She died when I was barely three, so I never knew her. Born Ada Anderson, my grandmother, Grammer Aten, grew up on a farm near Camden, Illinois. After graduating from the one-room schoolhouse in Camden, she wanted desperately to attend college in nearby Macomb, but her father, Charles, felt educating daughters in a large family was a luxury he was not willing to indulge.
So, in an effort to determine her own destiny, a teenaged Ada, glossy auburn hair piled up and secured with combs, slipped out of the farmhouse one hot July afternoon and took the train alone to Macomb. For one week, she trudged door to door, asking to exchange room and board for housework in order to attend the university without financial assistance from her parents. Unfortunately, most people in that small midwestern community knew Charles Anderson as a substantial landowner who could afford to send his daughter to college if he chose to, so no one was inspired to help.
In her disappointment, Ada returned to Camden to repeat the 12th grade for the sheer joy of learning, hanging on as long as possible to the final chapter of her formal education. Soon after that, she met Dwight Aten, whose father had given him a simple choice. If you want more schooling, sell your horse for tuition or stay on the farm. Horse won that debate. He stayed, married Ada, and they began my family, my mother being the last of their three children.
Years later, it was mother who was able to fulfill Grammer Aten’s dream by being admitted to Western Illinois University on a partial scholarship. Back on the farm, Grammer Aten sewed clothes for wealthy women in town, a necessary supplement to make ends meet, but in the evenings, she sewed exquisite dresses for every college dance and posted them to mother in brown paper parcels.
Pictures of those days, although black and white, reveal lace trim, intricate detailing, hand-covered buttons and a thousand stitches. Each dress mother slipped on testified to Ada’s joy that her youngest daughter could live out her own deferred longing. My parents met in the spring of their freshman year in the university library, and reportedly, until they graduated, partying classmates cleared the floor when they danced.
After Grammer Aten died, Grandpa Aten came east to visit us a few times. He’d ride the train from Chicago to Baltimore, and we would meet him at the B&O Station. With little familiarity to bind us, I was self-conscious as I greeted the tall, silent farmer in the straw hat—his summer shirt so thin that I could see the scoop of this undershirt through it.
I’d approach, and he’d raise his fists in a mock boxing pose as if to playfully engage me in an exchange for which he had no words. Maybe I was supposed to shadowbox with the kind old man who loved my mother and therefore, me, but I would smile and move out of range, not knowing what was expected of me. Later, he’d try again—suggesting with a wink that I search his suitcase, where I’d discover packs of Juicy Fruit gum amidst red Prince Albert tobacco tins.
Like Grammer Aten before him, Grandpa Aten did more than he said in the name of love. He spent most of his visits doing difficult jobs for my mother, who was now raising three daughters alone. He’d repair the pasture fence or spend days at treacherous heights trimming tree branches so she could see the river from the house. He worked, as he loved, in unobtrusive silence.
After my mother died, I was going through boxes of her papers, her journals, her poetry, and I came across a file with my name on it. Inside, I discovered perhaps 20 thin carbon copies of letters she had written without my awareness and on my behalf when I was 17.
Letter after letter began, “My daughter Laura has been accepted to college, and we are $250 short of the first year’s tuition.” The letters asked for a small loan. Or applied for a grant. Or explored work/study programs. Letter after letter to bank after bank. I was astonished. I had already applied for every conceivable scholarship and didn’t know we had fallen short. She had left me blissfully unaware that summer before college that I was in jeopardy of being unable to attend.
My mother did a lot for me throughout my life—reupholstering a truly ratty sofa in 90-degree heat in Norfolk without air conditioning comes to mind— but I had no idea how hard she worked behind the scenes to help me carry on the legacy of my grandmother’s love of learning. To borrow from Nikos Kazantzakis, a parent is a bridge over which they invite their children to cross then, having facilitated their crossing, joyfully collapses. My grandmother was a bridge, my mother was a bridge, and I’m betting you have been a bridge as well.
A couple of years ago, I had a phone call session with a skilled and experienced medium. I listened to him share whatever images he was seeing, repeat whatever words were coming to him. It was fascinating, entertaining, fun. But it became something more when he repeated verbatim what I had whispered to my mother on her deathbed, something no one in this world could possibly know. He paused for a beat, then asked, “Who is Ada? I just heard the name “Ada’.”
And I said, “Wow.”
“Does it make sense that I am seeing her on a farm?” he continued.
Ada, who never saw an ocean, who did not know the universe is expanding, that the stars shining over the moonlit cornfields are already gone. Yes. He would have seen her on a farm.
“She watches over you,” he added and moved on.
I was thinking about those unknown, unsung acts of devotion from this side of life and the next. Unprovable, most never to be discovered or appreciated. Is it possible that I never knew Ada, but Ada knows me? That you are loved and attended by ancestors, not bound by the mystery of time?
You must be the recipient of so much indiscernible love because it is bestowed silently and freely within the loving energy in which you live– gifts of love that exist as breath is to air. It occurs to me that it is much like this:
We barely notice that blue is the rarest color in nature, living out our entire lives beneath the gift of all that sky
Laura J. Oliver is an award-winning developmental book editor and writing coach, who has taught writing at the University of Maryland and St. John’s College. She is the author of The Story Within (Penguin Random House). Co-creator of The Writing Intensive at St. John’s College, she is the recipient of a Maryland State Arts Council Individual Artist Award in Fiction, an Anne Arundel County Arts Council Literary Arts Award winner, a two-time Glimmer Train Short Fiction finalist, and her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her website can be found here.
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