My Grandma Thole passed away last week at the age of 97. She was sharp right up until the end, and went in her sleep, per her request.
At her visitation, countless people said to me, "She was a great woman."
And they meant it, delivering it in a straightforward manner that let you know this was not just what they say at every funeral, or that grandma was just your average woman. They thought of her as a great woman, and wanted to make sure her granddaughter knew it as well.
At her funeral mass, my dad gave a eulogy that included the key moments of her life and served as a stunning tribute to the wonderful woman I was proud to call grandma for 39 years.
The oldest of five girls and raised on a farm, my grandma's education ended at seventh grade. But you never really would have known it. She read the paper every day, front to back, and always knew what was going in the world, the state and most certainly her small hometown of St. Rose, Illinois. She was, after all, the one who told me that a high school classmate of mine was "on the dope."
After 20 years of marriage, she was widowed when my grandfather had a massive heart attack, left to raise three children under the age of 15 and run a 300-acre dairy farm. Surely it was hard, but my dad said she never complained. She taught my dad and his siblings the importance of hard work, passed along her inquisitive nature and, by her example, showed them that there is absolutely nothing they could not do without some focus and determination.
As her granddaughter, I remember rearranging the conch shell, rocks and potted geraniums on her astroturf-covered steps. Her refrigerator was always stocked with soda, and I enjoyed countless bright pink cream sodas while stretched out on her ivory carpet beneath the canopy of her always present quilt frame. A talented quilt maker, it was, in fact, a rarity to visit her home and not see a quilt frame occupying the majority of her small living room. We used to visit on weekend nights, and before we left, we sat down in her kitchen for a bedtime snack of cake or cookies, canned peach halves and glasses of milk. While my parents and grandma lingered over dessert, Sherri and I would poke at the wax fruit in the depression glass bowl she used as a centerpiece.
My sister and I would spend short stretches of time with grandma in the summer, and in addition to riding our bikes up and down her secluded road, throwing yard darts and playing with my aunt's old dolls and toys (this is where I first developed my love for ironing), I would spend hours drawing quilt layouts, hoping that one would be good enough for her to add to her book of designs. I don't think any made the book, and while it probably frustrated me at the time, I think that is one of the very reasons I love and admire my grandmother so much. Grandma was a straight shooter and never sugarcoated anything, no matter how young or old you might be, or even if you just so happened to be one of her youngest grandchildren.
Now that I am older and understand the magnitude of the experiences that shaped her life—being widowed at a relatively young age, raising small children as a single mother, running a farm with 15-, 11- and 6-year-old children to help, seeing two sons off to war and being completely self sufficient and independent, essentially up to the very end—I understand why she was not always the most sympathetic or demonstrative in her affections. And yet, I never, ever, for one minute questioned how much she loved me—as well as all of her children, grandchildren, great grandchildren and great-great grandchildren. She may not have ever said it, but she loved us and was proud of us.
And I am so proud to have had her as my grandmother. How could I not be? She was strong, practical, independent, intelligent, and selfless. She never wished for material items or pitied herself, and she always showed others such remarkable kindness and generosity. At one point in college, I remember visiting during a break and apologizing for not being able to visit that much. "Don't worry about me," she said. "You just visit your other grandparents. They need you more than I do."
At the end, she finally needed us—my dad, my uncle, my aunt and their spouses, specifically—and while, even in her weakest moments, no one was going to tell her what to do, I believe she was relieved and comforted to be in the care of the children who loved her and who learned how to be great parents and grandparents by following her example.
I will miss hearing my grandma's stories, her delivery of "oh, for heaven's sake" and her distinctive belly-shaking chortle of a laugh. And I will forever cherish my memories of her and the lessons she taught me. She truly was a great woman.