I am a middle-aged teacher. Some would say I’m a successful teacher; I have received teaching excellence awards. What I have come to realize in recent years is that much of my success stems from a role model called Gertrude.
Gertrude has five children, twenty-three grandchildren, and over thirty-six great-grandchildren. Most of these tree sprouts would talk about Grandma’s pretzel can, Christmas at Grandpa and Grandma’s, the toy bag, the card games, and remembrances at birthdays . These are certainly traditions in the family home . Gertrude,who turns eighty-five this June, seems to be a traditional mother.
I teach communication courses and now realize that Gertrude, who had only a fourth grade education, leaving school to help support her widowed mother’s family, knows everything that researchers tell us. How she came to know,
I am not certain . Iam certain, however, that she is totally unaware of her contributions to her family and community and that she didn’t get her knowledge from research studies!
That Gertrude is a nurturer is obvious . My ninety-two year old Father has outlived all of his siblings. There is a direct relationship between Gertrude’s care and Dad’s longevity. He is the first to boast about his wife . “Mom always looks good.” “Mom is the best friend a person could have .” He usually is referring to her female friends, most of whom she has outlived, so they get younger as time passes.
My Mother remains a “working mother” in the traditional sense. She worked making a home and birthing and raising children . She helped in the family business when holidays meant preparing poultry orders. She continues as a volunteer for her church groups, the local hospital and other community activities. And of course, she has clocked thousands of unpaid baby sitting hours. My brothers and sisters could add examples, but this is my essay.
I have come to recognize that Gertrude is truly the “wind beneath my wings .” Teaching about relationships, I realize the research reflects what my Mother lives daily . She claims not to understand this generation, yet she is there for each and every one of us. She is the model listener I teach about. She withholds judgment and listens with empathy . She provides insights if asked, buy only then. There is no price to pay if one doesn’t agree. When conflict occurs, her advice is always, “Give it enough time; it will be okay.”
As I teach my students the problems stereotyping presents, I see Mom lecturing Dad on why it’s not nice to use those labels to talk about people. When I teach methodology related to gerontology, I hear my Mother telling my cousin how she has Dad do this or that to keep his mind active and alert. As I plan for a special workshop on intercultural relations, I hear my Mother telling me about her new neighborhood in our small white town. A black parolee is living with a minister directly behind my parent’s home. A neighbor told Mom about the teacher across the street who “lives” with another woman . Mom’s reply, “I don’t know if she does or not, but it’s her business. She ‘s a good neighbor to us; on snowy days she puts our paper in the door so we won’t go out and fall on the ice.”
As I talk about the need to treat all human beings with dignity and respect, I can still see my Mother fixing a hot plate lunch for the “transients” in late depression days.
She and I would listen to their stories. Images flow from my past of a Mother who always treated me with dignity and respect. I wasn’t physically punished; I wasn’t loaded down with expectations to achieve so she could be proud of me; I wasn’t frightened out of living by over-reactions to my behaviors. There was one time I remember her being extremely stern with me . My sister and her children were living with us. I resented her not disciplining them. I felt my Mother’s home was being destroyed. Gertrude told us that her Mother was dying in the hospital and that was what was important; she would have no more of the bickering. I suspect some day I will make a similar statement to my daughter.
I’ve always known I could do anything I wanted to do. I’ve managed to walk with dignity during trying times. I try to respect everyone for the human being he\she is. I always know everything will be okay if given enough time. The reason I know and do these things is because I was raised with something else I teach about. The researchers call it unconditional love. My students say I’m a role model.Well, maybe so, I studied under the greatest one I know, a woman named Gertrude. By the way, she loves all flowers but roses are her favorites.
Written previously and recently posted
The piece I wrote on my Mother was when I saw a contest in some magazine about writing articles on our Moms for of course Mother’s Day. So I wrote this but never won anything. And that’s okay, because I won the biggest gift of all… having Gertrude as my Mother.
