If you’re following this blog series, you know that I grew up with great-grandparents as a regular and important part of my life. The series (Lena is part 2) is dedicated to the remarkable women whose lives made it possible for me to be here today; whose strength of character and conviction have impacted me in ways I am still learning to understand.
Lena was the most present great-grandmother in my young life. She helped to raise my father, and was the matriarch on that side of the family. She was a tiny woman, in height and weight, but a mighty presence who wielded great respect from her children, her community and her husband.
I knew Lena as a fragile old woman who loved my father (her grandson) like no one else, and who still held hands with her husband as they sat together on the sofa watching small children tear wrapping paper from a bounty of presents under the Christmas tree. She wore her long, thin grey hair in a constant bun, always wore a dress, often with a pin on it, and when working in the kitchen, or on butchering day she wore an apron over the dress. She forbade her daughters to wear pants of any kind to the point that in my grammar school years, there was a family-wide fracas about a daughter (one of my great aunts) showing up for a family Summer picnic in shorts.
By the time I became aware of Lena, the person, she had resigned most of the lead cooking and family party responsibilities to her oldest living daughter, my paternal grandmother. Still, Lena remained a presence at family functions and kept up with the best of them.
Each January when we butchered hogs to provide our family meat for the year, Lena led the “women’s work” in the kitchen, and yes, still in her dress complete with apron and stockings. This included scraping the intestines (for sausage), cooking the head meat and preparing the stomachs to encase the head meat as well as making sure there would be a meal for everyone at the end of this very long farm day.
Lena was also known in our family as a bit of a prankster with a sharp sense of humor. One of the pranks she was best remembered for involved a man, a neighbor, who was putting a new roof on the farm house. Ditmer was a loud, talkative man who had a reputation for being obnoxious. He liked nothing more than to get the last laugh, especially in front of an audience.
One morning Lena had made fresh donuts and decided to offer the roofing crew a snack. She powdered the fresh donuts, and headed out with the plate. The roofing crew was hard at work when the sweet, little lady in a dress and apron emerged with a plate of yummy, fresh-cooked donuts. She offered the plate first to Ditmer, the loud and raucous leader of the crew before passing it around to the others. Ditmer grabbed the donut perched on the top of the stack and opened his mouth, hungry from a morning of hard work. He bit into the scrumptious-looking treat, only to realize that he didn’t have a donut in his hand, but a rubber facsimile, carefully powdered to fool the most discriminating donut connoisseur.
When his buddies realized what had happened, they all had a good laugh, as did Lena, but the best part of the story was that Ditmer – a man never short on words or a punch line at someone else’s expense – was speechless! He never imagined that a sweet, little old lady would pull a fast one, but she did and there are probably still people in that small town who remember the story and tell it with glee.
Life for Lena was not all jokes and pranks, however. It was common knowledge that 2 of Lena’s children died as small children. Virginia and Irene were older sisters of my grandmother. Irene died as an infant of 2 months, and Virginia died at age 8. These 2 little girls were discussed often as I was growing up but it was not until I married and had children of my own that I realized the pain and emptiness that Lena carried with her all those years after losing an infant and a small child. Losing children was not uncommon in the early part of the 20th century but the pain of a mother’s loss is universal, and incapable of being measured on the scale of time.
Lena was strong in an era where women wore dresses and stockings no matter what they were doing. She said goodbye to her oldest son as he went off to war in the Philippines at a time when families were receiving bad news from the war front on a regular basis. She raised a child with multiple health problems who was not expected to live to adulthood and left him with the ability to live on his own long after she and her husband were gone. She was strong before there were support groups for grieving mothers or the Oprah Show. She was a working mother long before it was a term that divided women along class and income lines, raising 4 kids, keeping house and delivering the milk from their dairy as her husband left the barn after milking each day to work in the clay mines across the county. She fed her family of 6, hobos and farm hands in the days before microwaves, frozen food or the luxury of eating out at the end of a trying day. In the twilight of her years, she still had a smile for her grandchildren, a kiss for her husband and the honor and respect of us all. She held the core of her family together through war, economic crisis (great depression), illness, death, divorce and the challenges of a rapidly-changing world. She was a role model for stay-at-home moms and working women alike. I was blessed to know and interact with her for almost 20 years and still think of her often. As a small child surrounded by grownups who loved me, but whose constant refrains were slowdown, quiet down and settle down, I recognized much later the rare treasure that was mine, growing up in the shelter of Lena’s wisdom, strength and love.
Danke, Oma. Ich liebe dich