Friday, June 2, 2017

Once upon a time...

This was from August of 1994. The grandparents I wrote about here were born in 1869 and 1873, which sounds incredible to me now. It makes me wish I'd asked a lot more questions and written a lot more down.

Have I ever told you about my grandmother? Well, that's a silly question, when I already know I haven't, but it was a good way to give you a clue I'm going to tell you about her now.

Her name was Elvira Pontius Shafer. She died in 1957 at the age of 84. I wore
Photo by Annette Wise
my favorite blue and white dress to the funeral and sat next to my cousin Ronnie and had to be really quiet for a long time, even longer than if I'd gone to school that day.

She used to sit in her kitchen and drink coffee out of a big white cup with a long crack down the side. I asked her why she always used that cup and she said it was to save the good ones for company. Evenings, she would sit in a small rocking chair near the stove in the living room and take down her long white hair and brush it while talk and noise went on around her. She never paid any attention to me and I was pretty sure she didn't like me.

That's all I remember.

Photo by Annette Wise
But I know she and my grandfather, William Washington Shafer, had two stillborn babies and that those babies were buried in the garden. "How could they?" I demanded of the person who told the story. "How could they have done something like that? We're talking babies here, not goldfish." I don't remember the answer, but years later, my sister Nancy told me how much time Elvira had spent in her rose garden. Alone.

When Amy, Elvira and William's firstborn child, was 23, she became a statistic in the influenza epidemic of 1918. Amy was buried in the cemetery, not the garden, but I'm sure Grandma grieved for her out there with her roses.

One time when Elvira was pregnant, which she was at least 10 times, a fire broke out in the house. According to pictures and to my memory, Elvira was a skinny little thing, but when the fire erupted, she picked up the sewing machine and carried it downstairs and out of the house. In those days, sewing machines were big things in heavy wooden cabinets with a treadle attached underneath. We have one of them sitting in the hallway downstairs. I, who haven't been pregnant in 20 years and who am by no one's measure a skinny little thing, can lift one end of it.

I know that when William went blind and spent most of the rest of his days on the couch in front of the big living room window, it didn't make any difference to her. They still laughed and had a good time until he died in 1952, when they'd been married something like 58 years.

That's what I know about my grandmother. It's not much, but I'm glad I know it. I'm glad I listened when aunts told stories in my hearing. What I know has taught me a couple of things that I'm sure she never intended. One, that I hope none of my grandkids ever think for one tiny minute that I don't like them. Two, that I never save anything for company, because there's no one more important than family.

Talking about Elvira makes me think of my roots, something I never gave much thought until recently. It makes me wonder if she's the reason I think it's so very important for women to be strong--like she was. Strong enough to survive the most grievous emotional assaults and still laugh with the man she loved. Strong enough to carry a sewing machine down the stairs.

So, if you get a chance, take a long hard look at the pages of your past. Listen to the stories told by those who remember things you can't. Then tell the stories again so that they live on. Tales of the past embroider the fabric of our lives today and lend them a little richness they wouldn't have had otherwise.

Thanks for listening. Pass it on.


  1. Remembering our grandmother and grandfather. I cut the peony flowers on Memorial Day just as she did all those years ago. It was a good memory.