Notes to Grandma

Jeannette Lee (My grandma)

As we watched grandma grow more fragile over the past few weeks, we couldn’t help but think a lot about luck.  As she lay on that bed and sat in her chair, she somehow still had the presence to tell a good story and laugh at her own disheveled hair.  There were times we actually forgot how sick she really was and considered her luckier than anyone.  I mean, six weeks ago, she tailgated at a White Sox game and met their pitching coach.  She had lived 97 years in her own home, had a long relationship with a loving husband, known the pride of being a mother, enjoyed countless friendships, and in the end, she wouldn’t die alone.  Certainly, she must be one of the luckiest women in the world.  Except that luck had nothing to do with it.

Grandma was born in 1909, a time when the streets bustled with horse drawn carriages, women couldn’t vote, and the average age expectancy for a woman was 47 years old.  She always spoke of her childhood with such fondness.  I remember her telling a funny, yet dangerous story, of when her brother saved her from jumping out of her second story bedroom window—always adventurous and with only an umbrella in her hand, she remembered wanting desperately to see if she could fly.  I imagine her, as a tiny girl, with tremendous spirit—doing what boys do, playing the games her brothers played—Annie-I-over, kick the can…laughing together in the backyard of their home, where grandma was born and resided in for 85 years.  Although she was the baby girl, born into a family of 3 brothers, I doubt seriously she was ever babied—No; Jeannette Bollinger always could take care of herself.

By the time she graduated high school, most women were not going to college and the cost of a stamp was only $.02, which, as we all know, Jeannette would have appreciated.  Never typical, however, my grandma was off to college.  She began her journey at Northern Illinois State Teachers College where, believe it or not at only 4’10”, she played basketball.  In uniform skirts covering her ankles grandma was the best point guard on the court.  Apparently, the girl’s team won more games than the boys.  But with Jeannette on the team, are we really surprised?  Later, she transferred to Ohio State University, but ultimately received her degree from the University of North Dakota in physical education with a minor in art.  Later in life, she would be prepared to run the Sycamore Community Center and even illustrate a book that is still available at the Sycamore Public Library.  Jeannette would also live through the trying and hungry times of the great depression.  I believe these years defined her immensely…there must be some reason she would always tip 15%, even if that meant the waitress only received a quarter.

Jeannette was 29 years old the day she went car shopping, ready to purchase her own vehicle, with her own money.  She had yet to marry, but did hold a college degree and a forward mind, both things that would serve her well the day she bought that car, because the honest and friendly man who sold it to her,  would turn out to be the man she was married to for 55 years.  Even though, in her later years, she was known for hassling younger adults about when they would settle down and marry, Jeannette didn’t walk down that aisle until she was 30 years old.  I remember her telling me, a while back, to never settle for anyone.  She was proud that she waited long to marry.  She was proud she did it right.  I like to think she just had too much life to live, too many things to accomplish, before she could fall in love.  Because she knew, once she did, that her whole world would change, even if it was for the better.

I imagine Jeannette fell hard for Charles W. Lee, a man that was as hard working as he was handsome.  They married and four years later welcomed their first daughter, Janet.  As World War II raged on, Grandpa was gone for two years.  Grandma’s fortitude and perseverance must have come in handy as she raised her little baby and took care of her ailing mother.  Shoveling coal in the middle of the night, downstairs in her cold cellar, she must have wondered what she signed up for.  But knowing Jeannette, it was just what you did to get by and it must have palled in comparison to riding her bike, on ice, with Janet in her basket, balancing her grocery bag in one hand and the handlebars in the other.  Years later, our grandparents gave birth to a stillborn son, John.  Losing him must have been excruciating, but it is comforting to know that she now holds him now for the first time.  I envision their passionate faith in God and dedication to St. Peters being integral in helping them have faith they would see him again.  Six years later, the Lee family would welcome their second little girl, Donna, and their family was complete.  Life with the Lee’s was reminiscent of many families’s lives in the 50’s and her adventurous spirit never coward underneath the pressures of raising a family.  Family meals were served promptly three times a day at 8, 12, and 6 and grandma thrived as a wife and a mother.  Together with her husband, they earned the respect and admiration of their friends.  She only tried harder and loved deeper—and found joy in achieving the cleanest kitchen on the block.  Legend has it; she even ironed my grandpa’s underwear.  She relished each moment with her family and only took breaks to attend the yearly charity ball or play cards with her friends.

