We Should Listen to Our Grandparents Life Story Essay Example
Marion Shepard doesn’t think she’ll make it to Christmas. These days, the vivacious octogenarian living in York, Pennsylvania plays the waiting game. Being alive physically hurts, and she knows the end is approaching. Recently, she has had a lot of time to dwell on her past. It’s risky to ponder on the happenings of one’s life, as disappointment often results, but Shepard divulges the details of her life with repose. “I’m happy you’re doing this, people often regret not asking their grandparents about their life story.” Preserving history is important to her, and she has no intention of leaving anything left unsaid.
As I enter Shepard’s home, greeted by the vigilant yips of a Yorkie named Breezy, a gust of familiarity strokes my face. Her home is exactly the type of home you would expect your grandma to have. The walls are painted yellow, not an inch uncovered by a framed grandchild. The atmosphere is inviting, tinged with gleeful nostalgia, it feels like I’ve been here before.
Breezy leads me to Shepard's bedroom, where she is on her bed, determining which socks to don for the day. She resembles Judi Dench—high cheekbones, a chic pixie cut, and laugh lines that have settled into the crevices of her rose-tinted face. Her age is visible, but not unbecoming. When she stands, my gaze doesn’t rise by much. Even in my most modest heels, I tower over her tiny 4’9 stature. My desire to sit down is palpable.
Swiftly, she directs me into her living room, prompting me to kick my feet up on her sweetly worn-in sofa. She sits beside me, beaming with excited anxiousness.
Eight decades of life have saturated Shepard with the range of emotions Shakespeare had in his entire oeuvre. There is love and divorce and birth and death, and in all these things, pain and laughter. Yet, Shepard embraces every aspect of it, eagerly awaiting to prepare young adult women like me, on the brink of catapulting out into the world, that life is what you make it.
“I’m ready when you are.”
She starts at the beginning.
Shepard was born in the summer of 1932, when the only identity she’d known was Marion Davis. Bread cost seven cents, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was comin’ in hot, and a quarter of the country was desperately seeking employment. Panic invaded even the most unflappable of minds during the Great Depression, but Shepard says “You took more in your stride and dealt with it as best you could.” She was also just a kid, and the way she lived in those days was the only way she knew how.
Her childhood was spent in a small apartment complex in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. Inhabited by Jews, Germans, Italians, Slavs, and Welshes (Shepard’s primary ethnicity), and owned by a Syrian couple consisting of a straight-laced husband and mischievous wife who never missed an opportunity to teach her little brothers, Bill and Allen, every curse word in her native language, the apartment complex is where Shepard learned the virtue of unity. “We all got along, it was a time of greater cooperation.”
Shepard wishes she could go back to those times, even just for a little while. Mainly because she misses her parents. Rigorous work in the coal mines resulted in her father, Edwin, contracting black lung, a respiratory disease that’s like “taking a rubber band and stretching it, and it never stretches back.” Shepard recalls following her father around their apartment, hopelessly attempting to be his surrogate breather. Inevitably, she failed, and after a long battle, he died in the mid-50s.
Her mother’s death hit her harder. Shepard’s mother, Edna, was responsible for making life during the lamentable days of economic ruin seem easy. “She was the magician with managing how to make a little bit go far.” Homemaker was the title most women accepted during the Depression, which is a shame, Shepard believes, because her mother was a master with the crochet needle. She could have made a career out of it. “I would get it too loose or too tight—she just did it perfectly.” A lace factory owner offered her mother 200 dollars (nearly 3000 when adjusted for inflation) for one of her creations, but she never took the money.
Rheumatoid arthritis ultimately stole Shepard’s mother’s last breath. “That was a punishment for all that knitting as far as I was concerned” says Shepard. The illness, which causes painful swelling in the joints, prevented her from living her life comfortably. By the late 50s, she was gone too.
Regret plagues Shepard’s mind. Deep regret. The kind you can’t shake. “I wish I helped my mother more, but I guess hindsight’s 20/20.”
Losing her mother wasn’t the most gut-wrenching affliction Shepard endured. Around the same time as her mother’s passing, she would experience the trauma of miscarriage for the first time. And shortly after, for a second time. Shepard says she doesn’t talk about it much, no one does. Suppressing the memories was for survival—a fight against perpetual sadness. But now she’s older, and she’s ready to talk about it.
