Today would have been the 100th birthday of my Grandma Helen, the first and strongest single mother I’ve ever known. She’s been gone 33 years and not a day goes by that I don’t think of her and miss her.
There were four children in my father’s family – his older sister Corinne, my Dad, and younger sisters Judy and Mary Pat (Patty). When my grandfather died of lung cancer, Corinne was married with two children and Dad was out of the house and in the Marines. Judy was still in high school and Patty was still a very young girl.
More than 50 years ago – decades before divorce was standard and single parenthood was an option on the United States census – Helen Rossiter was a widow and single mother.
I never really thought of her in that way. My time with my grandmother was short – she died in a store fire in Des Moines in 1978 – but every minute I spent with her was precious. She was the quintessential “Grandma.” When my brother and I came to spend two weeks with her during the summer – my family had moved to Alaska and that was the only time we got to see her – she always had a chocolate cream pie waiting for my brother and a banana cream pie waiting for me. Breakfast was homemade cake donuts made on her cast iron donut iron – we’d eat them still hot with grape jelly. (The iron disappeared after her death and I’ve spent literally decades trying to find one similar.)
Afternoons were spent at the cemetery across the street from Grandma’s house, feeding the geese and the swans in the pond. She’d always save the heels of bread loaves – along with a few extra pieces – for us to take the geese.
My brother and I always slept with Grandma as children – even though I was 11 and he was 8 the last summer we were there – and she would sing us to sleep while rubbing our backs. Songs like “Someone’s in the Kitchen with Dinah” and “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” will forever be etched in my mind.
Grandma taught me to love Iowa thunderstorms; we would always get at least one good storm while we were at her house, and we’d sit out on her front step and watch it roll in.
I was just 11 when Grandma died, but it seems I had so much more time with her than I actually did. She epitomized “family” for me. Dad was the only one of the four siblings who didn’t live in Des Moines, so when we came back to Iowa it seems like the entire time was a giant family reunion – cousins would come over, my brother and I would go see them at their houses, there were picnics, parties, swimming, trips to Adventureland (when it was about the size of a Casey’s parking lot) and games of hide ‘n seek and tag.
Even now, we try to get as many of us together as possible at least once a year. Cousins, their children and grandchildren, as well as my Dad and his three sisters, all gather in a big Rossiter reunion (we’re the easiest family to spot – look for an area filled with redheads and that’s likely us!).
My memories of my grandmother have idealized her, I know. She wasn’t without faults – no one is – and the older I get the more I’ve come to recognize some of them. But none of them take away what she meant to me, what she’s created in our extended family and the strength of that legacy of family she’s left behind.
Happy birthday, Grandma. Love and miss you lots.