I’m flying to Michigan today to celebrate one of the many strong women in my life: Grandma Johnson. She died on Saturday at age 95 after 73 years of marriage. I watch a lot of episodes of “Finding Your Roots” and “Who do you think you are?”, enjoying the ways that people stumble across lost relatives. My grandma was never lost. She was a huge part of my childhood, whether she was giving me special attention, or bringing me together with my cousins at her house in Montrose, Michigan, or in her travel trailer, motorhome, or cottage on Saginaw Bay.
Her mother had been a flapper, an army nurse, and a log-cabin builder who had married a one-legged unionist in Flint, before she married a bridge engineer who moved the family from one nickel creek to the next throughout gram’s childhood. When grandma was a senior in high school, she moved into her dad’s apartment in Flint, and used him as a dress model for her home-ec projects, pinning and hemming the fabric to him as he balanced (one-legged) on a chair for her.
Grandma worked in Detroit factories and took care of my toddler mother when grandpa went to fight in the Battle of the Bulge, The Battle of Ramagen, and liberated Paris. He came home to her and they were rarely apart another day. They raised three children and cared for several foster children. Until her late 80’s, they were extraordinary dance partners who loved to meet up with friends for polka, the Lindy, and the jitterbug.
We were a GM family with my uncles eventually running plants and my grandpa getting jobs for my dad in plant security. But grandma in a house dress was at the center of all things. With her signature homemade noodles served with a pressure-cooked roast, slices of white bread with butter, snap peas from her garden, and strawberries from the patch by the shed, she recorded the events of every day, visitors to the house and meal menus on her wall calendar. With delight, she crawled into every new car, preferring the hard to reach seats in the back. She loved a good novel on her hammock in the lawn. She spent hours on her back porch glider, watching birds nest in the bushes, and she radiated a gentle, but very firm, expectance of clean hands, clear words, supreme efforts, and thank you notes. Who do you think you are? I’m her oldest grandson.