Because Peach is a company with a mission to elevate and empower women, I want to start sharing stories of amazing ladies. I want to highlight women who have inspired me, amazed me, and made me think. I’m starting with my grandmother. Her life story was full of challenges. I remember listening to her tales in awe of her strength. I often wondered if I could be as strong as she was, given the same set of circumstances. So, here’s the first of many stories about incredible women that I’ll share on this Peach blog. I’d love to share your stories, too. Just message me!
Here’s to my grandmother, Harriette.
It was simply a birthday party. No one could have known that it would change my grandmother’s life forever. Her sister just attended the birthday party of a friend, like so many children before and after. The year was 1916. Harriette’s sister was exposed to influenza and came down with symptoms days after the party. She recovered. Her mother also came down with symptoms, yet she did not recover. Just one week later, her father also succumbed to the flu. My grandmother was four years old.
Picture any four-year-old child, past or present. The world of a four-year-old is pretty small. Life revolves around family. Life depends on stability. Life grows from guidance. Little Harriette Irene Annette knew her family and her role in their Mason City, Iowa, home. She felt safe and loved in the company of her parents and her older siblings, two brothers and a set of twin sisters. That carefree, four-year-old world was shattered by the outbreak of the flu in one short week. As the extended family gathered for the funerals of her parents, they also made arrangements for the lives of the children. All of the older siblings were placed with the same family in Iowa. As the youngest, my grandmother went to live with an aunt and uncle whom she had never met in Joplin, Missouri, a place that she had never been. This aunt and uncle wanted to provide little Harriette with a warm home and raise her as their own. They welcomed her into their family, complete with three cousins, a boy and two girls. They loved Harriette and treated her well. She even grew to consider her cousins as her brother and sisters. They became the only family that she knew, the only place where she felt truly bonded. Memories of her former life faded, but not the sense of loss. Even though there were blood siblings that she could recall, she wasn’t able to really know them until adulthood when travel became more available to her.
Mother’s Day was a particularly difficult holiday for Harriette; the flowers singled her out. Her aunt pinned the red ones on her own children. My grandmother wore the white flower on her dress for church, which signified that Harriette’s mother was dead. While she could try to hide from it on other days, that flower made it obvious to all. She had no mother to share the day. No mother to pin on her flower. No mother to hold her hand as they entered that sanctuary. As they walked to church, my grandmother always tore that white flower off of her dress and tossed it on the path. She told her aunt that she lost it, every year. I assume that somehow her aunt knew what happened to those flowers. How could she be the only little girl with a white flower? How was this a holiday to celebrate?
Growing up in a time period when most girls didn’t allow themselves the hope of higher education, Harriette dreamed of a career in medicine. Always a voracious reader, she soaked up everything she could learn and finished high school. When the time came, she was accepted to a nursing program in St. Louis. This was a dream come true, but it couldn’t come true. Her aunt and uncle didn’t believe that she should move away from home. They didn’t feel that it was necessary for a girl to study. She should find a man, marry, and become a mother. That’s what proper young women did. That should have been the end of it. But, my grandmother had already learned that life didn’t always turn out as planned. She developed another way to achieve her dreams.
Maybe she couldn’t attend nursing school, but nothing could stop my grandmother from reading every medical book she could get her hands on. When it came time to get a job, which was also unusual in that time period for a woman, she found one in a doctor’s office. She happily worked in the office doing secretarial work, watching and learning all the while. The doctor realized that this was one sharp cookie. Soon, she was working as his assistant in the office. They made house calls together. They took care of the sick, cared for the dying, pulled teeth, birthed babies, set broken bones. All without a degree of any kind. No nursing school classes. No lectures or labs. She knew what she wanted and she went after it with unmatched passion and enthusiasm. It wasn’t the traditional way, but it worked for her.
As fate would have it, that doctor had a son. My grandmother married him and they had a daughter. She laughed that she tried pregnancy and labor once and didn’t like it, so one child was enough for her. The truth was that she had an extremely difficult time during the delivery and almost lost the baby. She felt fortunate to have this one child. She became the mother that she never had. Her daughter was raised to know a mother who loved her unconditionally and cherished the family that finally felt complete. There were no limits to what she would do for them. They were her world.
In this life that my grandmother had created for herself, she was fiercely loyal, extremely independent, generously loving, and genuinely kind. That four-year-old girl who lost her parents and moved to a brand new place with a family she didn’t know actually made it. As an adult, she impacted her community with her medical skills and as a self-taught pianist for recitals and theatres. She stayed current with the times while holding tight to her old-fashioned standards. The woman wouldn’t even wear pants unless it was winter and only when she was inside her own home. She acted and dressed every bit the lady. Yet, she was also a force to be reckoned with. She taught me to love, to be independent, to think for myself, to stand up for what is right, and to be curious about life in all of its glory.
My grandmother most definitely took the hand that life dealt her and turned in into a royal flush. When times are tough, my mind turns to her. What would she think? How would she react? It’s pretty easy to know. She would be on the side of good. She would want to know more. She would want to follow through in word and deed. In turn, I want to follow her lead. She was my compass.