By L&T Columnist Rachel Coleman
At the end of a long, hard, summer, I find myself a little surprised that I will have to keep on going, in exactly the same way I kept on going for the last three months.
I will awake every morning, willing to do what’s required, just in time, over and over if necessary.
Some part of me will continue this effort in hopes of a far-off calm place where duties don’t call and time doesn’t matter. Some people call that vacation. Maybe it’s actually death.
All three are on my mind this week — plodding, vacations and death — as the maternal side of my family says goodbye to my grandmother. Catherine Classen Schultz (later Quenzer) died early Friday, with her two daughters by her side. At 97, she knew plenty about continuous work, not so much about what came at the end of a life of it.
Yet as her death neared, she showed all of us how it’s done, by which I mean that she gave up what she couldn’t keep, mostly with good humor, and refused to relinquish what was really hers. A list couldn’t contain her best qualities, but they included a natural dignity, evident even when she was too weak to swallow. A tender heart, sweet even when life bashed it about. Clear opinions. Serene trust in a good God.
Maybe Grandma knew how to hang on to these qualities out of pure habit. Next to my father, she is the most resilient person I have ever encountered. I think of the work my grandmother accepted as a natural part of life, her magnificent ability to rise to impossible-seeming challenges, the way she just kept at it, and a healthy sense of shame washes over me.
A Mennonite farm girl, she worked in the almond and apple orchards as a child, letting her bonnet fall to the side so her neck always turned sun-brown. To attend high school, she arose early, milked four cows, separated the cream, washed the equipment, washed herself, ate breakfast, packed a lunch and walked a mile down the road to catch the 8 a.m. bus. She was the first sibling in her family to graduate. Making her way in the world, she worked at factories in Los Angeles; the ice cream cone manufactory was her least favorite, perhaps because it transformed a rare treat into daily drudgery.
Who can fault her for lamenting the loss? This was a woman who’d only ever known a one-day, once-a-year vacation. Every Independence Day — after milking the cows — my grandpa, Henry Classen, loaded his family into the wagon and drove out of the Paso Robles hills to Morro Bay. On the pebbly beach, the children waded in the cold Pacific water.
They ate a picnic lunch. Reclined. Laughed, I imagine. In fact, we know my grandmother laughed because a slightly fuzzed, black-and-white photograph of her has survived the years. In it, she stands balanced in the sand, barefoot, her bathing dress wrinkly and damp, a hat clinging to her wet hair. Her mouth makes a beautiful shape. She’s laughing.
Then it was back to the farm for the evening milking as July 4 drew to a close.
This summer, I worked frenetically, continually, often resentfully. I worked before, during and after what I’d hoped would be a restful, restorative vacation. I worked the week my children all left the house for various activities. I kept the weeds pulled and the house tidy, and the budget miraculously balanced. That, of course, entailed more work.
I’m not complaining now, but I confess I complained some as the weeks faded into my mental rear-view mirror. This was not what I’d hoped for, I told myself, and it was unfair to experience so much let-down when everyone knows summer is for a break in the routine.
I wonder if that’s how my grandmother felt the year my grandfather died. He was just 54. My two youngest uncles weren’t finished with high school. Grandma had busied herself doing what pastor’s wives, in those days, did: a remarkable amount of unpaid labor, in addition to the usual crushingly time-consuming domestic jobs. Wash day was called such because it was a job that required an entire day to do. Ironing day, same deal. Cake mix? There was no such thing. But people still liked to eat cake.
Contemplating her perseverance puts my complaints into perspective, much as tumbleweeds remind me of the Dust Bowl days and the hardships people in this same town I call home endured and beat. It’s hard to grouse about the brown spots on the lawn when you’ve heard tales of dirt walls bearing down from the northern sky, gardens dehydrated to twigs in less than a day’s time, children dying of dust inhalation.
We modern people are a bit like summer tourists. We walk down the Main Street of life, admiring window displays and charming scenery. We examine precious pretty things a bit lustfully; so pricey; so sad we can’t have them. Perhaps we’ll stop for an ice cream cone later. After all, we unthinkingly assume, isn’t that the point of life? Taking our enjoyment when the mood stirs us?
Not for my grandmother, who owned the skill of getting up each day to do what was required. She did it with style and humility and determination, and she did it with her boys in mind. The most important thing, in the end, was that she did it.
Now that she’s finished her work, I imagine her by the sea, hair wild in the wind, sun glinting on her unlined face. She’s laughing.