When my grandma left me more than half a century of diaries, she gave me much more than large boxes of small books. She gave me a keyhole through which to peer into the span of her life.
Often at night I draw open another volume and close my eyes to breathe in the faint memory of her rose-scented perfume. In my heart I find myself back in her well-kept home, where I was often welcomed to rest and refresh from the cares of the world.
My grandma’s love embraced me when I was a baby in a washtub on her kitchen table, a growing child playing hide-and-seek, a young student matching wits with her at Scrabble, a new teacher finding her way, and finally a mother with my arms full of wiggly twin babies. In her later years, my grandma prepared the same meal for my growing children that she had prepared many times for me: a savory roast, golden potatoes, slow-cooked green beans, and buttery sweet corn. She laughed whenever we praised her cooking. “This is the only thing I know how to make anymore!”
My admiration for her homemaking has not always been so strong. During my years at university in which I became “enlightened,” I was taught to disdain everything domestic. “All that cooking and cleaning, where did it ever get a person? What a waste of a life!” But it was I who was wrong.
The Span of a Life
My grandma would be the first to say she never saw her life as anything special. She did not want praise because, as she insisted while shaking her head, “I know me.”
Throughout her lifetime, tragedy struck in jarring ways, as it will. As a little girl she lost both her father and baby brother during the influenza epidemic. With her grieving mother and two younger sisters, she moved to their grandparents’ hill farm, where she worked washing dishes for “rich neighbors who entertained company.” She went to church every Sunday; she prayed often. Looking back, she said she thought perhaps she relied more on her heavenly Father because she had lost her earthly father.
When she was seventeen, the Depression began and work became scarce. She attended the public high school where she studied four years of Latin, read good poetry, studied upper level mathematics, and fell in love with history. Every day after school she walked long distances to work at a store, because her income was needed to keep her mother and sisters in the apartment they now rented together. A nurturer, she looked forward to the day she would marry and have many children of her own. However, shortly after she married my grandfather and my mother was born, my grandmother received the heartbreaking news that she could bear no more children.
While she was raising my mother she taught Sunday School, led summer Bible school, volunteered at the Red Cross, became a docent at the local history museum, enjoyed her friends, parties, and vacations with my grandfather, and eventually cared for both her mother and mother-in-law in her home.
Her diary entries remind me that though she lived to be one hundred, she saw most of her days as ordinary:
Tuesday, March 12, 1957—age 45
Did the usual. Cleaned, cleaned, cleaned. Took Minnie [mother-in-law] to the doctor. Stopped by the hospital to visit Mom. Had a few phone calls. Wrote letters to Judy [adult daughter] and Lucille [sister-in-law].
Sunday, April 3, 1977—age 65
Went to church. Palm Sunday. Beautiful day. After lunch I did two loads of wash to hang outdoors. Mom called. Worked around the house all afternoon. Wrote Lucille & Art a long letter. Read after dinner and went to bed early.
Thursday, May 8, 1997—age 85
Up at 6:40 a.m. Took a bath, made the bed, ate breakfast. Went to the beauty shop and then to work at the Historical Museum. Gave a tour to a group of eleven young adults from a special learning school. Went to the store with Eleanor. Watered the flowers in the backyard.
The Wonder of It All
We can learn from her. Day by day our cares and tasks may seem habitual, or laden with more duty than love, but there is a miracle at work in the sacrificial diligence of the daily moments and doing what is set before us to do. G. K. Chesterton writes, “The most extraordinary thing in the world is an ordinary man and an ordinary woman and their ordinary children.”
Though sometimes we may feel excited at the beginning of a school year, we may also feel excitement fade into a mundane collection of obligations. We teach grammar, history, math, and reading to children who will become adults and, if they live long enough, grow old. And on it goes. Jaded perspectives may insist that all of this is too ordinary or even useless, yet an ordinary classical education, like ordinary homemaking or any ordinary, honest vocation, is a marvel in itself.
The primary teacher teaches child after child to hold a pencil correctly, to form beautiful letters, and, most glorious of all, to read well. The grammar school teacher imparts the knowledge necessary to write, calculate, and learn. The upper school teacher may read the same work of literature year after year, but, though he already knows well the insights hidden in the pages, he patiently leads a new class of students to see those insights for themselves.
Let us appreciate the cumulative, extraordinary impact of our daily obligations: We tie shoes, clean closets, or prepare meals. We care for, teach, and love those in our lives. As we pause for a moment at the wonder of all that is being done through us in these daily moments, let us remember that in the end, an entire lifetime of such days is nothing ordinary.