Having written on Mom figured I had to write something for Dad, so the “Storyteller” piece I wrote and gave to him.
Both pieces were written years ago when they were both alive. I sit here now retyping to enter on my blog. And yes, the tears are trickling down my face as I type. And yes, I would give anything when I’m caught in problems to hear my Mom say once again, “Just give it time,” or to hear Dad ask a waitress that stupid “Did you have to go to school to learn how to do this?”
Jo Ann sat down in Pat’s office to prepare to schedule dates to take her Master’s Exam. Pat liked her because she was also an aspiring writer and had studied with one of Pat’s old friends. Even more important she had asked to read Pat’s scripts. Now as she unpacked her bag, she pulled out the copies of the scripts and said, “You really have a knack for telling a story.” No one had ever said it that way before. While she had been encouraged to continue writing by a number of people, no one had put it just that way. As Pat reflected on Jo Ann’s comment later, she realized the roots of her ability. Just as Gertrude had been the role model for her in many areas, so had Joseph played a significant role in her life. In fact, the more she thought about it, she was reminded of her comments at the sixty-fifth wedding anniversary celebration where she talked about her parents as a perfectly matched couple each giving balance and harmony to the other. They were in fact the “Grand Persons” her new teacher, Jean Houston, referred to, and that’s all another story….somewhere farther down the line. This piece is for the story teller, my Dad.
It’s strange how one doesn’t know the history of parents, all the little things that make up that person. How many times do children have to do a family tree in school, yet how often is that just it … a tree with names. I guess that’s better than nothing. It does encourage young children to talk with their older relatives, but how much is missed? It’s the little things that are so important in our lives which form us; so too it is the little things for our parents’ lives that affect us.
It’s important to be a risk taker if one is to grow. I’m a real risk taker. Well, no wonder. Little by little I find out that Joe used to ride motorcycles. Wow! Putting his grandchildren on little wild horses at his buddy, Harry’s farm, was risking. Giving bites of “gas station stew” to his grandson Chris and bites of all kinds of strange things to the various grand and great- grandchildren were risk taking behaviors! (For the kids!)
Thanks to my oldest sister I heard about how Joe, during the depression, kept many of the people in our small town fed. In the dark holes of my memory, I do remember little account books at the store. I also remember hearing the story that some of those people wanted to give Joe their land to pay the bill, and he wouldn’t let them do it. He said times would get better, and he knew they would pay him back. I guess they did. I know we teased him when those farmers later discovered oil on their land, and we could have been really rich. But all of us knew in our hearts that we were proud of him for those times, and that lesson certainly stayed with us. Each of us in our own way continue to help those less fortunate; that wouldn’t be so if it weren’t for his example.
There’s a very popular book out now, EVERYTHING I NEEDED TO LEARN I LEARNED IN KINDERGARTEN. One of the selections in it deals with dancing. It talks about how dancing can help us through those dark times in our lives … how dancing frees us. I love to dance. I don’t get to a lot, so I build it into the workshops I teach. Afterwards, different people will come up to thank me because they haven’t danced too for so long. As I sit here writing this, I realize Joe planted those seeds for the love of dancing. I can see him at the various wedding receptions dancing the latest dances whether he knew them or not. Somewhere in my memory I’m sure I can find myself at age three or four or five dancing with him then, just as his great-grandchildren dance with him now.
Joe always had strange people around; people that other folks made fun of. Sometimes he would joke around with them also, but most of the time they were his flunkies. He had them helping him doing odd jobs. He paid them some; I guess at times it was food or hand me down clothes or furniture. One peson was given a castle. Now to many people the old slaughterhouse would not be a castle. As I look at the homeless today, I realize that Joe took care of the homeless of his day. When you don’t have anywhere to go, even a slaughterhouse can be a castle. I recently recognized that many of the students I worry about most are those who “fall through the cracks” of our University system. Those seeds too come from Joe and his strange people.
