Update January 2, 2012 – To those of you who have made your way here from the AP article that went viral today…thank you so much for your interest in this story. My sweet Grandma (though very savvy) has no computer, but we are keeping her informed of all the interest and comments. She is more than thrilled that her story is touching so many people. Feel free to “share” on FB, Twitter…wherever. God bless you!
This summer, we visited my maternal grandmother in California. After a motel mishap left us stranded, I called Grandma and asked if we could “crash” at her small apartment near the ocean. When we drove up at dusk, a few hours later, Grandma was just coming back from the grocery store, where she’d gone to stock up on food supplies for us.
Her place was as neat as a pin, as it has been for as far back as I can remember. That night, after I’d tucked all my boys in bed, I went into the living room to keep Grandma company. I sat down with a book. Grandma was filling out a word puzzle with a ballpoint pen.
“I like to do something like this before I go to bed,” Grandma said. “It helps me unwind.” About 45 minutes later I sleepily called it quits, leaving Grandma sitting in a small circle of lamplight, still working on her puzzle.
Sometimes I think this woman will outlive us all.
Grandma was born in South Dakota, to a Dutch couple who had emigrated to the U.S. only months earlier. When she was three years old, her father left one day to go swimming with friends. That night when the neighbors came hurrying up the lane, Grandma’s mother, who spoke little English and was still in confinement after the birth of her third baby, struggled out to the front porch to meet them. More than eight decades later, Grandma sat at my dining room table recounting the story in minute detail, down to the lantern that had swung from her mother’s hand, spilling its soft light into the dark night air.
Her father had drowned.
Grandma spent the rest of her childhood working on farms, wherever her mother could find odd jobs. She and her siblings picked crops in the fields, milked cows, and hauled water, wood, and coal. After eighth grade, Grandma was told that high school was only for “city kids who had nothing else to do,” and with that, her formal education was over.
In time, Grandma married a dark, handsome young man and soon after, war broke out and he left to join the Air Force as a pilot. Later, Grandma gave birth to a girl and a boy, and then watched as a knot of cruelty blossomed inside her soldier husband. Eventually Grandma left him but she never got a divorce, and never remarried. She went on, supporting herself by working as a typist and a cook.
Like many women of the early 20th century, Grandma was exceedingly frugal, eating little and saving everything. When my brothers and I were children, we’d nudge each other when we saw her tucking spare packets of restaurant saltines in her purse, or extra rolls wrapped in napkins. But more than once over the years, after learning I’d cried over having nothing nice to wear to school, Grandma bought stacks of new clothing for me. She crocheted outfits for my dolls, and when I begged for curls for my stick-straight hair, it was Grandma who gave me my first permanent, sitting at the Formica table in our little kitchen.
Five years ago, my immediate family was completely stunned to learn a portion of Grandma’s story that she’d kept hidden from all of us, all these years.
When she was sixteen years old, while walking in the woods by a lake, Grandma had been raped by three strangers. Nine months later when she gave birth to a little girl, the baby was quickly taken from her and placed for adoption. For years afterward, Grandma wrote letters to the adoption agency, filling hundreds of pages, begging for word of her baby. She received little information, but Grandma never stopped praying that someday she’d learn what had happened to her daughter.
Decades passed, a lifetime passed, and she never whispered a word of it to any of us.
And then one day in 2006, the phone rang in Grandma’s little apartment, and a few weeks later, she was holding in her arms the daughter she’d given up seventy-seven years earlier. Her first words were: “You’re as wonderful as I’d thought you’d be.”
That daughter was now a grandmother herself, many times over. Among her six children are professors, soldiers, technicians, and an astronaut who has flown on four space missions. Their reunion with Grandma, and the bond that has developed between them, has been one of the greatest joys of all our lives.
Crime, war, abuse, tragedy, illnesses – all of these and more have been part of my Grandma’s long life. She watched her immediate family struggle with addictions and diseases, and years ago she buried her husband, her younger sister, and her only son. In her seventies, when she was left with a young granddaughter to raise, she came out of retirement and worked as a cashier for another thirteen years.
But if this woman has spent a day of her life feeling sorry for herself, I have not borne witness to it. As long as I’ve known her, she has insisted that God is faithful and good, that her life is good.
In any event, she’s much too busy to feel sorry for herself. As I write this, Grandma’s activities include volunteering at a crisis pregnancy center and hosting a weekly Bible study in her home. She spends hours on the phone praying with people, and when friends are in need, she rakes their yards, vacuums their floors, fixes them food. She does all the maintenance and yard work for her apartment complex. She never misses church on Sundays. In her spare time, she travels the country visiting old and new family members. She will fly here to Oregon in two weeks, to celebrate her birthday.
Oh, regarding her age? Five months after Grandma was born, citizens of Southampton, England gathered to watch the launch of a vessel named the RMS Titanic. That great ship survived less than two weeks. This month, my Grandma turns 100.
Happy Birthday to my beloved grandmother Minka Disbrow, the single most extraordinary person I’ve ever known.