I didn’t like my grandmother when I was a child. She was prim and prissy and — most unforgivably of all — an Authority Figure. Then I grew up (or older, at least). Recently, I moved to Florida, about four hours from where she lives. I’ve come to know a different grandmother than the caricature of my memory. She’s independent and generous and brave and true. She makes me unafraid to face old age.
This Thanksgiving, I spent two and a half hours interviewing her. There were a bunch of reasons for this:
- I’m a writer. Writers are mostly useless. We sit in our pale bodies in our lamp-lit rooms, clacking away on keyboards all night. We’re not fun to be around because instead of experiencing life we’re too busy processing it all the time. We have no money or worthwhile life skills. So when I consider my role in my extended family, I’m aware that I don’t contribute. That I have nothing to contribute. Then I thought these thoughts: I know how to operate a voice recorder, I have experience interviewing people, and I can transcribe (grumblingly). I thought: Maybe this could be a feeble contribution to my family, or at least briefly reverse the one-way nature of our interaction.
- I’ve been quietly obsessed with the idea of permanence recently. (I say recently; I got a tattoo four years ago because I wanted just one damn thing in my life that wouldn’t leave me.) What do we leave behind when we die? How are people remembered, and for how long? What do you see when you’re 84 and you look out over the horizon? I figured I may as well ask.
- Generally, societal memory of a human lasts two generations. After the rest of the grandkids and I die, no one will recall my grandmother except as perhaps a fleeting image or the fragment of a story. (The only memory I have of my great-grandmother is wearing one of those old paper Burger King crowns when we went to visit her in a nursing home.) I wanted to make sure that, when I die and humanity’s collective recollection of my grandmother ends, that as much of her memory as possible will at least make it that far.
Anyway, I’m hoping that by knowing why I care, you might too. What follows is a curated list of questions and answers from what was initially 14,000 transcribed words. It’s really long still, but so is life, so deal. For the most part the interview was lighthearted, almost flirty in tone. She laughed at a lot of my questions, though you probably can’t tell from the straight transcript.
Ultimately, I failed. I didn’t figure out what I’m going to see and feel at 84, and I also don’t feel like I captured anything close to her essence, or contributed much to my family. But that’s okay, too. I learned different things than I set out to. Maybe they are better things? Who knows. We’ll all be dead and forgotten soon anyway.
Here’s a quick primer of some of the names you’ll see:
Gamma – my grandmother
Wilber and Gram – her parents
Katy and Maxine – her sisters
Poppy – her husband
Dona, David and Diane – her children
Here’s my favorite quote. I asked what she wants on her gravestone: “Just the name and date. That’s all. That’s enough.” I think, eventually, all we leave behind are some letters and numbers scratched on a rock. That’s enough.
ZLR: I’m going to start with a hard one. Where were you born?
Gamma: I was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. My parents lived at 181 Woodhaven Drive, Mt. Lebanon. And so I was born in the children’s hospital in Pittsburgh.
Is the house still there?
The house is still there, yes.
Have you visited?
Yes, I went with my sister Katy many years ago. We got out of the car, parked, walked all around it, and would have gone in but there was no one there. It was in nice condition. They’ve done a few improvements. And we took pictures. It was a lovely home. We had four bedrooms upstairs, and a bathroom. And a big, big living room, a big dining room, kitchen, a breakfast nook, a full-sized basement, two-car garage, bathroom in the basement.
What year were you born?
I was born Aug. 16, 1930.
What was your relationship like with your father?
I got along with my father just great. Back in those days fathers were not instructed to be so involved with their families. But I used to go sit on his lap when he’d be reading the newspaper. I can’t remember that we talked about so much. But he was always there. He came home regularly for dinner, and we had dinner as a family, in the dining room.
What kind of man was he?
I wouldn’t say soft, but more soft than hard. He was a reasonable man.
Did he like to tell stories?
What kind of jokes?
Probably slightly off color jokes, some of them. But not to us.
You called him a gentleman farmer.
I did call him a gentleman farmer. Yeah, and he grew roses. He loved roses. And he would cut a fresh rose every day when they were in season and wear it in his lapel.
What did you wear in elementary?
We all wore skirts back then.
Like a plaid?
More of a preppy look than anything else. I do remember, once I started junior high I walked about a mile to school and the senior high was also about that far.
