It’s impossible to sum up 94 years of a beautiful life into a few short words. So instead, what I’d like to do is just talk to my children, and tell them about their great-grandmother’s life, what an inspiring person she’s been to me, and what they should carry with them.
Gustava was born into a humble life in rural Louisiana just before the United States entered World War I. To the daughter of a sharecropper, however, such world events were only distant tales. Her family would rent from one land owner or another, moving from place to place with the work. The places where she lived weren’t referred to by town or zip code, but rather by the name of the property owner. The Hodge Place. The Richard Reynold Place. The Buck Evans House. The Neal Place.
She was a middle child in a family of five sisters and one brother. Childhood toys for her included a piano that she built from an old apple crate with pieces of wood attached to rubber bands for keys. Popular music for her was found in church hymnals. There was only one car in the entire town, a luxury owned by the town’s doctor. The only journal she had was writing in the margins of a hymnal retired from the church her family attended. In the margins she would write down the date and what she was doing on the rare occasion that an airplane would fly over her house.
She would ride to school five miles away in a two-seat surrey driven by one of her older sisters Myrtle or Irene. But by the eighth grade her father’s declining health forced her to abandon school to finish bringing in the crop. She took a job working for a school teacher family. Though the work was hard–milking cows before daylight, washing and boiling clothes in a pot, starching and ironing linen suits–it was one of the most wanted jobs in Manifest, and one of the highest paying at $15 per month.
In February of 1941 she married a man who would serve as a town alderman and owner of an auto parts store. The family had two daughters: the first just days after the United States became involved in World War II, and another following in 1948. Despite many difficulties in marriage she always saw fit to do what was right for her family with a sense of pride and dignity. Those words describe how she approached life: She clung to living a simple and dignified life with an innate stubbornness. Nothing was more important than living a life of self-respect. She knew that when those things were attended to, in faith to God, all other things seemed to fall into place.
She found beauty in simple things: flowers, a well kept yard, and the designs of Depression-era glassware that she collected with her best friend, Mazelle. Together, the two of them shared a hobby of making trips to seedier neighborhoods to find people willing to sell their wares. Both remarked that it was a wonder they made it through some of those trips.
But my memories of her of course come later in her life. They are of a strong, independent woman retired from her career at K-Mart, living in a small, tidy duplex apartment. Spending the night with her in her apartment was a highlight of my childhood. We would sing songs together, go walking on the railroad track that ran beside her apartment, or take trips to go fishing or to garage sales. Never for a moment losing her mothering spirit, she would make sure that my hair was dry after a bath by making me sit in front of the heater vent, and that I wasn’t getting too cold at night by covering me up after she thought I had fallen asleep. Even as a widowed woman on retirement income, she always provided for my family when we couldn’t always provide for ourselves. She made sure that I had respectable clothes to wear and supplies to bring to school. Of course, as a boy I never truly appreciated those shopping trips, and always wanted to try to push the limit of what she was willing to buy me into what I thought was in style for school. She never once lost patience with me for that.
She would always spend the night with us on Christmas Eve, and those Christmases were special indeed. She approached the holiday with a wonder that was on my level. Leading us in Christmas carols while we sat sipping eggnog, illuminated only by the tree and the special candles that we would burn once yearly on Christmas Eve. She kept us curious in where Santa Claus might be delivering presents at, but never at the expense of recognizing that we were celebrating the birth of Christ.
Even as she encouraged that nearly every dream I had was reachable, she planted the seeds that I would reach goals only through hard work. I guess you could say that she gave me my first summer job, paying me to come and mow her lawn, even though the service could have been provided to her for free. When I offered to do it for free for her, she refused and paid me anyway. I was encouraged by her pride in me to go to college and stick with it through graduation. We both found it rewarding that my college was minutes from her apartment, and every day I had classes she would cook lunch for us both.
She leaves behind a legacy of life lessons for all of us: Never use anything that life throws at you as an excuse to live without self-respect. Value hard work. Live simply. Live with dignity. And live in faith.