A bustling bakery. Boarding School. Henry Ford's yacht. Illness. Brothers. Sisters. Marriage. Birth. Poverty. The solace of religion. Golf. Alcoholism. Family. Laughter. Letting go of a child. Lighting a darkened life. Grandchildren. Divorce. Widowhood.
Experiences that sculpt a lifetime . . . a generation . . . a legacy. This is my legacy. My life has been graced by the legacy of truly valiant women. They live in me, their blood merging to sweep life through my veins. Their past has thankfully fallen to me and shapes the way in which I choose to move through life's triumphs and catastrophes. Although the women in my family have endured and enjoyed much throughout history, there are two who shared their lives with me; I am proud to be their granddaughter.
Their lives read like a study in contrast. Teresa grew up in a household of success. Her parents, immigrants from Romania and Austria-Hungary, owned and operated a chain of bakeries in Detroit, Michigan. She often recalled for me the awe she felt as a girl, accompanying her only brother to deliver cakes for a party aboard Henry Ford's yacht.
Life in the city had its frightening moments. From their apartment one night, they awoke in terror to the sounds of someone rumbling violently through the bakery downstairs. Her father hurried to save his beloved store, but stopped short in the doorway. Returning to his frightened family, he said a ghostly hand had literally appeared in the air before him to turn him back. The following day, the police told him that whoever caused the devastation within the shop would surely have killed anyone trying to stop them. Their faith was confirmed; the Lord had preserved his life.
At the age of seven, Teresa was separated from her family to live in a boarding school. The advantages to her education were innumerable, but she craved the careful attention she left behind in the bakery. Her schoolgirl journals are punctuated with numerous stays in the infirmary. Illness would hover in her shadow always.
Betty spent her childhood in as different a setting as one could imagine, in the woods of New Mexico. Her parents struggled to provide even the bare necessities for their nine children. Their home reflected clearly their humble lifestyle, a small farm with a simple house. A wood burning stove provided heat and warm meals for the family. Once a week, it would heat buckets of water, fresh from an outdoor well, to coax the chill from it for bathing. Imagine the celebration in her mother's heart the glad day that a hand pump was installed beside the kitchen sink. On windy nights, wax paper rattled and vibrated in the windows, where it substituted for glass.
Teresa finished business college and married an ambitious young man. Their wedding was a splendid affair for the community, overflowing with the fairytale romance that glimmers in the fantasies of many young girls. Four children blessed their union. Soon, she found herself moving in the circles of high society as her husband ascended to the pinnacle of success. He labored fervently for his family and played equally hard as his reward. Gold trophies cluttered their shelves, the height and luster of one outdone only by the next.
Together, they took delight in the marriage of their eldest daughter and the birth of their first grandchild. Their second child chose a quiet life, entering a convent. They were living in El Paso, Texas, and looking toward their third child's wedding when disaster intervened. Upon returning home from a family dinner, a shocking heart attack claimed the life of her young husband. It was 1966 and she was a widow, appallingly alone with children yet to raise.
Betty's young life brimmed with all the hardships that could be flung into her already craggy path. However, she had been blessed with a quick intellect and finished high school before the age of 15. Her future seemed radiant, having been accepted to college and dating a handsome young serviceman. Then, she discovered there was a child to be born to her. Betty knew her priorities, so she quickly married and happily set her attention to raising her son. In a life marked by endurance, adversity paid yet another visit. Soon divorced, she struggled to support her little family alone, without aid from her handsome serviceman. Eventually, she remarried and four more children entered the world. At the time, they chose to enter a difficult one. Alcoholism dominated their existence, with Betty's eldest son often providing care for his younger siblings. The strife became intense, often unbearable for the seven-year-old. For his survival, Betty came to an agonizing decision. Her dear sister would adopt and raise Betty's firstborn as her own.
These stories intertwine and weave an invigorating tapestry of celebration and endurance through life's tortures. No life is isolated, however. Life, once experienced, continues to exist through those you touch and teach with your story. Such is the framework of my life. No end, no beginning. Only memories and lessons that teach me and mold the person I intend to be.