Was it uphill both ways?
Well up to the top of the hill, and then it was kind of level.
Okay, I just got that. Well, you know my mother didn’t drive. There was no school bus because we lived just under a mile. If you lived a mile away you could take the school bus. It probably didn’t hurt us at all.
What were your hobbies?
Reading. I was nearsighted and never knew it. The person themselves isn’t aware they’re supposed to see in a certain way. So one thing I could do was read, and I loved to read.
When your sisters left the house, what was different?
I never even thought about it. I just lived my life. I was very, very busy in high school. I was the literary editor of the yearbook and I was in a couple other clubs. But also I was active in my church youth group. We did things and had fun together.
When was your youth group?
Youth group was Sunday nights. My church was at the top of the street, and we walked up for Sunday school and stayed for church.
Why did your mother pick that church?
Well, because she didn’t drive, and it was the closest church, so that’s why we went. My father wanted us in church, he just didn’t go to church.
So he never went to church his whole life?
You know, I was in college those last couple years when he was ill, and my sister said that he did start going to church. But I never saw him in church, so I don’t know.
What did he do?
He started off his career being an auditor for the Standard Oil Company of New Jersey. Maybe it was more than just New Jersey at that time. Standard Oil was declared a monopoly and they had to separate; they had to divide. Then he went with the People’s Natural Gas Company of Pittsburgh. He was the office manager of that whole area.
Did he like it? Did he complain?
I think the feeling of that day was that he was very grateful. A lot of people had been out of work during the Depression, and he never was. He had to have his salary reduced slightly, but he never had to go without a paycheck. So I think that there was an attitude of, ‘I’m just glad I have this good job.’
Would you say you were middle class?
Definitely middle class. One of my fondest memories of my father was, it was a stormy day, or rainy, and he had bought a bag of wonderful apples from the state of Washington. He was carrying those home. For whatever reason he had taken the bus to the top of our street and was walking down the street. There was a patch of ice he didn’t see, and he fell, and the apples scattered all over. And he was also in pain with what turned out to be a broken arm. But he picked up every single apple, and brought those apples home, and walked the rest of the way home. Walked up our front steps, which were quite steep, and came in, and his face was ashen. The minute my mother and all of us saw him, we were just panicked. He had broken his arm, but he was not going to leave any of those apples on the street. He was bringing those home for his family. They were special.
I imagine he wasn’t quite as stingy as Gram [what I call her mom], but he was probably stingy himself, right?
Frugal. And he was probably conservative. But as I say, everyone I knew lived conservatively, so it wasn’t like it was anything unusual.
What were their politics?
My mother, bless her, was a Democrat.
Were you pretty in high school?
I never thought so.
Did the boys think so?
I dated. I had a boyfriend in high school.
What was his name?
Bob. Bob Eby. He was very, very, very intelligent, and I don’t know what he saw in me to tell you the honest truth. I’m still in contact with him. He married a wonderful gal — her name is Connie. He won a five-year scholarship to Princeton and majored in chemical engineering. You know how quiz kids used to go around to different cities, you’ve heard of that radio show at that time? He was selected to be one in his group. So he was very, very intelligent.
You say you dated him. What did that look like?
We went to the movies. We did other things together. We went to dances, school dances.
You were allowed to dance?
Oh yes, yes.
What kind of dances?
Ballroom, foxtrot kind of thing. Some jitterbug. I was never any good at that.
Were you ever any good at dancing?
Not really, no.
Who was your first kiss?
Well, honestly, I can’t remember his name.
What grade was it in?
Seventh grade. I went to a school dance with the boy across the street. I didn’t see anything wrong with it at that time.
Did your parents?
I never asked and I never got caught.
But certainly they must have met Bob and knew you were dating?
Oh yes, they liked him. They liked him a lot because my father offered him our car to take me to something. I can’t remember. But he never, ever lent that car out to anyone else that I know of.
Why did it end with Bob?
You know what, it wasn’t love, and I knew it.
So you broke it off?
Yes, it was at the end of our high school year.
Was he devastated?
I doubt it.
What advice would you give the high school version of you?
I would say, “Work as hard as you can. Play as hard as you can. Learn everything. Explore. Try new things.”
