My Eulogy to Granny, the Isern Matriarch
I’ve written about my Granny more than any other subject. She’s appeared in multiple blogs and stories, the fierce whiskey drinking heroine that tells the world to be ornery. As her eldest grandchild, I wanted to read something at her memorial this weekend and I am, for once, having a hard time with words. What do I say about someone that has shaped my life? What can I say to an audience that has flown in from New Delhi, driven up from Kansas, and braved the Montana snow to come and give their regards to such an amazing and spirited woman?
Do I recite Granny’s favorite phrases such as “Stay fat and sassy” and laugh at her suspicion of the slight framed?
Do I show the audience how to play her type of cards? Perhaps poker, a game I learned at age six, and then, as she taught, deviously take everyone’s money?
Or do I talk about her travels around the globe? And how after walking around her home filled with collectibles from far off lands I vowed I’d someday see all the places that she had? This was likely because I was never allowed to touch her collectibles (or really anything in her house), so I figured I’d better go and get some myself.
I could also talk about my visit last summer where I rented a convertible. She hopped in and said, “Well-lets you and I get into some trouble. Let’s cruise the streets and look for boys.”
I have a lifetime of Granny stories and hilarious quotes, many full of profanity. However, to tell them all you’d be here for six more hours. And to tell you what she meant to me would result in an emotional breakdown. Therefore I’ll keep it simple and recount a portion of an interview I had with her a few years ago when I was preparing for a book of short stories about interesting lives. Dolores Isern had one of the more intriguing.
An Excerpt Granny’s Life: From an interview in October, 2010
I went into my Granny’s old barn style home, hollering my entrance so that she could hear me. As she came to the door I noticed that she was stubbornly refusing to use her walker. “It’s for old people,” she said in disgust. Never mind that Granny was in her 80s. The feisty woman gave me a hearty hug and asked me again why I was here and what we were doing.
“We are going to that soup place for lunch, Granny,” I said. “But I am not taking you unless you put on your foot brace and use your walker.” After a long heated argument, she finally relented and shoved the metal assistant in front of her, cursing under her breath. “Well I hate this damn thing…”
Assistance wasn’t a favored word in Granny’s vocabulary. After all, she had lived on her own for most of her life. She was a true self-reliant woman-she left a comfortable past to pioneer a rugged land, battle hard times, and at the end, emerge on top.
So where do we start? From the rich beginning.
Granny’s father, my great grandfather Henri, was a Texas Oil Barron and diplomat to countries in Latin America. In fact, we still have a letter from Woodrow Wilson to him, saved in a large photo album, corners now yellow with age. Granny’s mother, my great grandmother known as Mom B, was a beautiful Kansas dame who ‘never worked a day in her life.’
As I helped Granny get into a chair for lunch she told me about her past.
Granny said, “While most people were struggling in the 1930’s, I didn’t even know there was a depression. We always had more than enough food back then. Oh, darn did we eat high on the hog.” And then she repeated the phrase my great grandmother Mom B used to say at grace, a phrase we still recite embarrassedly every Thanksgiving “Eee gads. Well, I wonder what the poor folk are eatin’ tonight?!’”
However, luck soon ran dry. The Texas oil fields didn’t provide enough black gold to replenish my great grandparent’s pockets.
“Well, they probably drank all the money away,” said Granny. “Daddy and Mother liked to live the high life. They spent a year living at the top of the Waldorf Astoria in New York City! They showered money on mink capes and jewelry, and of course booze. They blew all the money he made, and trust me…. they knew how to blow money. It was easy come-easy go.”
After a lot of the money was good and gone, my great grandmother took her children back to her parent’s house in Great Bend. Kansas, leaving Granny’s father. ‘”I never knew what happened,” said Granny. “They never divorced but my motther preferred to live with her parents while he traveled all over the world. He would write us long letters, beautifully written, and send me dresses. However, I never really knew the man. I never knew my father.”
