So, I’ve been thinking about what my blog should be today, and I kept coming back to an autumn theme. Joel and I have been doing a lot of autumn things lately – picking apples, buying pumpkins, photographing the turning leaves. Next week we’re going to take a fall foliage train excursion and we’re also going to an out-of-state park where 1100 carved jack-o-lanterns will be on display in the evening. So, autumn did seem like the logical choice for today. Then I looked at the date this blog was assigned – October 14 – my grandmother’s birthday, 127 years after the day she was born. And the topic of strong women came to mine. Priscilla Dosler Copp White was a strong woman, and probably the most influential woman in my life.
She was a little German lady, born of German-English heritage. Raised in a tiny Pennsylvania Dutch community, she didn’t have much opportunity to become educated. Her schooling ended with 3rd grade, around age 8. She hadn’t learned math yet, but she taught herself in later years. And she hadn’t learned to write either, but again, she taught herself. She also taught herself to spell and to read because she valued education. Which is why, in later years, she took in laundry, scrubbed other people’s floors, did sewing—anything to save money to put each of her five children through college at a time this country’s economy had crashed.
Nana, as I called her, married young. She was 17, but that was expected of young girls in 1906. Marry young, have children, cook, clean—that was pretty much their lot in life back then. Nana did all that. Plus, she was a mid-wife. No, she didn’t have any formal training, but all the pregnant ladies in her tiny town turned to her to help them through pregnancy and childbirth. Or when they had the flu. Or needed stitches. Even when I was a kid and someone in our neighborhood had a medical crisis, they came to Nana.
On Sundays, Nana played the piano at the local Lutheran church. She also made all the choir robes and laundered them, directed the choir, arranged flowers for the altar, swept the floors, made sure the hymnals were in proper repair, fixed Sunday dinner for the pastor and his family, and called on people in her congregation who were ill. Every day of the week, she fed the “hobos” as she called them, telling me that her fence post was marked so anyone who needed a meal knew to stop by her house. She always had a pot of beans on cooking for down-and-out strangers who needed to eat. And she fixed daily meals for a number of shut-ins in her neighborhood. Sometimes she cooked for as many as five different families, as well as her own. She lived with us when I was growing up, and put the best German meals on the table you could ever want. In fact, she was still cooking right up until her death. Feeding her family was one of the great joys of her life.
Nana sewed, too. Beautifully. I was the best-dressed kid anywhere. But she didn’t just sew for me. She sewed for what she called “the poor people.” If she needed two yards of fabric for a dress, she’d buy four, make two dresses, and donate one. She darned socks because one hole didn’t mean it should be thrown away. Made curtains, bedspreads and tablecloths because the prices you paid for them in the stores were disgraceful. She re-upholstered furniture because why throw out a perfectly good chair when it wore out when you could just put new fabric on it? And she turned any and everything into lamps, or storage containers, or tables. The little table sitting next to my office chair was part of a kitchen set we had when I was a kid. She cut off the back, upholstered it and added ball fringe (her trademark). It’s been a functional piece of furniture in my life more years than I’ll admit.
And, a spotless house—oh, my gosh, was she a housekeeper! I remember when I first left home, I wasn’t so tidy about my own apartment. But Nana would walk to my apartment several times a week (she never learned to drive) just to clean for me, do my laundry, stock my fridge, and do all the things she’d done for me my entire life. This was quite a chore for someone in her 80s, but that was Nana. Always busy. Always taking care of the people she loved. It was her love, not just for her family but for everyone she knew, that made her so strong, I believe.
Nana never held a regular job. She was a happily-married homemaker for 53 years, and after my grandfather died, she moved in with my family to take care of us. Quite honestly, I don’t remember a time in my young life when Nana wasn’t there. Of course, there were those big, explosive times when she was there too much—as in, she was one heck of a disciplinarian. Nana didn’t speak German around the house, even though she was raised in a German-speaking home herself. But when I got in trouble and heard the words – Gott im Himmel! – coming from her, it was time to run. I was in deep, deep trouble and there’s nothing scarier than a 93 pound, feisty German woman who is on the warpath.
Reminiscing aside, Nana had one accomplishment in her life, other than her family, she was most proud of. My tiny little grandmother was a suffragette. She started her march for women’s right to vote in 1915, and kept on marching until 1919, when women in the United States were given that right. Her first ballot was cast in 1920, and she never missed voting in an election after that. She told me she’d worked too hard, for too long, to be considered equal, to throw it all away. To me, that made her more than my grandmother. It made her my hero. I think it made her a hero to women in general, too, because women like her made it possible for women like us to be us—women who are able to choose our destinies, whether it be staying at home to take care of our families, writing books, heading up international corporations or running for political office.
So today, on Nana’s birthday, I think about who I am, and about who so many other women are because of people like my grandmother. She had her place in this world. It was in her home, taking care of other people. Maybe that’s why I became a nurse. It was in her church, playing the piano. Maybe that’s why I became a musician. It was in teaching herself, by the light of an oil lamp, how to read and write. Maybe that’s why I became a writer. It was in marching for something she believed in. Maybe that’s why I became an advocate for equality.
Happy Birthday, Nana!