Imagine a dining room filled with summer radiance. Refreshing ice chimes through dainty sips from tall glasses. Shining silver sings against porcelain china. Conversation bubbles from every corner as crisply dressed waiters bustle from table to table. Being in the company of my grandmother felt like sitting at the right hand of a princess. I swirled the maraschino cherry around in my Shirley Temple, feeling oh-so-grown-up in this sparkling world.
The head waiter weaves his way toward us. "Hello Mrs. Hill! So good to see you!" She returns the greeting in classic style, asking the man about his wife and ailing mother. In a moment, he regretfully leaves her company and returns to his duties. A woman approaches.
"Terry! How are you?"
"Fine, and you? What a lovely dress you're wearing."
"Oh, this? I got it on sale." She bustles away as though she is as busy as the waiters. My grandmother leans to my ear, whispering. "Learn something from her, dear. I said something nice and she excused it. Always remember how to take a compliment. A 'thank you' goes a long way." A tiny lesson in a flood of many, and one that I still recall vividly. She taught me so much more than simply how to behave as a southern lady should. She also taught me the true definition of graciousness and charity.
Each year, as autumn's chill began its lazy crawl over the desert, she would visit her favorite department store and purchase fifty blankets. With her priest showing her the way, they would visit the dreadfully impoverished families living in nearby Juarez, Mexico. She would distribute those blankets to as many downtrodden homes as they could find, bringing a little warmth to an otherwise dismal winter. When I think of her and those simple blankets, I am inspired. When I realize that this singular act of love was merely one in a lifetime of similar moments, I am humble and grateful. This is part of my legacy.
Visiting my Grandma Betty felt no less miraculous. She took me on her various errands, proudly introducing me to her friends in their small town. At home, I would sit on the corner stool in the kitchen, talking endlessly about the things that are important to a child. I prattled on about toys, TV shows, friends, school, and later the teenage fascinations, like movie stars, boys, music, dances, and clubs. Throughout all of my ramblings, she smiled and laughed and, most importantly, listened. In those moments, as she worked to cook incredible delights of chili rellenos and enchiladas for her growing family, my words shone in her eyes. With all of my dozen or so cousins roaring around the house, I was the star of her world. Looking back, I can see how each person she met felt that way in her presence.
One day, when I was in college, the phone rang in my new apartment. My father's voice shook slightly as he said, "Your Grandma Betty has died. We'll be heading out to go to her funeral soon. Are you okay?" I said yes, although my heart had stopped beating. Carefully, I hung up the phone, then slid down the wall and cried my shock into the cool paneling. Just two days before, she had taken her husband to a neighboring city for surgery. As she prepared for work that day, the Lord decided her efforts were needed elsewhere. Grief-stricken as I was, and still am on some days, I looked in awe at the endless stream of cars that followed behind ours to her place of burial. Her love had touched so many other souls on this Earth. This, too, is part of my legacy.
One topic remained that we never spoke of and that I didn't completely understand, however. How could a mother decide to let another, her sister, raise her child? Don't misunderstand; I didn't judge her. I just didn't know. That chapter in her short life would impact me in ways I could never guess. I entered that same chapter, but from another angle, taking into my arms a child I already loved as my own. As, for once, I viewed her life from the inside, I learned to understand her infinitely more and I knew to not judge my own sister harshly. From her unseen place, Betty whispered to us and told us all would be fine. Perhaps, that's one of the most valuable parts of my legacy.
A few years ago, I can home for a visit. My grandmother Teresa was under my mother's care, then. I saw her and knew, deep within me, that she would be leaving us behind soon. Two weeks from that day, my mother woke me as the dawn smeared the sky outside. "Come say good-bye to Nonnie. She's gone." I crept to the quiet room, everything seeming still and small as we waited for the doctor's final visit. I stroked her hair, whispered my love, and kissed her silent cheek. I remembered her smiles, advice, laughter, caring, and felt an odd comfort in knowing she was where angels rejoiced in her reward.
