Some people buy books by the author, the genre of the story or even the picture on the cover. A while back I picked up a book at a gently used sale because of its title.
The book is called “Grandmothers Are Like Snowflakes….No Two Are Alike” written by Janet Lanese. The title is very appropriate, and the contents of the book made me smile. The intent in purchasing the book was to pass it on to a grandmother who might enjoy it and pass it on to another at some time in the future. But what happened when I read the book is that I began thinking about the people I had known in my lifetime who were grandmothers and how few people my age had a chance to know either our own grandmothers or grandfathers in person. Today most children have two or three sets of grandparents, and some even know their great-grandparents. The contrast over the years has been striking, and readers might find some examples that fit their personal history, and some might seem very different.
We do know for a fact that my mother never met any of her grandparents. As the twelfth child in the family of a couple who had come as immigrants from Ontario, met and were married in North Dakota, the grandparents on one side had died long before she was born and on the other side of the family died around the World War I era when she was quite small. All but one of my dad’s birth grandparents died before he was born, some in other countries. Since his birth mother died when he was small and the five young brothers went in different directions, my father was adopted by a neighboring couple and for years did not know he had blood relatives right in their community. While a maternal grandfather who had served in the Civil War was still alive in his lifetime, we learned doing genealogy that relatives in that family branch had not been aware my father existed. In other words, great-grandparents we knew about were people in old, and not always labeled, pictures. As a result, my brother and I had three sets of grandparents with four of the six deceased before our parents met. The remaining two never met each other, and both died when I turned three years old so my younger brother had no memory of even seeing either of those people. Since I wanted to know who these people had been, the first ventures into family history were to attempt to visit where they had lived. Sometimes the only information found was on tombstones.
While that could have been a sad story, one of the first things we learned when we started school was that our classmates often had a short list of grandparents as well. Some classmates had one living grandparent, and some had none, so we were not alone. Several in both our classes were from one parent homes. The cause in those days was not divorce but illnesses for which cures were not known or just being discovered. When we were small, the leading causes of death were pneumonia, tuberculosis, childbirth, polio and after-effects of diseases which today can be prevented or cured.
Grandparents in those days were really old people – or we thought they were. There is no memory of them having cute little nicknames like Nana or Papa. Most were called Grandma or Grandpa if they were your relatives. If they were no relation (grandparents of neighbors, for example) they might have a last name with the grandparent title but were never addressed by their first names. Liebelers had a grandmother who lived some distance away (Elkwood) but visited Langdon often. She had white hair and was called Mrs. Olson. Mukomelas had no grandparents on the paternal side since Tony was an immigrant, and his parents had died in the Ukraine during “a flu epidemic”. However, their maternal grandfather, better known to the neighborhood as Grandpa Storie, lived with them until the early 1940s. Younger children in their family never met him in person but years later found many of the books he had collected when a teacher, newspaper editor and avid reader - a good window into the life he had experienced. Robillards, living to the north of us, had two sets of grandparents! I have no real memory of seeing the Robillard grandparents who lived far away (Olga or Walhalla), but the Lundquists lived in Langdon. Everyone seemed to know Mrs. Lundquist who also served as midwife for local births and cooked for many church suppers. It took a while, but soon we knew Grandpa Tyko (her husband) whose hammer and nails mended just about anything that needed repair. These neighboring grandparents could be borrowed by other children but were not expected to give gifts or to be called Grandma or Grandpa.
Cousins older than my brother and I had a better chance to know our last living grandmother who in later years they spoke of as their favorite long ago Sunday School teacher. Their children and younger first cousins did not know her in person at all. The younger members of the family were not babysat or spoiled by a doting grandmother, although there might have been some hand-knit mittens she made left to warm their hands in later years. Some cousins had a grandparent or two on “the other side of the family” so the ones with Cleary relatives had Grandpa Dave and his several sisters (all married to Browns) who were known to many, including our extended family, as Aunt Nellie, Aunt Alice, Aunt Mary and so on. Other cousins with Ritter relatives also lacked grandparents but had an abundance of aunts and uncles. Because family gatherings tended to have many people in attendance, we were sometimes claimed by courtesy aunts and uncles. There are many who might read this who will remember knowing Auntie Kate or Aunt Sarah and Uncle Charlie (not a couple but brother and sister) who welcomed children into their homes, related or not. We got to listen to the stories, eat delicious cookies and run errands for people who may have been grandparents in their own right or may have had no close descendants at all. Those kind friends of long ago left many of us with special memories, but time marches on and traditions change.
Then came an era when grandmothers were rarely employed out of the house, but mothers often were, so the grandmothers became babysitters, often without pay. Some loved the little ones so much that they were soon accused of spoiling them. Kindergarten and day care were invented, and in those years a trip to grandmother’s house became special for most. On the side of the grandmothers, those who collected fragile objects learned to child-proof their homes when visitors were arriving.
As medical science became more precise, grandparents lived longer. Many families added the term great-grandparent to their vocabulary and their family gatherings. Greats and great-greats invented their own specialties. Where years ago men used to carry peanuts in the shell in their pockets to tempt little children, now great-grandmothers had gum or special candy treats in their purses and favorite small friends knew exactly where to go for their treat. These older parents were always supportive, attending many programs and sporting events but left the actual babysitting duties to the grandparent generation. Parents had to beware that both grandparents and great-grandparents were entitled to pictures of the newborns at every lovable stage.
Some children consider anyone who is “old” or “older” regardless of the color of their hair to be a grandparent or great-grandparent. In general, they no longer refer to these people as Mrs. Neighbor or Friend and frequently are surprised to discover that the person they meet at the store, in church, at the library or wherever has a name of their own. Fortunately, that does not stop the little ones from visiting, asking questions or sharing stories their parents might not think they know.
Ghosts or Miracles?
Readers of last week’s column were sure I left out something. They wanted the name of the ghost in the Shepherd story spelled out. Being a former teacher with a tendency to let students discover some answers by themselves, I gave hints about the connection to World War II but not all the information. Several pilots survived that war by following the maneuver described as flying in small triangles and were guided to safety by other members of the RAF whether originally the rescue pilots had been English, Irish, Canadian, US fliers or others stationed in England during the war. Some became legendary heroes as a result. One of those was an Irish pilot known as Johnny Kavanaugh who had rescued others but was lost along with his DeHavilland Mosquito in the waters of the North Sea in 1943. His published photograph from that earlier time was still on the wall at the abandoned base where the Christmas ghost story pilot eventually landed in 1957. Was the rescue plane a ghost, a similar tale or maybe a Christmas miracle is left to the imagination of the reader.