Jan. 17, 2020

AN "EASY" LIFE. A Tribute to my Grandmother

An easy life is impossible for some.  My grandmother never smiled much.  She always looked serious and I attribute that to the fact that-- for her-- life was a serious matter and not to be taken lightly.

My grandmother was one of two daughters born to parents who were poor but….during the mid to late eighteen hundred…it would be accurate to say most everyone-everywhere was poor.

My grandmother, Bertha Mae Owen and her sister, Celestial Belle Owen, realized early that—like most born in that era-- everyone worked to support the family.

 Because my grandmother refused to talk about her sister in great detail, I never learned about her desires; her talents; her ambition.  I only know Belle married early and…even before her only child, Marceil, was born, Belle’s husband was found to have Tuberculosis and moved to a Sanatorium. Belle died soon after her baby girl was born. Several years later,  Belle’s husband died in the Sanatorium--without ever seeing his daughter.

By this time, my grandmother was working fulltime as a telephone operator. Barely in her teens, she began taking care of her parents when both became physically-ill. With the death of Belle,  my grandmother “inherited” her sister’s baby.  Not only was my grandmother taking care of herself and her parents….she now had full responsibility of a baby-- her niece.  Assuming her role as “head of the house”, my grandmother took a mail order-secretarial course--- knowing she would need more professional skills  to make more money.

Somewhere along the way, she met a typewriter salesman named Arnold Joseph Heist from St. Louis, Missouri and...Judging from his picture... he was a nice-looking man. My grandmother wouldn’t talk about him but once, she did mentioned Arnold could play the violin.

 I’ll never know if my grandmother married him for love or because she needed help in shouldering her very-heavy load of responsibility.  Remember: many years ago people didn’t elaborate on their past. Those were the days when people stayed silent about their feelings and about their love life.  In those days… no one talked about their family skeletons or family secrets.  I only know that Arnold Joseph Heist left Bertha Mae Owen-Heist one afternoon.  He was seen leaving town and…he never came home again.

My grandmother was pregnant when her husband left her.  Within a few months, her responsibilities were not only her parents and her niece—but now--- her new daughter (my mother) and her full-time secretary’s job at The Cotton Belt Railroad.

My grandmother never made much money.  I remember her living in a duplex near the Cotton Belt Railroad and walking almost one mile to work each day-- then walking the same mile home in the afternoon. But, I never heard her complain. If it was raining, she carried an umbrella; if it was cold, she wore a coat.  Nothing stopped her from going to work.  Working was part of her life...her only means of survival.

When my father moved our family to Pine Bluff’s West Side of Town…thinking my brother and I would have more opportunities…he added a garage apartment in the backyard for my grandmother. He believed it was time for her to also have a better life. She was still working but she was able to take the city bus to and from her job.

Years later, when my father built our family a larger and nicer house, he designed a separate wing of the house especially for my grandmother.  That’s when she retired from her many years with the Cotton Belt Railroad.

For as long as I can remember-- my grandmother attended church regularly.  For years, she was my Sunday School Teacher.  As she got older, she sat in the same pew, alone, while I sang in the choir.  She always wore the same hat, the same dress pinned with a gold and ivory cameo pin (a gift from the Cotton Belt), her railroad watch, and her very-sensible black-laced Dickerson shoes.

Nothing about her life was frivolous, impromptu, or reckless. My grandmother was not affectionate---either physically or verbally.  Yet, I knew she was there for me when I needed to talk, listen, or simply visit.

One night, alone, she fell in her small apartment.  She lay on the floor—in serious pain from a broken hip-- until early the next morning when my father, not seeing her outside feeding the squirrels, opened her door.

She never gained her mobility after the hip replacement. In a short period of time, her eyesight diminished and my parents moved her out of her apartment to my old bedroom.   My father hired a fulltime caregiver named Minnie who had a lot of energy which pleased my grandmother.  Minnie enjoyed wheeling my grandmother everywhere…both inside the house and out.

The day Minnie called me ..I stopped everything to address her serious concern.  My grandmother couldn’t get out of bed.  She couldn’t bear for anyone to touch her right leg. Observing the leg, I noted that the area behind her  knee was swollen and dark green in color.

Those were the days when a few Doctors still thought enough of people and friendships to make house call. It probably took Doctor George Roberson only fifteen minutes to get to my parents’ house after I called him.  One look at my grandmother’s leg and he pulled me aside. My grandmother had a blood clot in her right leg.  Because of her age (82 yrs.) and her fragile condition, amputation was not a consideration.  The leg was already “dying” and the dark green color was gangrene.  My grandmother must be hospitalized immediately; death was imminent.

I rode beside my grandmother in the ambulance. By this time, she was barely conscious. The few times she tried to talk, she called my mother’s name then--just once-- said:”Rosemond”…where are you? Oh, Rosemond….I hurt so much!” She also cried out for her own Mother…like a small child.

Doctor Roberson advised me he would give my grandmother a shot at exactly 6pm. He cautioned me that any remarks or signs of affection directed at my grandmother must be made before she received that shot. When I called my brother and my mother (my father was working out-of-town) to share that information, I heard their tears and their personal reasons for not coming to the hospital.

Realizing I was alone, Minnie agreed to stay with me through the endless night. We didn’t sleep; we only sat on either side of my grandmother’s bed and watched her die. We watched her leg turn completely black as the gangrene traveled from my grandmother’s foot-- upward--to capture her lungs and finally her heart.

At 10 am that morning…after having been admitted at 4pm the day before…my grandmother—her eyes clenched tightly—took two very deep breaths then expelled them with one huge shudder.  During the shudder, her body seemed to collapse-- like a helium-filled balloon-- then  slowly deflated into the mattress until she was almost hidden beneath the covers.  Standing beside her, holding her hand, I will always believe I saw my grandmother's spirit--along with her breath--visibly-leave her now "empty" body. I rang for the nurse. 

 My grandmother died like she'd lived...plain, simple, and with a dedicated commitment.  For some, EASY will never be a part of their Living or their Dying.

 

Sally Miller