How did you choose your college?
Well, I wanted to go as far away from home as I thought my parents would allow, and I wanted to go to some place that wasn’t going to break the budget. I had heard of Monmouth College in Illinois; it was associated with my church. It had a good reputation, scholastic reputation.
What did Wilbur and Gram say when you wanted to go to that college?
“Fine.” They drove me there.
Did they pay for it?
Yes, they did. I worked summers. I worked at the Bell’s Telephone Company. I was able to get a job from a neighbor who worked there.
Was that your first job?
My first official job, yes. Minimum wage. The first year I earned $30 a week.
How much is that an hour?
I don’t want to know. The second year, minimum wage went up a dollar. I got $31. I think I got up to $32 maybe at the most. I worked there for four years.
Well, what it did was that paid for my books and anything else in my expenses. And my parents paid for my tuition and room and board.
What kind of food did you eat in dorms?
At Monmouth College we had family-style, sit-down dinners. We dressed in skirts. One of the upperclassmen was at the head of the table. I’d say maybe there were a dozen people at the table, maybe not that many. Maybe it was 10. So then the platters of meat and vegetables were started at that head and then passed around the table.
How big was the college?
When I went, I think it was about 600. We all ate together: breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
What sorority were you in?
I was in Kappa Gamma Gamma.
Why did you join a sorority?
I didn’t even know about sororities when I went there, and found out about rush and everything. And everybody was doing it, so I did it too. Who wants to be left out?
What would the sorority do?
Actually, in my day they were very, very advantageous, because you were assigned a big sister and you were kept accountable for your grades. We had meetings in which we practiced music. We had music competitions, sorority against sorority and fraternity against fraternity. It was a big school event. We had social events. It was one way to get to meet people.
Was that sort of your main activity?
Yes, they provided … of course we had football games, basketball, that sort of thing. I was in a little dance club. Danced on the football field one time. Did the highland fling!
What is that?
It’s a Scottish dance.
Can you show me?
No, I can’t show you. And if I could, I wouldn’t.
What’d you study?
I majored in math, minored in chemistry. Those were my favorite subjects and I felt like I wanted to become a teacher. I also was very interested in meeting the right person for the rest of my life. I had a problem because they would post your grades from a test outside the door of that classroom. Maybe it was a wrong perception, but I felt that the boys were not going to ask me out because I was too far ahead of them. I got good grades. So I was social minded.
Did you date at all at Monmouth?
Yes, I dated a tremendous amount. My last semester there I went to every fraternity dance, with somebody different each time, of course.
So you were probably prettier than you’re letting on.
I don’t think so. I don’t know. I just got fed up with the whole scenario. I can remember that when I did transfer, I said, “This is it. I am not going to date. I just want to go to school. I want to go to school; I want to get an education. Dating is just off limits for a while.”
Let’s back up before we get to that. You went to Monmouth a year and a half?
A year and a half.
And then you transferred to Penn State. Why?
Well, my father had become ill, for one thing. And I also thought if I’m going to get a teacher’s certificate, maybe I should consider getting it from the state of Pennsylvania, because that’s where I live. At that time, and even today, that’s not always transferable. So I transferred to Penn State.
You wanted to teach. Did you have existential doubt about what you would do?
I don’t think we had as many options back then — for women, especially. If you weren’t going to be a teacher, you were going to be a nurse. Whereas today there’s so much information out there and so many avenues where you can go. And you have to make these decisions so early on. My oldest sister wanted to be a nurse, and she pursued that and became one. My next sister majored in chemistry I believe, and then got a job and used that. She worked for a water softener company.
Did you have long hair in college?
I never had long hair. It was longer than it is now, but my hair was so kinky curly and that was not popular. In order to control it, why, I had to keep it short.
What was your fashion sense like?
It was the preppy era. Saddle shoes, bobby socks, pleated skirts or sometimes straight skirts. I do remember in high school we wore jeans — this was just for play. The fashion was to borrow one of your father’s shirts and wear it, a button down shirt. You tied it in the front so it held everything together. I can remember doing that.
So you transferred to Penn. How long before you met Poppy [her husband]?
