Grandma Hagen was a study in contrasts. She came from a family of dirt poor farmers in Arkansas. Her mother Lorna Cox had a childhood sweetheart named Wirt Anderson. Somewhere along the way a traveling salesman named Ely Webb rode through town. The rest reads like the classic farmer’s daughter-traveling salesman joke. In a whirlwind romance and marriage little Thelma was born. Wanderlust took over with Ely and he went off to the west coast to seek his fortune. Ely sent for his bride and baby, and she wasn’t willing to go. My grandmother was raised by her grandparents for much of her childhood.
Lorna Cox meanwhile fell for her childhood sweetheart, Wirt Anderson. In time Wirt went out to Arizona to seek his fortune ranching in the open range. Wirt sent for Lorna and her young daughter. Together they had two more boys named Donnie and Ordie. Life was tough for them. Grandma described her memories of her stepfather as a man who took her in and treated her as her own daughter. This was a time before the advent of birth control. My great grandmother was constantly pregnant, and constantly having a miscarriage. My grandmother cleaned up after her mother and nursed her back to health. The result was that my grandmother was the world’s most militant advocate of birth control.
I used to have great fun teasing my dad that he must have really been a bad kid, because after him Grandma preached on birth control. One cute story from my childhood is that after Grandma watched me and my brother, twenty months my junior, she pulled my dad aside and said, “You make sure little Jeanie doesn’t get pregnant just bam, bam, bam.” Even in her eighties Grandma was preaching birth control to me and my new bride. Sadly, she died about six months before our first little baby Benjamin was born.
The grinding poverty and uncertainty of my Grandmother’s childhood played on her insecurities. My grandfather was very successful in business. Grandma never wanted to go back to that level of insecurity. Grandma was deeply religious, and would talk about trusting the Lord. She was like most of us, in that we actually trust in money. I don’t judge her harshly about this because I understand that it just takes money to get by. She would talk about trusting the Lord but even in her eighties she would say that she never wanted to get below $200,000 in the bank.
She finished both High School, and some level of college, and received her certificate to teach both the first and second grade. Somewhere along this time she met my Grandpa, and she was smitten for life. What is true with many couples is that their individual strengths complement each other. Grandpa knew how to bet on his ability to get things done. Grandma was always a persistent, sometimes nagging voice to think through you decisions with a level of conservative reality. Together they were equal partners in a big adventure. Grandpa was on the hillside shooting dynamite shots. Grandma was back at the cook shack ordering the food that would feed the small army that would get the work done. Grandma once ordered a case of toothpicks. What she didn’t realize is that she would be getting 144 kitchen matchbox sized boxes of toothpicks. I still have one of them in my cabinet almost sixty years later.
At times Grandpa and Grandma were totally in love with their business, and their children suffered. My dad still dumps bitter rants about being left with his Grandma while they were gone for months at a time. They had their share of faults.
Grandma was good to me. Sadly sometimes parents make up for their short comings with their own children by doting on their grandchildren. I had a free ride through college, and graduate school. I wish I could show Grandma the things in my life that would make her proud.
Grandma kept her faith for years with her unbelieving husband. As little children we would pray for Grandpa Hagen’s salvation. Grandma used to tune into the Billy Graham crusades, and she would Amen every point directed to salvation. We wrote Grandpa Hagen one time when I was around nine, and told him that we were praying for his salvation. The Holy Spirit used this, and he called my first grade teacher to come over and witness to him. This hardened man in his seventies, bowed his head and repented of his sin. I fully expect to see both him and my grandmother one day in heaven. Grandma used to watch Billy Graham and in her nagging but persistent way used to point to Grandpa in his hospital bed and say, “You do believe that! Don’t you Harry?” Grandpa would look at her in his teasing way and say, “No, it’s silly superstition!” The reality is that Grandpa would cry when he thought about it and say that he was going to see Jesus. The prayers and nags of this sweet and fussy old woman saw this reality when he passed away. The contrasts of this funny old woman make me both laugh and cry, and above all miss her, and make me wish I could share her with you.