I am the firstborn to young parents. They had me at age 20.
It has always been a blessing for many reasons, but particularly because I knew four great-grandmothers and one great, great-grandma.
They were incredible mothers. All raised very large families in rural Kansas. All had long, enduring marriages to men whom were the providers for the family.
Many of their children, including my grandmothers, followed in that example. My mom did too.
I was also blessed that they all lived near me. I have great memories of each of them. Each a bit different from the rest, but all leaving an impression on me that influences the woman I am today.
Giant in Presence
I eventually towered over my Great-Grandmother, Philomena “Minnie” Rohleder. Minnie was mini in stature but giant in presence. She was barely five foot with a German accent so thick it turned “w’s” to “v’s”.
Her hugs were a cathartic experience. First because she only came up to mid-chest so it was more like a chiropractic appointment, but also because the embrace was so genuine it melted the outside world away. By the time I knew her, she actually felt like a Grandma — soft with a little extra skin and meat on her bones making her extra comforting.
She passed when I was almost an adult so I am fortunate to have vivid memories of her.
She taught me the chicken dance. She was an incredible cook of German food. She could make anything out flour, eggs, and butter…a by-product of being a wheat farmer’s daughter & wife, and having lots of mouths to feed on a tight budget.
I always remember her surrounded by family…a giant, “reproducing-like-jackrabbits” family. And perhaps it was because of the company she kept…but there was always a smile on her face that lit up the room.
I don’t remember her without wrinkles. She may have been born with them. Those laugh lines were pressed so deep into her face that at the absolute very least, she had to have been born smiling.
And almost every conversation you had with her would end with a finger wag. She would point that index finger at you and you knew something wise or witty was coming.
(I can only imagine the finger wagging you do at me these days, Grandma. I’m sure I deserve it. Only wish it could be in person and a hug directly followed.)
Mentorship & Beyond
Speaking of coveted family recipes and hugs that changed the meaning of life…Meet my paternal grandfather’s mom, Geneva Blackwill (…or so we thought!)
This woman could keep a secret like a teenage girl’s diary! She made the world’s best macaroni and cheese and took the recipe with her to the grave (..or so we thought!)
I don’t remember her healthy. She had a long, hard battle with brain cancer that lasted most of my pre-school years. Even so, I don’t remember her sick. She never let on how painful the disease and treatment were.
We spent a lot of time with Grandma Geneva because she had taken my mom under her wing. She became the wise Yoda that helped my mom navigate a complex in-law dynamic.
When my mom was pregnant with her third baby, and Grandma was in her final days, she told my mom, “Do not name this baby ‘Alice’. It’s such a terrible name for baby girl.” My mom was confused by the objection, but disregarded that advice because we were all sure this baby was the boy my parents were trying for.
My sister, Julie Geneva, was born not long after my Grandma Alice Geneva’s passing. Grandma left behind a beautiful pink baby blanket quilted for the great-granddaughter she knew she would not meet.
… And after years of searching for her macaroni & cheese recipe, it did eventually turn up. I try to recreate it at about every family event.
Somehow, it never quite tastes the same.
(Grandma, ain’t a moment in my adult life where I couldn’t use your counsel…or your mac & cheese.)
Give Like It’s Your Job
Grandma Geneva’s passing brought another truly great Grandma into my life, Grandma Patsy. My great-grandfather remarried a woman who was very different than his first wife. I understand now how difficult it must have been for Grandma Patsy to marry into a family where the matriarch lived on a pedestal.
She was different than any other grandmother in my life. She wasn’t overly warm like the others. She approached life very matter-of-factly. She cared for my great-grandfather as he laid to rest two of his own children, and in his final years.
She didn’t see tragedy or hardship. It was all part of life, and she only saw life.
In high school, I won a state speaking competition that a qualified me for nationals in Washington, D.C. It was a big deal to me at the time. Recognizing what the opportunity also meant to a family, whose vacations were usually made possible by piling into the family sedan, Grandma Patsy organized a community fundraising effort to get us all to Washington, D.C.
Patsy was extremely thoughtful. She remembered every birthday.
In looking for photos for this post, I came across my final birthday card from Grandma Patsy.
She had handwritten the following:
“Some folks are loved for thoughtful ways that make life lots more fun, and some are loved for all the things they do for everyone… But you (and please excuse this if you have heard it before) are loved for both these reasons, besides a whole lot more!!”
Couple things about this letter:
I’m certain she stole this text from a greeting card she had received.
(She did that regularly.)
The copied sentiment only made the words more powerful. Because Grandma Patsy had them, thought of me, and then passed them along … when, as the letter goes on to say, she was bedridden and in terrible pain.
As if it was a matter-of-fact that her time would come so she fulfilled her responsibilities until the end.
(Grandma, the words were truly meant for you. But I will attempt to live up to them every day.)
Grace of a Great
My paternal grandmother’s mom, Grandma Connor, is probably the great-grandmother we spent the least amount of time with.
I knew her first name but we never used it. She was more proper…she always wore a dress, sat in a throne-like recliner, and we would go to her to greet her. She was like an elegant elder in a family of misfits.
As I got older, my grandma would take my sister and cousins to pick up Grandma Connor and take her to bingo. The bingo house was always a cloud of smoke. And we were always the only children playing.
Grandma Connor would sit there, sparkling in an ornately jeweled dress, with a giant smile on her face. She was the picture of sophistication in a smoke-filled room of mostly desperate characters. It made her smile to slum it in a bingo house with her daughter and great-grandchildren.
I only knew her as a widow. We spent every Memorial Day making beautiful professional-looking flower arrangements for deceased family members. We would fill several picnic tables with old massive aluminum cans of pink peonies as big as my head.
Both the cans and the flowers came from Grandma Connor. She had ten green thumbs…and a bit of hoarding tendency.
(Grandma Connor, your grace and beautiful outlived you. I hope you see it now in the woman who carries out your traditions, both Sunday bingo and Memorial Day tributes, my Grandma Lorrie.)
My baby book is filled with pictures of me on the laps of greatness.
I often wonder what they would think of the woman I‘ve become. I didn’t follow in their footsteps. I left Kansas as quickly as I could. I chose not to have children. And I often fall short of their examples.
But I do come from a long line of strong women.
All, who I know, wanted better for their children than they had themselves. Not that they had bad lives because they didn’t. Their days were filled with hard work, long hours, happy families, and tremendous love.
They wanted more for us because they were incredible mothers, grandmothers, and great-grandmothers.
They taught me how to truly care for people, how to give selflessly, and how to take great pride in your work and do it well. Their work was their family.
Perhaps it’s not living up to them, but rather simply honoring them through my own actions.
It truly is my turn.
Stacy Cassio is the Founder of the Pink Mentor Network. It’s a community of women who want better for their daughters than they had themselves. It’s fueled by love, mentorship, generosity, and grace because Stacy has sat on the laps of greatness, and attempts to honor the examples.