In the days preceding, four generations of our family had lived in that home. Now, we supported each other as one passed from our midst. I think of those times of tears and I feel something move in my spirit. These valiant women await my day to join them, but they have left me a remarkable responsibility. They passed to me the grand importance of a woman's lifetime. They live in me. I look to my small children and know I must let them continue to live. Being all that they granted me and more, I will continue to live on as well. I must; I have a legacy to give.
Dear Lord, I prayed silently, give me the strength to face this child.
"Please, Mommy, let's play Peter Pan. Pllleeeasse?" The wiry little girl bounded across the floor, brandishing her yellow, rubber dagger in a grand imitation of her favorite character. The toy's little point had long since been obscured by tiny teethmarks, where my wild-haired daughter had chewed at it. There must be uses for a dagger that Disney never showed.
"Give me a minute, honey, and then we'll play," I said, sighing.
She had to know how tired I felt, but you never really knew with this one. With strength I summoned from somewhere unknown, I shoved the dishwasher across the kitchen floor, to its place by the sink. As I struggled to tighten the machine's hose to the faucet, I thought about my imaginative little one. She always had entertained herself well, making up stories and play-acting that she actually was each one of those TV and movie characters that she loved. I had to laugh, remembering what the other children called to her as we pulled away from her nursery school.
"Good-bye, Peter Pan! See you tomorrow!" What an imagination, indeed! Ah, well, maybe someday she'll be a writer.
"What was that?" I said, dashing into the living room to see which knee would need a Magic Mommy Kiss. A little curly-top rushed past me.
"Nothing. I was just flying," she replied, oblivious to my momentary worry. How I love the simple thrills of a child's playtime.
"Be quiet," I hushed after her, "Your sister is asleep."
Thankfully asleep. Where my first baby had been quiet and happy, this new little one cried constantly. OK, not constantly, but it felt that way on days like these. Holding my breath, I crept into the nursery and slowly gathered the baby's laundry. My arms loaded, I glanced around the floor for any stray bits. That towel will have to wait. It's under a toy that will jangle horribly if I move it.
Turning towards the door, I caught a glimpse of my sleeping child's face. How could something so sweet, so innocent, produce such a terrible sound? I wondered at her baby dreams. Did she dream of angels she had recently known? Did she miss them? Maybe she dreamt of giant bottles and cuddly bears. Soft thoughts on my mind, I silently swept my work from the gentle room. The sounds of my other dreamy child playing at one of her fanciful games drifted to me from her bedroom. I let the sound warm me as I headed to the garage, where the laundry machines waited. At least we had all the moving boxes unpacked now. I opened the door and greeted the tall, brown stacks that crowded into our little garage. OK, not all the boxes were unpacked, but at least they weren't in the house. The concrete still felt warm under my feet, but not as warm as it had last week. Summer had begun it's graceful retreat, taking with it those glorious days of outside play.
"Mommy, can you put this on me?" She stood in the doorway, holding in her little fingers an orange cape with blue tiger-stripes. Her arms stretched high over her head, ever careful to keep the tiger's tail from dragging the ground. I laughed, dumping detergent on top of the baby clothes. "I'll be right there," I said over the rushing sound of the wash water.
As I knelt to fasten the cape, its vinyl scent brushed over me and tickled my nose. How dearly I love the simple thrills of a child's playthings.
"Thanks, Mom," she said, running off to find the chewed-up dagger. As she moved, she tried to watch the stripes streaming from her back. And thank you, Mr. Rogers' Fan Club, for sending this little memory to me.
"Can we play yet, Mommy?" A yellow flash waved in front of me. "I'll be Peter. Who do you want to be?"
Weariness swam through me, forcing out a tired sigh. I stared helplessly into her face, brushing a rebellious curl from her forehead. Her eyes glittered at me, allowing me a momentary glance into the magic that danced beyond. We should take a nap because she just has to be a little tired. Still, there must be something I can do.
"Who do you want to be, Mommy?"
That blue, shag carpet of ours sure would make a great sea. I stretched out, settling comfortably into that sea. "I'll be the pirate ship," I answered.