In the 19th century, when Columbia University was getting ready to appoint its first faculty member in musicology, a board member scoffed at the notion of musicology, saying that there might as well be a professorship in “grandmotherology.”
Yesterday, my family lost my grandmother, Doris Farber, at the age of 89. She was the only person I knew reasonably well who knew people who remembered the 19th century. Her mother, my great-grandmother Edna Baum, was born in 1898, and I knew her as well. My grandmother’s father, Elijah, fought in World War I, and four of her brothers fought in World War II. My grandmother was a “Rosie the Riveter” during the war at a ceramic plant up the road from the town where she was born, lived the bulk of her life, and suffered the stroke that led to her death.
She was a woman of her time and place. Raised in and faithful to the Lutheran Church, she rarely missed a Sunday, even as the congregation dwindled around her to the point of an eventual merger. I don’t know the circumstances of her birth–I’m hoping to learn more at the memorial this weekend. Once my then-girlfriend, now my wife Becky, and I asked her about Christmas in her childhood–during the Great Depression. She replied that since her family owned a farm, there was always plenty of food, but never much in the way of Christmas. After all, she was one of twelve siblings. She came to adulthood at the end of the war, and married my grandfather, Thom William Farber. They began to have children–my mom and my uncle close together, and then my aunt a few years later. A lifelong fan of the Cleveland Indians (they had been playing for only eighteen seasons when she was born), she listened to their last World Series win on the radio while she was pregnant with my mother. My grandfather was not well, however. He had a weakened heart as the result of a childhood case of scarlet fever–a disease that subsequent generations don’t have to worry about, and a condition that would be readily repairable today, but their generation was born into a world with few vaccines, and no antibiotics or open-heart surgery. He died in the mid-1950s, leaving my grandmother a widow and single mother of three. He was buried in the town cemetery, across from the Lutheran church, in a plot that had room for my grandmother. He waited sixty years for her there.
Grandma didn’t know how to drive a car when Grandpa died. She had a large family who helped, but she didn’t rely on them, remained in the house that she and her husband had bought. The social safety net in those pre-Great Society days was of limited help as well, and I’m sure there were my grandfather’s medical bills as well. So she took her ninth-grade education and went to work. Some of it was the backbreaking work that she would have been familiar with from the farm–my mother describes being taken to a farmer’s field with her mother and brother to weed the corn by hand. I know that she also cooked in a restaurant, and did factory work. I will always remember her, though, as the cashier at Crossroads Supermarket, at the intersection of Ohio State Routes 800 and 183–the origin of her Universe in so many ways. When we lived nearby and shopped there, before we moved out of town when I was eight, she rang up our food, and sometime after we left, made the transition to barcode scanners. Like so many things, that store, which seemed enormous to me as a child, is actually a relatively small supermarket, for a small community. But Grandma worked there for decades, until she finally retired in her late 70s.
There is much of the pre-history of my life in my family, of course. Grandma was 50 when I was born, and sometime during the 1970s, she was remarried and divorced to a man named Chuck, who I’ve never heard her speak of, and whose name is usually accompanied by the word “jerk” when my parents mention him. She moved with him to South Carolina, bringing my teenaged aunt along, but quickly returned–less than a year, from what I understand. It was the time when my mother and my uncle had found their spouses, and my parents had moved to Texas. Perhaps Grandma worried about being left alone.
Ironically, that would never happen. My uncle, a carpenter, added a large living room to her home, the first of several renovations and additions. During the energy crises of the 70s, this room would be closed off during the winter months, but I remember it mostly for the way that it was always filled with guests. Grandma lived in the kind of place where people just dropped by, and if she wasn’t at work, she was usually at home. There were comfortable chairs for the grownups and always a stash of toys for any kids who came along. My son and daughter played with some of the same toys in Grandma’s living room that I did, some of which belonged to my mom and my uncle. My great-grandmother was also around–I always remember her living in a mobile home behind Grandma’s house. I knew Doris as “Grandma Farber,” and Edna as “Grandma Baum.” There was also a “Grandma Kellogg” who lived on the West Coast, and who sent me a jar of volcanic ash spewed out of Mt. St. Helens in its eruptions in 1980. In the 80s, by aunt moved back in with Grandma, bringing her daughter, my cousin Pam, for whom Grandma was a second parent in may ways.
Grandma was a fastidious housekeeper–I always knew that if I came over and you couldn’t eat off the floor, that something would have gone wrong. She lived in her home, in her town, until last Friday, when my uncle found her on the floor of her bedroom, having suffered the stroke that would end her life. She would not have wanted to have her life prolonged by life support–she had made this clear to her family–and she would have hated the idea of spending any time in a nursing home. On Saturday, I’ll see her home one more time–soon it will still be there, but it won’t be hers anymore. It was the center of her long, eventful life, and where I remember Christmas, and sleeping over, and visiting, and showing off my children to the family. I now begin the part of my life without her, and we are the poorer for it. I love you, Grandma, and you will be in our thoughts every day, as you have always been.