Well, my father had been operated on right before Christmas. And then I transferred almost right away. I think he was operated on after I transferred. So I wanted to go home to see him. I didn’t wear my Kappa key sorority pin when I transferred because I thought, “You know, I don’t know if I’m going to fit in this group. I would just as soon as they give me a chance just to settle in.” But they came and found me. Found out I was a Kappa. And so then I became friends with them and I did join that group. So I said to them, “How do you go about getting a ride?” because I wanted to get a ride to go back to see my father. They gave me some hints and I followed through and got this ride home. And Poppy was with the man who was driving.
You said you had to look at a board and find someone who was driving near where you were going?
Right. So then I just called. Just cold-called.
What was his name?
Paul McBeth. He said he had space and he’d take me.
So you swore off dating, but you met Poppy on this car ride. What happened then?
Then my sorority sisters said, “Our dance is coming up, and you need to get a date.” I said, “I’m not dating, I don’t know anybody,” and I said, “I just won’t go.” They said, “You have to go. Everybody goes, and you have to get a date.” And I said, “I don’t know how I’m going to do this.” Finally I said, “Alright. If somebody calls and ask me out, I’ll say I would like to go out with you, but would you take me to the Kappa prom?” Well, not prom, but dance. Then they said OK. A couple weeks later, Poppy called and asked me out.
Then what happened?
I said, “Would you mind taking me to the Kappa prom, because I’m new, I don’t know anybody, and I’d like to go with you?” He said, “Yes, I will take you, but if I’m going to take you to a dance we better go out the day before.” So we went out Friday and we went out Saturday.
So you went on two dates with Poppy. How did those go?
Great! I liked him a lot right away.
When did you and Poppy start going steady, I think they called it in your time?
Well, I didn’t date anybody else for the rest of the year, and then he graduated. He gave me his pin that summer, his Sigma Nu pin, so that would be like going steady.
Walk me through the timeline. What did he do after he graduated?
He and [twin brother] Ted and that Paul McBeth took a trip out West that summer. When he came back he got a job as a trainee at Sears and started working.
Was that in the same town?
Penn State is in State College, is the name of the town. It’s in Central Pennsylvania. He started in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
How far away is that?
A couple hours, anyway.
Were you still dating?
Yes, we wrote letters. Phoning was expensive, so we didn’t phone very often.
How long did that last?
I’m sure that we got together whenever we could. We did that for two years. The last year we were engaged.
Did Poppy get along with your mom?
Oh my goodness, they teamed up against me. They got along famously. Too well sometimes I thought. If Poppy had an idea and I had an idea, my mother always sided with Poppy. They really got along well, yes.
How did he propose?
I think it was Labor Day weekend. You know what, I don’t have a clue. I know he had a ring! I’ve got it on my finger to this day, but I don’t remember the specifics of what we did or how it worked out.
Do you remember how you announced it? Or how you told your mother?
No. No recollection. Things were moving too fast. That first semester of my senior year I did practice teaching, so I was busy. I think we did see each other every weekend because I was in a town right next to Lancaster. They were close, maybe half hour away.
So you graduated, then what’d you do? Get married the next day?
Well, practically. A couple weeks.
Where’d you get married?
At the church at the top of the hill. That Beverly Heights Presbyterian Church.
What’d you guys do special for your wedding?
Well, I can remember asking the organist if she would play certain classical pieces, like Clair de Lune, I can’t remember what else. A couple others. She said, “I’ve never been asked that before.” So anyway we just had a traditional service. At that time you didn’t make it personal. You just went by the book, and you said, “I do” when you were supposed to, and that was it. But we had a lovely reception at the women’s club in Mount Lebanon.
What did you guys serve?
I don’t know, I never got any of it. I didn’t! We were too busy while we were there. Talking with people and just everything.
Where did you move after that?
Poppy was in Lancaster, working at that Sears store. He rented an apartment. It was the third floor of an old house. It was two huge rooms. One was the kitchen and eating area, and we even had a pull-out sofa there. And the other one was a combination bedroom living space. We got it fixed up really cute.
How long did you live there?
Well only one year, because we decided that we, well, Poppy didn’t want to wait to have a family. He wanted to get started.
He’d been in the Navy, then he’d been four years in college, then another two years waiting for me to graduate from college.
How old was he?
Twenty-seven. He turned 27 right after we got married, the next month. I turned 22 that summer.
And you started teaching, right?