Out of all of life’s joys, perhaps the moments she remembers most fondly, were those spent with her grandchildren.  Although Jeannette didn’t have her own children until later in life, she never missed any action with the kids.  Growing up, it was a rite of passage for all of us, the day her and grandpa taught us to play gin.  You truly didn’t belong until you knew what a run or a suit was—and she would giggle to no end if one of us actually succeeded in undercutting grandpa.  Much later, when the great and the great-great grandchildren joined our family—she took great pleasure in watching them experience the world—take gambles and fall on their faces.  I can only imagine the visions that must have passed through her head as she watched them take their first steps and share their smiles for the first time.  She had so much to give us all, her experiences, her knowledge—but mostly, she enjoyed watching us figure it out for ourselves.

Her life won’t be left to the story books, it won’t be locked inside of our photo albums, because her laughter resides in our babies giggles, her compassion can be found in the arms of our mothers, her strength thrives in the roars of the crowd at a White Sox game, and hopefully, her spirit flourishes inside us all.

No, a life like this is not about luck.

It’s about hanging strong, because keeping up with your brothers means learning how to be tough and independent.

It’s about studying hard, because even though you are a girl in the 1930’s—you won’t be pushed aside.

It’s about not compromising yourself for anyone, not even to get married by 25, but instead waiting until its right, until it fits.

It’s about being married for 55 years because you know how to compromise, and most of all how to forgive.

It’s about never missing your grandchildren’s sporting events, even in the snow, because that is how you show commitment and support.

It’s about having parties at your house at 94 years old, beating your friends at pool, because…well, that’s just plain fun.

It’s about riding, at 97 years old, with your great-grandchildren in their wagon, because that is how you know to connect to them, how to feel them, how to love them.

It’s about living healthily for 97 years because you remembered to always do your silly exercises and agreed to take all 40 of the vitamins your daughters suggested.

It’s about all the times you held your girls when they cried, because it taught them how to hold you when you didn’t have the strength to lift your head up anymore.

Yes, what it’s about….is a life well lived.  Grandma wasn’t lucky to receive the love and respect of everyone around her—she worked hard for it, she was good at it, she was proud of it.

Thank you, grandma, for showing us everyday…what it is like to live a good life.

No, the lucky ones are those of here today.

7 thoughts on “Notes to Grandma

  1. Hi Mandy! I’m Craig T., the son of your mom’s cousin Linda, so I guess we’re second cousins. I found this lovely piece of writing while doing some family history research on the Lee family. I’d love to connect via email/Facebook if you’re interested. Do let me know . . . cctafel (at)

    Either way, best to you on the road ahead! Hang in there from another branch of the Lee tree!
    -Craig T.

    • I am so glad you found this! Great to hear from you. I only really know details about my grandfather’s family through my mother’s stories. I do remember Swede, and going to visit him, but I was very young. My mom was thrilled to read this comment. Yes, let’s connect!!

  2. Amanda,
    What a joy it was to read about the Aunt Jeannette that I knew and respected (I am your mom’s first cousin, Linda Lee, daughter of Swede and Ole Lee). Your lovely story revealed some intriguing surprises, but none that were inconsistent with Jeannette’s strong support for me over the years as I, too, have lived a complicated and full life! As I remember, every encounter with her was a special time and I left feeling affirmed for what I was doing, what I could do.

    I admire your writing, your honesty, and your bravery. I’m at
    Cousin Linda

    • Hello cousin Linda…

      Great to hear from you. My mom and I had a nice talk about your family on the way to Milwaukee yesterday. She connected a lot of dots for me. It is so nice that you reached out. I would love to connect some more. I most remember your name coming up because I read the details from our family tree that I believe you did when i was very young, I remember using it for a report I once did. I am very into history and how we are all connected!

      Hope you are well and we can chat soon.

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