Perhaps it was that fact that made it easier to leave Kansas. After high school my Granny eloped with her childhood friend, my Grandfather (also referred to as Grandpa Dick), and traveled to Montana, never once looking back on her old life.
“Well, we got married on a bet,” said Granny. “There was a whole gang of us that used to go around together. We would spend our evenings driving around Great Bend, chatting, chewing the fat. One night Dick was told to settle down and get married. He said ‘Well there is only one person I’d marry’ and pointed to me. Well, I about fell out of my chair.” Granny shifted and almost fell out of her chair again.
“The ‘gang’ made a bet that we wouldn’t do it and so we drove over to a small chapel and got married on the spot.” Instead of a fancy wedding dress, my Granny was wearing jeans and a plaid shirt.
I asked my Granny what her parents thought of the marriage. “Oh, they raised hell,” she said. But Granny was happy. “Dick was damn handsome and smart. Plus he provided something different.”
Soon after their impromptu elopement, the two went up to Montana, falling in love with the widespread acres of adventure. “We would go fishing, camping hiking almost every weekend! We both liked living up north in the mountains. Kansas was so flat you were lucky if you saw a bump!” said Granny.
My dashing and smart Grandpa Dick was also a drinker and a ladies man. “He would always sache around with other ladies leaving me at home with the children. After a while I couldn’t take it anymore,” said Granny. After 13 years of marriage, she divorced him, deciding to raise her three children on her own. “I got a job with the Pacific Oil Development Company and asked my mother, Mom B to come up and help me with the kids while I worked hard to ensure we had food on the table.”
Despite her childhood from the land of plenty, food on the table in Montana wasn’t always a given. In an era when child support laws were not enforced, Granny didn’t always have enough money to provide for her family. My great aunt Tess, Granny’s sister, occasionally sent her money from the south to ensure they could eat and pay the heating bill. The phrase, ‘I wonder what the poor folk are eatin’ tonight’ stopped being funny.
Although Mom B was there to help with the children and house, her alcoholic tendencies were sometimes more of a burden than a help. My father remembers her decked out in layers of fur coats and diamonds, wandering around the house in a whisky induced haze. She couldn’t deal with the fact that all the money was gone and instead living in the Waldorf eating caviar she was in Montana living with her daughter, eating beans. Granny told me, “She had a problem…if she had one sip of the stuff she was a goner.” Apparently she was a goner most of the time.
Granny wasn’t one to let alcoholism affect her life, but her stint with poverty did. Before we left for lunch I had cleaned out her fridge of spoiling food. To this day she still cannot bear to throw anything away. “Aren’t you going to finish your soup?” she said, pointing at three measly minestrone pieces left in my bowl, sticking to the side. “You better not waste that.”
I forced the soggy macaroni bits down my throat and asked for the bill. Granny almost fainted when she saw the amount. She must have thought we were still in 1959. She yelled at the waitress. “What?! 14 dollars? You mean to tell me that our lunch here cost 14 whole dollars?! Well I’ll be damned……”
Granny wasn’t necessarily always cheap, but she was prudent. By working hard and stretching every penny until it screamed, Granny managed to turn her own bust into a boom. Once her kids left, she started to invest in the stock market, making enough for a small travel fund. “I figured if I was going to work every day than I would give myself a vacation every year. I really wanted to see the world.” And after years of being confined to a drafty house in Billings, Montana, Granny used her stock market proceeds to see warmer climates like South Korea and Egypt.
We left the Soup Café and slowly walked back home. As we entered the house she immediately abandoned the walker in revolt and teetered through her house, pointing to all the porcelain statues she had collected from her travels. “I got to see so much!” she exclaimed.
I smiled at her and acknowledged that she had a great life.
“You know I hate people that complain in life,” she said. I watched our family money disappear, got divorced, raised three kids alone, and took care of my alcoholic mother. But you know what—I had a great life! I raised three great kids and got to see the world! I did it all and I have no regrets.” And my Granny pointed to a hand stitched picture she made that said,“Kwitcherbellyachin” and laughed.