I got a job teaching kindergarten that first year.
How long did you teach?
Just that one year. We made a decision that, why pay somebody to keep your child. You should be teaching your child yourself, your own values.
How long before you got pregnant?
We were married in ’52 and Dona was born in the fall of ’53. So it was over a year, a year and a half.
Poppy really wanted kids, but did you want kids right away?
Yeah, I wanted kids. I feel like it’s natural to have a family.
Tell me about having Dona. Where was she born?
She was born at the Lancaster General Hospital. We had gone to a lovely dinner party from friends from Poppy’s high school. It was snowy and icy when we drove home, a lot of bumpiness in the ride. As we pulled up in front of our apartment – we had moved to a larger place in anticipation of Dona’s being born – as we pulled up, I suddenly realized, “Uh oh, I think my water broke.” So anyways we went in, and we got all ready for bed quickly, and climbed into bed. Poppy immediately went to sleep, and I lay there thinking, “You know what, these pains are pretty sharp. They’re pretty close together, I think maybe we should time them.” Because they said when they’re six minutes apart you’re supposed to call the hospital. So anyway I woke Poppy up and I said, “I think we better time these contractions.” So he got his watch out.
Did he know your water broke?
I can’t remember if I said anything or not.
Why would you guys just go to bed then?
Well, because things don’t start that quickly normally.
Right, but usually you don’t have a full night’s sleep before they start.
Well, we were tired! We’d been partying all night! So anyway, when he timed them — he timed about three or four — they were about two minutes apart. So I said, “I think you better call the hospital.” And so he did, and they said to go right to the hospital. So he drove me over, and immediately got me checked in. They said, “Go home. This is the first baby, it’s going to take a long time.” So Poppy left me there. At this time men weren’t allowed to be even on the maternity floor I don’t think. So anyway he went home and got undressed again and got into bed, and the phone rang again and they said, “Come over to the hospital! You’re a father!”
So Dona was an easy birth?
Yes. Comparatively, yes. No birth is totally easy, believe me.
I’ve heard that they’re painful.
But yes, my labors were short. For her it was two hours start to finish. David was an hour and a quarter. Diane was 45 minutes. Then I said, “I quit.”
What did you do with Dona when she was first born?
Counted her fingers and toes. Doesn’t everybody?
I don’t know. I mean when you took her home.
My mom was there to help. Honestly, by the time you change your baby and do everything and feed a baby so on and so forth and then they take a little nap, and you do too because you’re exhausted, they wake up and you start all over again. You do that for the very first, for me, like a month.
When you and Poppy decided to have kids what was your goal to instill in your children?
You know, that’s what got me thinking, about what is the meaning of life. That was a nagging thought really, even in college. In fact I went to a professor or two and asked questions along that line, like Pilate, “What is truth?”
Then Poppy was transferred to Long Island, and so when we left Lancaster I said I am not going to teach Sunday school again until I search this out and find out what is the truth. At that point then the question – what is going to happen to me when I die? Where will I go? Is this all there is? Or is there something more? So then when we ended up in Long Island we started looking for a church. There was no Presbyterian church, so we just went to the Methodist church, because I thought, “Well, they’re about the same.” That’s the way my thinking was. There was a small group in there that were saved. The Lord directed them to ask me to go to a Sunday night Bible study. I said, “You know what, I’ve been looking for a good Bible study,” and so I went. The first night I was so overwhelmed with that group. I think they were studying in Daniel and they were in the middle of it. But the spirit of God was really speaking to me, and I said to a gal I had met on Long Island, Ruth Boehning, I said, “I’m going to this Bible study and would you go with me?” So she said, “Yes, I’ll go.” So the next Sunday, the two of us went. On the way home she said, “You know, if you believe the way they do, it would revolutionize your life. It would change your life.” And I said, “Yes.” I said, “I agree, and I’m going to keep going.” And that group was instrumental in continuing to teach me things of the Lord. Eventually, I got saved.
Did Ruth keep going?
No, she did not go back.
It was too much of a commitment.
My mother says she remembers you guys pouring liquor down the drain when you got saved. Is that true?
That is true! Of course, that was five years later when Poppy got saved.
How did you get saved?
