The original Edith

When Eric and I discussed names for our Peeper, Edith came up: A charming classic that would honor my great-grandmother. Edith Phelps was my maternal great-grandmother but we all called her Pretty Grandma. No one remembers why, but I imagine the name suited her just fine.

Pretty doesn't do her justice: She was a beautiful person.
Pretty doesn’t do her justice: She was a beautiful person.

In the sixth grade, we all had to create a project on a poster board triptych for a fair. I chose to profile Pretty Grandma. I painstakingly pasted photocopied pictures of her onto the red butcher paper that covered the cardboard. I taped up letters that she had sent me. I displayed an antique stereoscope that belonged to her. On the big day of the fair, I stood by my display and watched as other kids and their families politely smiled as they passed by my project. My hand-lettered title and humble subject weren’t as flashy as the other kids’ work, but I was proud. Even then I knew that she was more important than popularity in a middle school gym. She was an amazing woman.

Pretty Grandma was gentle. I remember lying in her bed in my grandma’s basement surrounded by hand-stitched quilts. She read me Chicken Little—“The sky is falling! The sky is falling!”—before I drifted off to sleep. I felt safe and cozy with her.

Pretty Grandma was tough. She grew up on a farm in Illinois and raised her brothers and sisters. Her stepmother doted on her biological children but treated my great-grandma and her full siblings more like servants. I remember lightly stroking the nub of one shortened finger, evidence of how strong she was: She pricked it while sewing and her stepmother refused to call the doctor when it got infected. It had to be amputated later. She never complained about the stump or the mistreatment she suffered; hardship was a part of life for her, something to be overcome.

Pretty Grandma plays with my brother Bill, always a serious baby.
Pretty Grandma plays with my brother Bill, always a serious baby.

Pretty Grandma was patient. She taught me checkers and never refused a challenge from me. She let me watch Hollywood Squares, her favorite show, with her, even though I was much too little to understand any of the trivia.

Pretty Grandma was resilient. She lived to 106 years and was herself every day. She might not have had her original hair (I walked in on her taking off her wig one day; I was embarrassed, but I don’t think she knew—she had her hearing aid turned off) but she was nothing if not authentic.

Pretty Grandma was loving. She and I wrote letters—and later, when she got older, post cards (they were shorter)—back and forth as soon as I learned the alphabet. I told her about what was happening in my classes, scribbled notes when I was on vacation and asked about her days at home then, later, at the nursing home. She often quoted passages from the Bible; “This is the day the Lord has made; let us be glad and rejoice in it” was a favorite. It reflected her verve and gratitude.

Her letters were full of her passion for nature: She wrote about the changing seasons and the flowers she was growing and what she saw out her window. I couldn’t wait to read her latest message and my eyes pored over her looping and slightly shaky cursive, even though her letters seldom held much news. Her observations of what was blooming, the falling leaves and a snowy landscape were enough.

I hope that someday our Edie Mae will be as gentle, tough, patient, resilient and most of all loving as Pretty Grandma was. The world could use another 106 years of an Edith like her.

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