younger days she accompanied silent movies in the local theater, playing by ear to match the action on the screen. I’d have loved to have been there!
She survived WWI, the Spanish Flu, the Great Depression, WWII, the Korean War, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Vietnam War, and the assassinations of President Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and Robert Kennedy, and the first walk on the moon. She was blessed to meet five of her great-grandchildren.
She was one of my biggest fans. She traveled all over central PA to watch field hockey games in freezing conditions, sitting in the car behind the goal cage if it was too cold to be outside. She was also not afraid to discipline me when I deserved it – like the time I pulled all the blooms off of her African Violets. She loved cardinals, and every Christmas card she sent included a picture of a cardinal, shining bright red against a snowy winter scene. To this day, whenever I see a cardinal, I think of her and often will remark, “There’s Gram.” My car has VA cardinal license plate as a reminder of Gram.
In this season of pandemic, I often wish I could ask her questions about how she dealt with the challenges, the changes, the losses in her life. She married my Grandfather a week before he shipped out to serve in the trenches of France in WWI, where he was exposed to mustard gas, and ultimately led to his early death from heart disease. I wonder what their conversations were like in the closing weeks of 1918, aware of the gift of being reunited at the end of a war that claimed 116,516 Americans, only to encounter a virus that would claim 675,000 Americans? They were part of a generation that learned to live with mandatory face mask regulations. I imagine that their Thanksgiving, Advent, and Christmas celebrations in 1918 were not at all what they’d hoped for. What wisdom, what guidance, what spiritual insights might she share?
I’ll let you in on a little secret. I sometimes ask her to watch out for my sisters, for me, and for the next generations. It is comforting to know that we are not the first generation to encounter this kind of challenge, that we come from stock who have walked this way before. A “great cloud of witnesses” surrounds us in a mysterious reality that is both too great to imagine and also too wonderful to discount, a source of strength in times of trouble. That is a gift of God for us, right when we most need it.
Thanks, Gram, for loving me ~ Anne