All of this played in my mind. I never talked to anybody about it, but I kept going to these little Bible studies and I kept reading the Bible. The thing that really hit me the hardest was John 14:6: “I am the way, the truth, and the light. No one comes to the father, except by me.” And I said, “That’s it. The one way. There’s one way.” I was ironing, and I said, “You know, I don’t understand everything, but I am going to start to live the way it says in the Bible, and I will know if it’s the truth or not. Either it’ll work or it’ll be a dismal failure.” And just like a light bulb went on, I knew I had stepped into eternity. It was the Spirit witnessing to my spirit, that, yes, Jesus was the son of God.
You said Poppy got saved five years later. How did that happen?
At that time we were living in Crown Point, Indiana. He came home one day and he said somebody at his work had asked him to go to Lenten services on a Wednesday, and he had gone. I think he had gone on the way home from work or something like that. He said, “I really liked it,” and he wanted to go back. He said, “I want you to go with me.” Now, it was a Missouri-Synod Lutheran church, which I knew I probably didn’t agree with quite everything, but I figured, “You know what, I’ll go anywhere.” So the next Sunday, and the entire Lenten series, we went to this series, and it was absolutely phenomenal. It was really very, very well done. It was a video kind of thing. Through that, and then through the witness of another pastor, why, Poppy got saved.
I’m curious about this scene of pouring the liquor down the drain.
I can’t remember exactly when this happened. I don’t remember how it came up, and we probably didn’t have all that much liquor either. But anyway we decided to have a party and he wanted to pour his liquor down the drain.
Were there a lot of people there?
No, it was just us.
Was Poppy a heavy drinker?
No. No, but at one point he realized he could become an alcoholic. He had the personality for it. When he would start to drink, he didn’t really stop. I’m sure that the Lord saved our lives many times over those years.
What did you and Poppy used to fight about?
I might have gotten pretty upset a few times, maybe more than a few times. But we did not fight.
You never fought?
No. If there was a big disagreement about something, I would talk it over in private. But no, we never fought.
What were your biggest disagreements about?
I’m trying to remember something that would be relevant to say. I can remember one time I had made a decision and it had to do with the kids. I never called him at work, because his work wasn’t the kind where you could pick up and interrupt him. Most of the time I just took care of things myself and we didn’t even discuss it. It was over and it was done with. This particular time I felt like the kids were going to try to appeal to him. So I met him a the door, I said, “Jack, I don’t care what you think about what I’ve decided, but,” I said, “support me!” And he did.
What was the decision about?
I don’t remember. But it was important enough that I felt we needed to be unified. Because before he got saved, I could say something to the kids and then he could say something in the other room that, not knowing what I had said, would have been totally different, totally opposite. So there was a lot of tension in those five years.
How did you deal with that?
I got depressed. I didn’t know it at the time, but it was very, very difficult.
What did your depression look like?
Just forcing yourself to keep going. But I knew I had to.
Did you consider leaving?
No. I had become a Christian, that’s the reason we were having trouble. I reasoned that it was not his fault. He was just acting the way he’d always acted. I was the one that had dramatically changed.
Was he upset about that?
No. And later on he would tell people, and did many times, that it was through watching me that was one of the instrumental things in his becoming a Christian. But when you’re going through that, it’s an emotional persecution, perhaps.
Was it hard when all of your kids moved out?
No! No, it was kind of fun.
What did you do with your extra free time?
I don’t know, I was always busy. I had lots to do. Dona called Poppy the high-maintenance husband. And when he was home he wanted me to do things with him and to be with him. A lot of women didn’t have that, or don’t have that. Their men want to go off and do stuff on their own.
What’d you think of Jack [Dona’s husband] when he came around?
[Laughs] He was skinny! And he walked with those bow legs. But I knew right away.
That he was going to be the one.
How’d you know?
I could just tell from the way they acted.
You never had any tension with him?
Tension with Jack? Oh, never.
What’d you think of my father when he came around?
Well, you know, I picked him. Yeah. Diane had met him at that couple’s retreat or something or other. Evidently he had asked her to go out, and she had said she couldn’t because she had some kind of an exercise class or something. Poppy and I visited down there and we went to some hangout place that the young people had, and I met not just Scott, but some other people as well. Then when we left there and we were talking with Diane, she said, “Well, what did you think?” and so on and so forth. I said, “I liked that Scott.” She said, “He asked me out.” I guess she must have said she didn’t go. I said, “Well, why didn’t you go?” and she told me. I said, “For heaven’s sakes, if he asks you to go to the movies again, forget the exercise class and go, would you?” She was a hard nut to crack.
