Monday, October 26, 2009


When my grandpa Martin passed away, I wrote down a few facts and memories about him, and enjoyed doing that. So I thought I'd do the same for my Grandma Clark. Here are some of the things I know about my grandma, Mary Anne Fenton Clark.

She was born in Kansas on a very hot August day right in the middle of threshing time. Her mother had spent the whole day cooking for the threshing crew, and then gave birth that evening. Great-Grandma was a strong woman, and she passed that quality along to Grandma.

Grandma was the baby of her large family, and she was doted on by all her siblings. I remember taking her to visit her older sister Helen years ago, and my 88-year-old Aunt Helen hugged my 76-year-old Grandma, and called her "baby sister."

One of Grandma's first memories was sitting on her older brother Lewis's knee at mealtimes. The other children sat on benches at the table, but Lewis, who was twelve years older than Grandma, felt that the bench was too hard for her to sit on. She was very much loved and cherished by her parents and siblings. I think this gave her a core of strength that she was able to draw on for the rest of her life.

As a farm girl, she was responsible for herding the cows along the road and keeping them out of the hedgerows. But she would carry along a book and sometimes get so engrossed that the cows would get away from her. She told me she spent a lot of time chasing cows out of fields.

When Grandma was fifteen, her family moved from Kansas to the area where her father had grown up, in northeastern Missouri. They bought a farm, and Grandma stayed behind in Kansas until the school year was done. Then she traveled to Missouri with her father and her brother Walter in an old Model A, with her cat and kittens tucked in beside her.

After high school, Grandma taught at three different one-room country schools, and taught at another one a few years after she was married. She taught grades 1 through 8, all in one room. My dad's cousin Raymond told me, at the calling hours, how he had come to school as a new kid from out of town in the fourth grade and how Grandma had looked after him and made a fuss over him. She told me she enjoyed teaching and that the kids always worked hard for her.

In her early twenties, Grandma married Marion Clark, whose family farm was adjacent to her parents' farm. I am not sure what drew her to a man who was more than 20 years her senior. Her sister Florence had married Grandpa's brother Elmer, and the families were friends as well as neighbors. But it has always seemed like a strange match to me.

Grandpa and Grandma had a difficult life together. Grandpa's recurrent health problems meant there was very, very little money coming in, and Grandpa was not an easy man to be married to--erratic, stubborn, hot-tempered. They lived in a tiny house with no indoor plumbing. They had five children, and after sixteen or seventeen years, and my youngest aunt's birth, Grandma had had enough. She moved herself and the children out, worked and eventually put herself through nursing school, and divorced Grandpa. Living in a time and in a culture where divorce was uncommon, it took a lot of courage for her to strike out on her own and find a new path for herself.

My parents and I lived around the corner from Grandma until I was almost six years old, when we moved to Ohio, so Grandma was very much a part of my earliest childhood. I remember her as always in motion, bustling around. She still had two kids living at home when I was small, and was working nights full-time, so it's no wonder she was in motion!

She seemed happiest to me when she had as many kids and grandkids as possible crammed around her small kitchen table. She'd feed us big meals, and if you stopped eating to take a breath, she was right there: "What can I get you?"

My brother told me that one of his girls opened a box of Froot Loops the other day and the smell made him instantly think of Grandma. We always knew that there were Pop-Tarts and "sugar cereal" (treats we rarely got) awaiting us at Grandma's house. She loved to spoil us, but she wouldn't hesitate to gently correct us if we needed it. Often it just took a look.

She had this little two-beat chuckle she'd make in her throat whenever she was amused by the foibles of her fellow human beings. She was amused often.

Her life was not easy, but Grandma was a contented person. She often talked about how blessed she was in her life. I never sensed a smidgen of self-pity in her, even when her body began to fail her and her life became more restricted. She had a deep faith in God and a firm belief that He was guiding her and providing for her. She liked to tell stories. She was quick to see the humor in things.

She was one of the strongest people I have ever known--pragmatic, practical, matter-of-fact. She worked nights as a nurse, first at a hospital, then at a nursing home, until she was 75 years old. She said, "Someone has to take care of all those old people!" Many of her nursing home patients were younger than she was.

Her co-workers told us about how she guided them as young nurses through the stressful times at work, brought them cookies, sewed them baby blankets, gave them advice, bragged on her family, rejoiced when her first great-grandchild was born. She expected the nurses she worked with to put in just as much effort as she did, and they did, because they cared what she thought about them. I think everyone who knew her wanted Grandma to have a good opinion of them.

She crocheted afghans and blankets and tatted doilies. I have a quilt she made for me, and a pile of crocheted snowflakes which I'll hang on my Christmas tree again this year. She loved romance novels and Christian fiction. She always had stacks of books for me to read when we came to visit. She was passionate about genealogy and compiled binders full of names and facts and photos for both her family and Grandpa's family.

She gave hugs that were so tight you could almost feel your bones squeak, and kissed you so hard you wondered if there was a dent in your cheek afterwards.

I'm not sure what qualities I inherited from Grandma...I am far less strong and far more of a whiner than she ever was, but I do feel I received some of her ability to take great pleasure in small things, her love of family and history, and her talent for cutting through the bullshit, although she never would have said "bullshit" or even "b.s." She would have said "nonsense."

I was privileged to have several long conversations with her in the past ten years or so, about her life and her family and her memories. I don't feel like I got to have enough time with her, living as far away from her as I always have, but I will always cherish the moments I did get to spend with her. She was very precious to me and I am so grateful to have had her in my life for as long as I did.