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Thursday, February 3, 2011

Gramma Jewell

If there is a single human being who is responsible for priming me to become a Gerontologist, it is my maternal Gramma—Jewell Cochran. My Gramma comes from poor, scrappy folk. No one knew who her father was and she grew up without much stability. After her teenage mother abandoned her she was fostered by various family members until her late teens when she left her people in the Yakima Valley to move to Southern Oregon, where she found a job as a waitress. She met my grandfather, Preston Enslow Hotz, a much older man who frequented the café where she worked.

This Grandfather is a pivotal character is my family history as he changed Jewell's lot in life in many ways, and thus, two generations later, mine. At the time he met my Gramma, he was training to become a Geologist, and the young Jewell yearned to become his assistant, as well as his wife. In fact, they spent much of their life together, along with my future mother and her two siblings, exploring the Western United States in a little silver trailer, surveying and mapping the Great Salt Lake, Mt. Shasta, and the Klamath Basin (where my future mother, then only a teenager, met the teenage boy who would become my future father.).

My small, strong, stubborn Gramma spent most of her life dreaming on behalf of others – sometimes even living vicariously through others. Her life was never quite big enough for her, so she tried her hardest to create bigger lives for the rest of us. I was the first person on either side of my family to pursue college besides my grandpa the Geologist, and I owe this to my Gramma, as she planted the notion in me like a dormant seed for some new kind of plant, and she protected me the best she could from the harsh conditions of my immediate family so that the strange seed in me might grow. (When I was in college and graduate school, I would send the materials for each of my courses to my Gramma—syllabi and reading lists, even books, and copies of the papers I was writing – so that she could follow my journey, think along with me, see how her work on my behalf was amounting to something. I’ve never known anyone as curious as my Gramma.)

A couple of summers ago, my daughter and I had the chance to spend some time with my Gramma Jewell. Until last year, when she had to be moved into an assisted living facility, my Gramma had lived for several years with my aunt and her family, an arrangement that began when she could no longer care for my grandfather, who had Alzheimer’s Disease and had to be moved to an assisted living facility, where he eventually died.  Soon after he died, Gramma started having a series of small strokes and falls. Whereas she used to divide her awake time as an old woman between taking long walks, writing letters, helping with chores, and reading, now she spends most of her time sitting in her recliner reading large print books and observing the activities unfolding around her; her lucidity is ever-shifting, so it is of benefit to sit quietly beside her for long stretches of time so you don’t miss one of her insightful questions or statements.

So, the first night of my visit three summers ago, I crawled into bed beside her. She asked me a series of questions to confirm that what she was remembering about me was in fact accurate—which of “her girls” I am, where I live, what I do. She got all the details correct. She was a little confused by my daughter, whom she hadn’t seen for a year and who had undergone a teenage-transformation. While I snuggled-down in bed with my Gramma, she on her back, I on my right side with my arms and legs embracing her and my body curled around her, eventually she cast her mind into the remote past, when she was a girl picking apples on an orchard; when she was a young married woman and mother, raising small children and helping my Grandpa with his work.

Like a shinning jewel, Gramma was luminous there beside me, in her flannel pajamas, her teeth and face freshly washed, her hair cut exactly like mine but completely silver. The smell and feel of her skin – like a soft, almost over-ripe peach – started to unwind tight little tangled balls of my own memories. I had temporal distortion—my daughter Isobel had changed so much in the past year; I certainly felt time working on me; but my Gramma seemed suspended in time.

So, why do I tell you this story from my life? What relevance does it have for our work, for our own aging journey? This story foregrounds inter-connection, specifically how who we become as we travel through the life course happens in the context of the web of relationships of which we are a part – together we dream, grow, fight, get stuck, care, misunderstand, and try again.   

And, if we are fortunate, we have people in our lives who see us, are interested in us – who behold us – who are so curious about us that they read what we read so they can discuss new ideas with us, as my Gramma did for me. Or who --  figuratively or for real -- crawl into bed next to us or sit beside us waiting to hear what we have to say, as I did for my Gramma.   

1 comment:

Joanne said...

What a wonderful post Jenny!