The basement of the old farm house where I grew up was a dark and creepy place. More appropriately called a cellar, it was basically a hole in the ground with a dirt floor, illuminated by one lonely, naked light bulb. The coal furnace lived there, and so did the home-canned food – jars and jars of green beans, tomatoes, peaches, pickles and even chicken. Sometimes a garter snake or two would find its way in and take up residence with the jars of food.
There were two ways to access the cellar. When filling the coal bin, my dad used the outside entrance, a pair of doors almost flush with the ground on the outside of the house, which opened to stairs leading underground. This was also the garter snake entrance. For everyday, we used the flight of ancient, narrow, rickety stairs leading down from the kitchen. I used to hate being sent down there to get things for my mom. I’d make her stand at the door to guard me in case something horrible from the mysterious dark corners of the cellar attempted to kill me.
But when I was five years old, way before I was old enough to go down there alone, my mother went to the hospital to give birth to my third brother. The arrangement was that my Grandma Paulina would come to stay with us while Mom was gone, which back then was at least a week. In the days before she went into labor, my mother gave me instructions on what to do in an emergency if my farmer dad wasn’t in the house when one occurred.
The emergency would be if Grandma fell down the basement stairs. Because she was kind of old.
Grandma would certainly have to go up and down those stairs while she was there. So in case she fell, I was supposed to call our neighbor Erna, who lived two miles down the road. Mom drilled me a few times, until she was satisfied I could handle things. Then she went off to give birth, and left me in charge of Grandma. That was how it seemed to me, anyway.
When Grandma arrived, she was her usual bustling, efficient self, cooking, cleaning, and making us behave. I watched her carefully, waiting for the moment she opened the basement door to go down those steps. And then, for reasons known only to a five-year-old, I said, “I’m supposed to call Erna if you fall down the stairs.”
Grandma gave me a withering look, which wasn’t easy, because she was one of the kindest, most soft-spoken people I’ve ever known. She drew herself up to her full five-foot height and said, “Well, I didn’t come here to fall down the stairs.”
Indeed. That’s the kind of woman she was, you see. Falling wasn’t an option. There was a job to do, and she did it. She lived her whole life with that grit and determination. She raised seven children while doing all the hard work of a farmer’s wife. She could kill, gut and pluck thirty chickens before lunch. She cooked fabulous food, particularly kuchen. I have her recipe, which makes fourteen. I know she was still making fourteen kuchen at a time well into her seventies. She also made quilts, piles of them, and made sure that every one of her twenty-eight grandchildren got one, crafted especially for them.
All that was pretty much normal for a Midwest farm wife of her generation. These people worked hard because that was just what you did. On top of that she was widowed twice, the first time when she was in her forties, and had three of her seven children still at home.
But the thing that stood out about Grandma Paulina was that she never complained. She was never negative or bitter. She stayed sweet. I don’t know if it came naturally to her, or if she had to work on it, but it made an impression on me. That sweetness, combined with strength, gave her true greatness.
The closest Grandma ever came to not rising to a challenge was when I called her before my wedding and asked her to come early so she could be in the photos. She sighed and said, “I’m too old to have my picture taken.” I talked her into it, though, and the resulting photo is one I treasure.
Sometimes, when I’m tempted to give in to fear or defeat, I see Grandma at the top of the cellar stairs, shoulders back, ready to walk down, saying, “I didn’t come here to fall down the stairs.” I wish I’d known her better, as a person and not just as a grandma. I’d like to ask her how she got so brave.
I haven’t followed in her chicken-plucking-kuchen-baking-quilting footsteps. But I remember her decision not to fall, and I want to be just like her.