Breezy, who has been fairly dormant throughout our chat, starts up, barking loud enough for the stars above to hear. Breezy knows her owner well, and can sense in Shepard’s demeanor that these details are tough for her to disclose, but her attempts to halt the conversation founder.
Motherhood wasn’t something she particularly yearned for as a child, it kind of just fell upon her. Her daughter Dalinda was born in May of 1955. Three years later, she was pregnant with twin boys. However, seven months in, Shepard was rushed to the hospital, and suddenly, the twins were gone. They tragically drowned in the womb. She went home—she could rest easier there. A year goes by, and Shepard was expecting a girl. It was approaching 10 months when she heard an unsettling thud. “It was the worst sound I’d ever heard, I knew something was wrong.” Unfortunately, she was right. Her little girl came out pulseless, choked by her own umbilical cord. At this point, Shepard determined one child would be enough. She couldn’t experience this nightmare again, and she certainly couldn’t do it alone.
She was married, but she felt alone. Shepard husband, Dale, offered nothing more than frigid aloofness.
Dale was 5 years older. They met at a mutual friend’s birthday celebration, and although he wasn’t a conversationalist, which her father loved, they instantly hit it off. Within a year, they married and moved to York. Her marriage was like every marriage in the beginning, “Happy, filled with hope.” Over time, however, he stopped caring. “I wasn’t loved, I wasn’t hated—I was treated with indifference.” Shepard would tell him, “I think a strange woman could get into bed with you and you wouldn’t even notice” When their daughter reached double digits, Dale asked for a divorce. There was no infidelity, and no quest for capital— he just wanted out.
Shepard’s daughter bursts in through the door, warmly introducing herself. Shepard interjects with a serious inquiry. “Did you ever hear your father say I love you?”
“No, not that I can recall”
Shepard shakes her head, pursing her lips in silent disillusionment.
Currently, Shepard says she experiences that strange invisibility that she felt in her marriage. Her best friend, Frank, always says “The older you become, the more invisible you become.” To Shepard, there is not a truer statement.
She gushes about Frank. How they met through work, how they both have granddaughters named Chrissy with twins. It all seemed serendipitous. He sends cards to make her laugh, and they have hour’s long conversations. “She loves Frank,” her daughter says. Shepard pauses, catching the childlike giddiness in her voice. “He and his wife have been married for 54 years, so... ” She lingers, she knows what I am thinking—in a different world, they could have been more than friends, but her eyes tell me it will never happen.
Life for Shepard has always brimmed with ‘what ifs?’
What if Shepard went to college? “I probably would have but I had the sense to not entertain it.” College was a boys club, one which both of her brothers got to join. Her now late brother Bill went, but changed careers in favor of Episcopal priesthood. Her brother Allen went, but didn’t even last a year. Currently, Shepard says you can find Allen rattling off every piece of baseball trivia known to man. For herself, a lack of higher education didn’t hinder her finding a lucrative career. For 20 years, Shepard was a medical transcriptionist at York Hospital at night and sold insurance at Travelers in the daytime. Then she took a job at Teamsters, the largest labor union in the United States. She is happy with her career, she insists, but in retrospect, if she would have known, she would have been a medical librarian. There was a lot of that, “if I would have just known,” Shepard was part of a bygone era where young girls were robbed of ambition.
These days, life is more of a struggle for Shepard. She is legally blind due to Macular Degeneration, and only one of her ears work semi-properly. She has Charles Bonnet Syndrome, a disease that inundates its victims with constant visual hallucinations. “I’ll see something straight out of a Dickens novel.” It's not real, she’s aware, but nevertheless, it’s scary. “I’m Helen Keller in training,” she chuckles affectionately, landing with a somber smile. “At least I don’t have Alzheimer's.” Shepard jerks her head up, whispering a quick prayer to God, hoping she didn’t just jinx herself.
In June, Shepard turns 87. Death is the elephant no one wants to acknowledge. Her great granddaughter, Erica, revealed to me that she doesn’t think she can make it, she is tired of struggling. Yet, every morning, she still gets up—childlike hope still shines through. Despite the tribulations Shepard has gone through, she was adamant about this:
“Life cannot always be good, and it certainly can’t always be bad, but if you ever think you can’t make it? Don’t be so sure.”