What did you think when my dad took your daughter to Indonesia?
Poppy always used the example of sand. If you pick it up and you try to hold it like this, it all sifts through your fingers and it’s gone. But if you scoop it up and hold it like this, you still have the whole thing. That’s the way you hold your kids. You know, they’re not yours to begin with. This is part of living what the Bible says. We don’t own our children; they’re gifts from God. If they’re serving him, in whatever capacity, I mean shouldn’t you be happy? Shouldn’t you be glad about that?
I think you can be simultaneously happy but also be sad they don’t live near you.
Well, it would have been nice. But there’s no sense wishing for what isn’t.
When was the point when you felt like your kids took care of you more than you took care of them?
When I sold my condo and moved in with Dona and Jack, and then down here [with David and Sue].
Was that difficult?
No, for me it’s not too difficult. There are times that you think you’d like to be on your own, but really it’s very nice to always have people around, to be part of active lives, to have somebody to sit down with. I know people that go home and it’s just them. They eat alone. So the tradeoffs for not being totally independent, to me, are far greater to be with family.
I want to ask about the day Poppy died. What do you remember?
We had driven down from Maryland and we arrived maybe 3 o’clock in the afternoon.
Just to clarify, Dave and Sue were living in North Carolina then?
Yes, in Burlington. Yes, and when we got there we were so surprised Ted was there. Susan had a dinner for us, which we had, and I think we watched a couple of short TV shows. Poppy liked to walk at night. I did not, because you know my eyes don’t see things. So I said, “I’ll stay here and get ready for bed,” so I did that. I got ready for bed and I was in bed by the time that they got back from their walk.
Who’d he go with? He went with Ted?
It was either Ted or David. Or maybe both. But anyway they went for a walk and came back. I was really tired, and I had fallen asleep. Poppy woke me up and said he didn’t feel right. He said, “I’m having trouble getting my breath.”
This was after his walk?
After his walk. And everybody was in bed by that time. Very, very quickly he got worse. I immediately went and got David. I told him, and then David came, and I said something about getting him to the hospital. Poppy said … I’ll never forget it – he had his suitcase at the foot of the bed – and I said, “We’ll need your information.” He told me exactly where his wallet was and where to get everything. So I did, I got that. With that, he said several, a couple of times he said, “God help me.” He was desperate. He was not able to get his breath. Right in there, I ran into the bathroom and got my clothes on. As I came out of the bathroom and got to the door of the bedroom, I saw him slide from the bed. He was sitting on the edge of the bed, and he slid down to the floor, and I knew he was gone. But I figured the medics were on the way, and I figured they could revive him. I thought later on, why didn’t I think about us doing the resuscitation, except that none of us are trained along those lines. I wasn’t thinking of it. Anyway, the medics did come and they worked on him right away. I went in the ambulance with him, and they worked on him the entire way there, but he was gone then.
What was going through your mind during the ride on the ambulance?
Well, that they could bring him back. We’re programmed to think life, I do believe. I thought if they could get him going, he can come back.
Had he had a stroke before?
A heart attack, not a stroke. Yeah. More than one. His first one was at age 51 and it was very severe. And he did have heart damage. Anyway, when we got the hospital then, you know they hook you up to everything. That took quite a while. David stayed with me. And then they moved him to an ICU, and then finally we could go in and see him. I stayed during the night, and it was during the night that I felt like he was not coming back. But for me, I knew where he was, that he was in heaven, and that he wouldn’t want to come back as some kind of half-person. Also, for the entire almost a year, he’d been telling everybody that he was not going to make it until Diane got back in the Spring. You know you were on that five year [term in Indonesia]. Many, many things that he said and did and things that happened to all fit together. Dona and I both said, “It’s like God orchestrated everything.” One of the things was that after he gave his last financial seminar, he said to me, he said, “You know, Pat, I’ve always been excited about my next seminar.” And he said, “This is the first time I’ve not been excited about doing my next one.” Just little things like that, where like God was preparing him. And us, as we look back.
