The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Wednesday, February 17, 2010


Celebrating Awe and Delight in One Body’s Long Journey

My maternal grandmother is celebrating her 100th birthday this month. When she was born in Cincinnati Ohio, back in 1910, William Howard Taft, another Cincinnati native, occupied the White House, Edward VII, the son of Queen Victoria, sat on the throne of Great Britain, and Russia was still ruled by the czars. Another notable event that year was the appearance of Halley’s Comet in its regular seventy-six year cycle.

Comets have always been a special source of awe and delight to astronomers and stargazers of all types. One reason is that comets are relatively rare, appearing infrequently, especially to the naked eye, and for only a short time. This is because, unlike Halley, most comets take hundreds or thousands of years or more to make their long orbits around the sun. They are the ancient mariners of our solar system.

The other reason for comets’ appeal is their unique appearance. As opposed to other heavenly bodies, seen only as points or short streaks of light, comets feature elongated tails, sometimes millions of miles in length, created by solar winds/radiation. As each comet heads into the sunset of its long journey, its tail streams out behind it like a shadow – a shadow of light, rather than one of darkness. During this milestone, we get a sense not only of where the comet is now but the unfathomable distances it has covered during its prolonged lifecycle.

As our family gathers this week to celebrate my grandmother’s century of life, it occurs to me this is another milestone; one which we ponder with awe over her long journey through time. At a mere five feet and one inch in height, no one will ever accuse her of being a tall woman. Yet it is remarkable how long a shadow she casts over those of us who know and love her.

Her life has had its share of tragedy and sorrow. Married and pregnant at sixteen, she barely survived my mother’s birth and then ultimately raised her as a single parent through abject poverty during the Great Depression.

She cared for her mother and older sister through long and painful fatal illnesses. She divorced her first husband, who abused her physically, and lost her second husband, whom she adored and who adored her in return, to a freak accident. Her great age forced her to bear the burden of watching the deaths of countless friends, her daughter, and one of two beloved nieces.

When her first husband abandoned all support of her and their daughter after the divorce, she went to work to support them as best she could. She had a high school education but no experience and options were limited for women in the 1920s and 1930s. First, she worked a string of odd jobs, most often as a cleaning woman. World War II brought her the opportunity to work on an assembly line, riveting airplanes.

She worked at a paper factory after the war. One morning, she and her second husband arrived at the plant doors to find the company had gone out of business and the pensions on which they had each labored for twenty plus years were suddenly non-existent.

She maintained excellent physical health until her eighties. Then she began an inexorable decline, in which she needed first the aid of a cane to walk and then a walker. Today, she can move around slowly indoors, gripping at walls and furniture, but any trips outside require a wheelchair. She had a stroke around age ninety that left her blind in her left eye. One of her ears is now completely deaf and the other only partially functioning.

In spite of all this, she remains mentally alert and demonstrates a cheerful, generous attitude toward life and others that have been her hallmark. She always swore she loved to clean and even now, when she comes to my house, “What can I do to be useful?” is the first thing she asks my wife and I.

She frets incessantly about the weather. When she hears there is a ten percent chance of rain, to her this means it’s going to rain all day. When she hears about bad weather anywhere in the country, to her this means Cincinnati is going to have bad weather. I stopped trying to argue/talk her out of it long ago.

I think the main reason she has lived so long and with such a youthful spirit is that while she cherishes that which was good within her past, her focus is always on the future. She dotes on her great-grandchildren as she once doted on my sister and me. She loves to talk and laugh with them and they can do no wrong in her eyes – I stopped arguing with her about that long ago too.

My grandmother is heading into the final sunset of her life, of course, but I find no sadness in myself over that and I strongly suspect she feels little enough for herself. Her only regret might be that she will not see everything my children will someday become, that she will never hold the hands of their children and laugh gently with them at things only the very young and the very old understand so well and the rest of us seem to forget in the momentary distractions that we call “making a living.”

She has lived for a century. I have been privileged to stand at the edges of her shadow, sharing the ride, for almost exactly half her journey. At this milestone, I look at that journey in awe. It has always been a delight – for her shadow always has been and always will be one of light rather than darkness.

When we raise our toasts to my grandmother this week, we shall, of course, say, “Congratulations” and “We love you.” But I have also been looking for something else to say – something special and as unique as herself. Now, at last, inspired by comets, I think I have found it. I lift my glass to her and cry “Excelsior!” – ever upwards and onwards.

You see, even after comets have finished their blaze of glory and faded from view, we know they are still traveling somewhere beyond our sight. And if we are lucky, with the passage of enough time, we may see them blaze again. So it may be for her and me.

1 comment:

Isonomist said...

Beautiful, Bell. I'm glad you have the good fortune of knowing her.