I often ponder the fact that often a true genius is passed up in history, because he was born as a galley slave, or died at a young age in a worthless war over real estate boundaries. Once in a while we get a Leonardo DaVinci, an Isaac Newton, an Archimedes, a Johannes Kepler who both brilliant, and born into a class where society could record his brilliance. How many times does a great mind go to waste subsistence farming, mining limestone, or live in total obscurity in an impoverished country. Sometimes a great mind doesn’t exactly go to waste, but doesn’t quite fit the obscurity of their surroundings. My maternal grandmother was such a woman.
Hazel Toy Gladdish was born as a banker’s daughter at the dawn of a new century on March 24, 1900. Doing math on her father’s grave records she was the September child of a fifty five year old man. The prospect of fathering a daughter four years from now makes me want to have a closet full of birth control devices.
I know she had an older sister with mental issues that my grandmother took care of in her youth. She described to me the ordeal of delivering her sister to the institution as a twenty year old. Grandma Gladdish had a rare opportunity for a woman of her day. My grandmother had a full blown college education. She lived most of her life in backward Kentucky counties with a brilliant mind that understood the nuances of Latin grammar. In her seventies she tutored me in English, and knew the classics of English literature with a mind that was far beyond her rural Kentucky life.
After completing her education, she took a position as a teacher in a one room schoolhouse, in Eastern Kentucky. She described riding a horse drawn wagon miles back into the Kentucky wilderness to meet a total stranger who would introduce her to her new life. She spent some of her early years teaching the three “R’s” to the children of hardscrabble farmers and moonshiners. My Bob Jones University friends would see this as a “Sheffy” moment.
I wish I could ask her of more of the details of her life. What is sad when you get older is that you know someone has a story worth telling, and the person is gone before you realize that you don’t know all the details.
Somehow she made it to Western Kentucky. I know nothing of her romance with my Grandfather. By the time she was thirty she was married and had her first son. Within four years she had a family of a son and three daughters in the pits of The Great Depression. My grandmother spent much of her life canning corn out of a garden, while her mind understood the nuances of a Melville or Dickens novel. I met many people including my peers whose minds were enhanced by the brilliance of this woman of depth.
I had wonderful relationships with all of my Grandparents. My Grandma Gladdish has the distinction of the longest relationship and friendship with my third generation predecessors. Grandma Gladdish had the distinction of being born early in 1900. The math with her age was so easy. What year is it? Grandma Gladdish is that old. Her mind was sharp until she was ninety-three in 1993. She lived until she was ninety-six with some level reality about her wits. She knew my wife and two oldest children. Even in her end game she was aware that she should know me, even though she couldn’t place where. As part of a generation of five grandsons we all have such fond memories of this remarkable woman.
As I mentioned in a previous blog Grandma was an improbable match with my Grandfather. They were educationally mismatched by several academic years. My mother described their marriage as a state of constant bickering. She made forty plus years with my grandfather and cried like a baby at his passing.
Then my grandmother did something remarkable. She got up and saw the world. My grandmother in her seventies went on Greyhound bus tours all over the United States. Within a few years she had crisscrossed the forty-eight contiguous states except the lonely state of Vermont. Her mind was free to roam to her hearts content.
My dad and mom ran a Christian school in Louisiana. My grandmother would hear of a student needing help, myself included, and she spend part of the winter teaching us with the gift of teacher who loved imparting knowledge to a younger generation. One time I met a missionary who served a career in Japan who was a pupil of my Grandmother. My cousins and their children remember this person with fond memories.
My dad, who is now in his eighties, describes his mother in law as someone who he truly liked as a good person. I think the only moment my dad ever crossed my Grandmother was during the presidential election of 1980. Grandma was a Southern Baptist, and a Southern Democrat. During the final moments of Jimmy Carter’s presidency, the votes were being tallied for the impending victory of Ronald Reagan. Dad blurted out, “Anyone who voted for Jimmy Carter is absolutely crazy.” My mom found my Grandmother in her bedroom packing her bags. Grandma looked up at mom and said, “If he wants me to, I will leave RIGHT NOW!” My mom often describes this as my dad being bad. Considering he was a beloved son-in-law for forty plus years and the fact that this was their only trespass, demonstrates that they both did well.
My heroes in life are often people who are twenty to forty years my senior who have chosen to keep their ties open with a generation who need their wisdom and experience. In the early eighties as a college student a delight to me was going on a trip with my Grandmother. I would go up to see Grandma, and we would go see something. One year we went to Bardstown Kentucky to see “The Stephen Foster Story.” One year we went to Mammoth Cave. Considering that Grandma was eighty and I was twenty we were just good friends that shared common blood and friendship across sixty decades of time.
In 1990 all of the sisters of the family got together to correct the problem that Grandma was missing the state of Vermont in her list of visited states. Grandma had seen the hills of Vermont from New Hampshire, but her foot hand never touched the soil of the forbidden land. On the way to New York, I happened to hear that my groups of aunts with my mother were taking my Grandma to, as the Kentuckians would say, “VURR-mont.” I happened to be working a contract that took, me and a bunch of my redneck pool-building friends to the great state of New York. In a Super- Eight in Beacon New York, I got together with a woman who was excited at the age of ninety to pursue one last dream. Her indomitable spirit once again inspired a man approaching his thirties to reach out for something greater, something deeper, and something more.
In 1993 Grandma, who was always welcome at my parents’ house got it in her head that she wanted to go back to her little house in Kentucky. In frustration my parents let her go. Within a few months she ended up in a nursing home in Central City Kentucky. My mom and dad would have loved to have her local, but her slowly on-setting dementia prevented them from being able to make rational choices with her. I was able one last time to take my family to see her with my family of my wife and my two oldest kids. Her face lit up with a vague familiarity that my lifetime of friendship with her produced. Her fingerprints were all over my life, my wife and her two great-grandchildren.
In her old age she somehow got it in her head that when a person reached 100 years the president would send Air Force One to carry that special person to the White House to honor them. She died in 1996 under the reign of the Southern Democrat, Bill Clinton. If she could have just made it another four years George W. Bush would have been honored to have seen my Grandma coming off the steps of Air Force One, had that been reality. Sometimes there is someone so special that only a greeting from the president would be worth the honor of sharing your life with them. George W. Bush, you missed your finest hour.