As I’m writing this, I have just completed a very intense workshop where may people shared horror stories of their childhoods. A girl who had been given away at birth and raised in thirty different foster homes who sees only a big black whole of emptiness and who has no trust of people at all. Another spoke to hiding in closets as her alcoholic father beat up on her mother and sisters. The stories went on and on. One boy talked about his dog. He’s one of our majors. He said we learn how important unconditional love is, but most of us don’t get it when we need it most. He used his dog as an example of unconditional love; no matter what you do, the dog is there waiting for you, eager to great you. I discovered many years ago how fortunate I was to have had this type of love from both Gertrude and Joe. Each time I hear the horror stories from students, I am grateful.
In the frustration of life I’ve sometimes needed to be reminded how important it is to follow this example of unconditional love. I remember well one summer when my family moved back home … as all of us seem to have done at one time or another in our adult lives. Some of to build houses; some of us to wait for another house to be readied. Whatever, we all seemed to need to live with Mom and Dad for a while. I suspect now there was a greater design to that need. It was early one morning. Gertrude had been up fixing breakfast, like always. I don’t know what the problem was anymore, but Chris, my son, was the center of it. I had lectured him about something, and his Dad had been extremely critical. At the next moment, Grandpa Joe comes through the kitchen having just risen. He had no knowledge of what had transpired minutes before. Chris, beaten down by the criticism was walking into the “telly” room when Grandpa spotted him, put his arm around him, hugged him, and said, “Chrissy, what should we do today?” I left the room to hide my tears. The contrast was so vivid!
Before I leave the world of unconditional love, and dogs, love for animals, especially dogs, comes from Joe. None of us will ever forget the dogs, but Jack will probably be remembered most of all. Jack and Joe had a great relationship. Gertrude, being the wise woman she was, never interfered with that, even thought it meant riding in a truck with dog hair and often, the dog! Brothers Joe and Gene will remember long how they had to be the bad guys as they made arrangements with our uncle to put Jack to rest. Jack who had been accidentally shot several times during hunting seasons, run over once, always dropped off at the slaughterhouse with food and source for water with Joe’s words, “Heal yourself buddy and come home when you’re better.” And Jack always would. I think I should point out that there were no vets in those days.
But the time came when Jack, with his regular eight some block walk from our home to the family store, was seen, and of course reported by those well meaning home town folks that Jack was having great difficulty. The middle of each of those blocks he would have to lay down and rest before he could move on. It was time for Jack to be put to rest.
The openness to people and the natural sense of humor which are vitally a part of Joe’s life are also blessings to us. Again, here is someone who hasn’t consulted the research and the researchers haven’t consulted him, yet it’s all the same. People who care about people and people who have a sense of humor live longer, and are loved by all. They are the best medicine, survival tools we can have.
All of these seeds Joe planted within me, probably like Gertrude, without knowing it. And they have grown, some more than others, but the one which probably captures all of them is “the storyteller.” “Tell me a story, Grandpa!” Each of us has witnessed our off springs and their off springs in this story time setting. We’ve also seen strangers watch as their children become totally engrossed in Joe’s stories. It is that “child like” vision Joe captures. And it too, is a survival medicine but it is more than a survival medicine. It is a vision of life that says, no matter what, there is always something new to look at, to dream about, to make a reality. Life is in fact and dance is is definitely worth living!
Recently some of us learned about a series of reports Joe wrote for the local newspaper. They were descriptions of ball games between a fictional team where he incorporated names of local people. Many of us have died as Joe asks for the sixteenth thousandth time, various waitresses and others, “Did you have to go to school to learn to do that?” Today, in writing this, I’ve realized something important. Again, without knowing it, Joe is still planting seeds. Each of us will have to figure out what this means, but it’s definitely a seed. I think I’ve figured it out for me, but I suspect farther down the line I’ll keep finding new understandings of it. “Oh, no wonder I’m a writer and a story teller!”