She had snowy-white hair and sat like a queen, turning her willow rocker into a throne. And we all came to pay her homage and drink her homemade root beer. As a child, her life seemed magical to me. Her job was to rock, and the job for the rest of us—her more than 85 children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren—was to bring her coffee when she was thirsty and food when she was hungry and a shawl when she was cold and to smile and tell her a bit about our lives.
What I didn’t understand then and can’t fully appreciate still is the toll of her life. By the time I knew her, she had borne seventeen children, including two sets of triplets, and buried five babies and a husband. She had pinched pennies during the economic panic of the 1890s and the Great Depression. She had lived through the Great War and the 1918 flu pandemic and World War II and the smallpox epidemic.
And she had worked hard. Year after year, her diaries record massive food preservation—canning 32 batches of cranberries in one day after gathering them from a bog at Bup Beitzel’s farm and another day 41 quarts of pork and 30 quarts of beef from livestock she had raised. In one week 300 quarts of tomatoes came from her garden. She heated water over a fire for washing clothes with soap she made from lye and lard.
My granddaughter Anna shares a name with my great-grandma of the snowy-white hair. And a birthday. Both born on September 24, though 129 years apart, their lives will be starkly different. My granddaughter Anna will likely never make soap with lye and lard or grow a garden that produces 300 quarts of tomatoes. But when she runs cross country, I can see that she’s got the pluck of my great-grandma. Which is good. She’ll need it for what lies before her in the twenty-first century, though I can’t quite envision what that might be.