Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Happy Valentine's Day! How Betty Jean Taught Me the Meaning of Love

My maternal grandmother, Betty Jean, was born on Valentine's Day. It was always seemed so fitting because she truly had the biggest heart of almost anyone I know. She was the kind of woman who would literally give you the shirt off her back.

Grandma raised five children in the 60's as a single, divorced working mother. She was a beautician by trade, but as we all know, being a hairdresser really means you are a confidante, a psychologist, a friend and more. 

All the awesome Valentine's photos are by Nat. Visit her website for more information.
By the way- all these photos were from a 10-15 minute mini session!!! I can't believe what she captured!!!

Going to Grandma's house meant she had everyone's favorite food and spent the entire visit taking you places that she had been thinking about for weeks and months. Grandma loved adventures and I remember walking with her, my mom and my aunt all over the tiny Nebraska town we lived in during summer evenings. There were family trips and adventures to Colorado, Fort Robinson, South Dakota, Hot Springs, Mount Rushmore and when we moved from Nebraska to Florida there were more adventures including one wild trip to the Orange Bowl with Grandma Betty in tow. 

A visit to our tiny (but mighty!) hometown of Alliance, Nebraska meant that Grandma bought a dozen or so Bizmarcks (a delicious German danish that is filled with sweet cream and has nuts sprinkled over the top) for all of us, the tiny boxes of sugar-coated cereal that we were only allowed to eat on holidays (or visits to Grandma) and platters of cold cuts and cheese filling the fridge. If you ever even mentioned that something was your favorite it was bound to show up at Grandma's house during the next visit. Grandma made visiting the Dairy Queen next door to her house, the Pizza Hut, Pamida, Hatch's Drugstore, the Library or the tiny Frontier Museum seem like the most incredible adventure in the world.

I remember her coming to Ohio from Nebraska for my college graduation and my law school graduation. She was so proud of all of her grandchildren and having grown up so far away from our extended family I was thrilled to get to share these achievements with her.

The last time I saw her alive was at my cousin's wedding in Grand Island, Nebraska. Less than five months later she would pass away. I was at Officer Indoctrination School (OIS) in Newport, Rhode Island learning how to be an Ensign in the United States Navy when I learned that Grandma was in Hospice.  I received special permission from the Commanding Officer (CO) of OIS to leave early for the Thanksgiving holiday to fly back to Nebraska for her funeral. It was one of the loneliest trips I would ever make. Flying from Providence to Chicago, Illinois. Getting on a flight from Chicago to Denver. Getting on the tiny crop duster that shakes and quivers the entire way from Denver to Alliance, Nebraska. 

I will never forget it. I thought I would see her one last time. When we arrived at the funeral mass I looked for her coffin up at the altar. I was so confused. Where was Grandma? I needed to see her and say good-bye. In all of the commotion of everyone coming to town and in grief no one had told me that Grandma had been cremated. I almost passed out when I realized the small urn at the front of the church was all that was left. Now that I'm a little older I understand. Grandma was claustrophobic. She didn't like being stuck in small places. I get it. I'm the same way. When I go I have no desire to buried six feet under. Spread me over the Nebraska plains on the Freimuth Farm when I am gone, but please do not bury me under ground. This bird needs to fly!

Once Grandma passed I was blessed to move close to her brother, Uncle Dick and his wife, Aunt Doris. Uncle Dick was a retired Chief Petty Officer in the Navy and when Grandma passed away in November of 2000, it was Uncle Dick and Aunt Doris that came in her place for my Officer Indoctrination School graduation.  It was Uncle Dick and Aunt Doris who took me under their wings and came and checked on me in Washington, D.C. every time they made a visit in for his doctor's appointments at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda. For almost four years they lived closer to me than any other family. It was like an extension of Grandma lived on because she and Uncle Dick shared the same sparkling blue eyes and the same sharp sense of humor.

Throughout our life Grandma and I had two things in common that I still enjoy almost every day. Reading and exercise. Grandma was an avid walker and when the Nebraska winters were too cold she jumped on her mini trampoline in her "condo". We shared a love for reading and when she was alive she would send me every John Grisham novel as it was released. One of our family stories is that as a little girl she loved to read so much that she hid under her covers with a candle and nearly set the family house on fire trying to stay up late reading. To this day when I am awake and reading way too late into the night I think of her and all the books she read and shared with me.

During the last five years or so of her life she kept a notebook of all the books she read. It's a simple spiral bound drugstore notebook, but it is so much to me as I see the curve of her handwriting and look to find inspiration in what books I might want to read. It is one of my most favorite and treasured items she left me.

What I will always remember most about Grandma Betty was her heart. Her huge heart and her compassion. I remember delivering groceries with her to some of her clients when I was just a tiny, little girl. Checking in on the elderly ladies whose hair she fixed every week in her beauty shop. 

I remember when she visited us in Florida how one Sunday we had to drive all the way to Cocoa Beach to buy t-shirts for two of her best friends. They were a couple who had been together for almost 20 years. 

Their names were Ron and Jon and she insisted that they needed t-shirts from The Ron Jon Surf Shop. Today we could have just ordered those shirts online, but back then it was the cause for an adventure. Looking back now, I realize that even in a small town in the panhandle of Nebraska, my Grandma was already teaching me lessons about acceptance and understanding. 

The last ten to fifteen years of my Grandma's life I remember her constant companion being a man named, Jim.  Jim had been a jeweler all his life. Jim was differently-abled and he used an awesome electronic wheelchair that we would hop on the back of and ride from her beauty shop down to his apartment on when we visited him. I remember Grandma pushing to get Jim a van that was wheelchair-accessible so that he could go to my cousin's baseballs games, out to dinner and get around town. I don't know if Jim was my Grandma's boyfriend. Boyfriend, best friend--it didn't matter. What I do know is that she clearly loved him and she showed him her love by helping him to have a full life in his later years.

Thinking of Valentine's Day to me is thinking about Grandma. It's thinking about the love she showed others and how she made each of us feel important and special. I look back and I remember how much she loved my dad. She loved her son-in-law like he was her own son. It's funny how much that means now as an adult. Her love for my dad just helped cement the family bonds together. The love and respect she had for my dad is now evident in the love and respect my parents have for Tom. They love him and respect him and treat him as one of their own and I can tell that my children even recognize it. The power of love is pretty incredible. It doesn't cost a dime, but it can last forever.

I am pretty sure that having a child who is "differently-abled" has been that much easier for me because I grew up watching my Grandma have a best friend who was also differently-abled and it was never a big deal. I can honestly say we never thought twice about Jim being in a wheelchair. He was just Jim. 

I wish she was here to meet my boys and I wish I could share more adventures with her, but what I am grateful for is the time I spent with her. The cards we sent to each other. The trips we took.  The phone calls we shared. The books we shared. I'm most grateful for her example of love and acceptance and for teaching me how to love, which is ironic because she didn't say "I love you" very often.  I didn't used to understand that, but now I know she didn't say it very often because she was too busy living it and showing it.

Happy Valentine's Day! Who are you going to show your love to today?

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