How old was he?
Seventy-three. And, you know, well, you say that’s young. But it’s a lot older than a lot of people live. God has your days numbered.
What do you remember about his funeral?
I think it really honored the Lord. He had told Becky Kang, he had said to her many times, he said, “I want you to sing ‘Finally Home’ at my funeral.” He was very adamant about that, as he was about most things. She always said, “I’m not singing at your funeral.” Well, when she saw my car at the funeral home – David and I had driven. First we drove to the church, then we went right to the funeral home, which was real close. She saw my Villager, I guess it was the Villager, there, she came bursting in, because she knew. I said, “Becky, you’re going to sing ‘Finally Home’ at Jack’s funeral.” And she said, “No way!” And I said, “There’s no way you’re not going to sing it.” Well, she never could get through it and Susan [Wiedenman, his daughter-in-law] finished it for her.
Susan sang ‘People Need the Lord,’ and that was his absolute favorite song. And Sharon Radford sang, but I don’t remember what. I’d have to look it up.
Yeah, I remember a lot.
What did you do the day after?
Jess [O’Neal, a granddaughter] stayed with me.
She stayed with me because we had airplane reservations to fly to Idaho, it must have been Idaho, for Christmas, on Christmas day. So we called and changed the reservation from Jack to Jessica. Then she stayed with me so I didn’t have to be alone. Then the two of us flew out. We flew out on the 25th.
What’d you do the day after the funeral?
Probably cleaned house, I don’t know. I haven’t a clue.
When did you take off your ring?
Oh, I never did. I knew I’d never marry again.
Why did you know you’d never get remarried?
Because, No. 1, I wouldn’t want to. And No. 2, marriage, for me it was a lot of work.
Do you think it was more work for you than other people?
I don’t know. Everybody’s different. You know, you’ve got to put effort into any marriage.
Did he leave you safe financially?
Do you feel rich?
In a way. I’m not sure. I mean, rich is in anybody’s estimation. But definitely I’m sure that most people would say that I was rich.
Do any regrets gnaw at you ever?
They do not gnaw at me. I’m sure, always things can come to your mind when you say, “I wish I had done this better or differently or something like that.” But no. You can’t dwell on the past. You can’t relive it. So if there’s anything in your past, you have to deal with it, and then live the moment you have.
When did you become friends with Dave?
This David? You mean the switch from parent to friend? I don’t know. Once a child leaves home, and especially if they get married, the Bible says to leave and cleave, for that child to leave and cleave. So their priorities change, and you immediately accept that. And they may have more trouble separating from you as a parent than you have separating from them as a child. I’ve never had any trouble letting my kids go. I think I said before, they’re not yours to begin with. They’re just lent to you for a season. So you do the best you can with the clay God gave you, so then when they walk out the door or you kick them out, that’s it.
Did you have to kick any of your kids out?
No, but I know people that should. [Laughs.]
What should I know about the next stage of my life?
Oh, my goodness. I have no idea. You should know enough to stay out of trouble.
You don’t have any secrets to impart?
No, no, I try not to give any advice unless asked for it.
Well, I’m asking.
I know, and I can’t think of a thing to tell you. [Abruptly] Prepare for the future. You know, I could not be this relaxed and live financially independent if we had not saved from the day one. When we got married, Poppy was already buying a bond a month. Wait, not a month. He would save $5 a month. When he had enough, he bought a $25 bond with that. It was a program you could sign up for. That was the beginning of planned saving.
What’s your favorite book?
Oh, the Bible.
What’s your second favorite book?
The book I happen to be reading at the time.
Where do you want to be buried?
I want to be cremated, and then Poppy’s ashes, we can both be buried in the one plot we have left in Montgomery, Alabama.
Who else is there?
Okay. My mother’s parents and an infant son of theirs. My father. And some of my mother’s ashes. The next time we get a chance, I want to go order a bench to put over, on that last plot. And then that can be engraved.
What do you want engraved on that?
Just the name and date. That’s all. That’s enough.
I still think you’re going to live longer than me, but if by some accident you don’t, what do you want me to say at your funeral?
I don’t know. Whatever comes into your heart.
That’s all I have. Unless you have anything you want to add, Gamma.
That’s it, huh?
You better turn it off.