Going to Grandma’s house was never much fun. I didn’t have the words then but now I’d describe her as austere, rigid, stoic, an old woman for whom life had been a disappointment. Memories make me wonder if she was ever truly happy.
There are no photos of her smiling, no family stories of joviality, no warm hugs like those we enjoyed from our other Grandma. A snapshot taken in front of the house on their 50th wedding anniversary in 1954 shows a couple standing at attention, conspicuously separate from the other, Grandma taller than our retiring Grandpa.
Dad always sympathized with his Dad. He’d recall from time to time, “There was no question who wore the pants in our family.” More than once, Mom said, “It’s really a shame that a son would feel that way about his mother.” Well after Grandma died in 1967 Dad would rehash such memories. For a long time they seemed to still hold him bound.
One account suffices to capture how these memories could slide into resentment. At the height of the Depression, Mom and Dad were struggling farmers trying really hard to hold on to the farm (they succeeded). Grandma, on the other hand, made a big production of buying a new fur coat. Mom and Dad were buying the farm from Grandpa and Grandma and knew they dare not be late with a payment. Dad was desperately trying to feed an ever-growing brood not buy his Mom a new fur coat! Really, what kind of Mother or Grandma would act like that?
Well, this week — fifty years after Grandma’s death — a flood of insight, compassion and affection has taken me off-guard. It came in the form of an even older family story unknown until it seemingly appeared out of the blue through the wonders of the Internet. It’s an obscure story recorded in her native German by a Franciscan Sister from LaCrosse, Wisconsin that tell of events from 1826. The story is about Grandma’s grandma!
Sister Colomba, OSF tells how her mother, Anna was born to Johanna Druffner on July 26, 1826 in Rottweiler, Schwarzwaldkreis, Wuerttemberg, Germany. Her father is listed as unknown on birth records. The family would dismiss his anonymity with the facile explanation that “he had an accident in the forest.” But Sister Colomba tells more!
Citing a man with knowledge of that time and place, Sister’s story recalls “a rover who would work for a farmer, get a daughter in trouble, and escape into the woods.” According to her source’s account this happened on numerous occasions with numerous young women. When area farmers concluded this was the same man perpetrating these crimes, “they went searching for him in the woods.” There is no report that they found him, just a curt note simply stating he was never seen again.
Other genealogical sources combine to profile a woman who knew a lifetime of hardship, sadness and loss. Grandma’s grandma would leave her homeland, marry at 23, spend seven unsettled years with her husband in Philadelphia, all before moving on to rural Iowa. She would bear ten children, five of whom died in infancy. The sole photo we have of Anna and Wilhelm presents a sinewy, intense, tough woman peering somewhat blankly into the distance.
Widowed at 60, Anna lived for a time with her son, William on the home place. The story further explains that she “kept wandering away because she wanted to go ‘home’.” Eventually, Anna found her way to LaCrosse where her daughter’s Franciscan community reserved seven rooms on the top floor of their hospital “for people who needed a home.” There she died in 1908 and was buried, a final resting place separate from her husband who was buried near their farm in Iowa. She was 81. Grandma was now 24, married, had just given birth to her second child, building a home with Grandpa in Nebraska.
Scripture says the transgressions of the fathers are visited upon their children to the third and fourth generation. We say this more colloquially, “An apple doesn’t fall far from the tree” or “He’s a chip off the old block.” It’s been nothing short of revelatory for me to discover that the Grandma I didn’t like very much had a grandma, too!
A kind of liberation comes with this deeper appreciation for why Grandma may have been the way she was. What is still reverberating is the realization that I am alive as the consequence of a rape. Still unsettling is the awareness that one of my distant grandfathers likely killed the father of his granddaughter, my Grandma’s grandma!
Driving down the wintry parkway yesterday, ruminating over these new-found facts, sifting through sundry emotions, a fresh warmth and unforeseen love began to take hold. That previously tedious and obscure Gospel account of Jesus — the one about so-and-so being begot by so-and-so — came to mind. Jesus’ own genealogy contains harlots and murderers too. Ours is precisely the humanity God chose to embrace.
In retelling the story of our salvation, it remains essential that these accounts and people be remembered, named, and in so doing, embraced. I’m coming to believe this is what real love looks like!
Richard, thank you. Your process of gaining understanding and acceptance of your grandmother’s experiences is courageous and inspiring. Good modeling for all of us!