By Dan Kidney, written in 1995
I never wondered what my grandma’s childhood was like or why she was so optimistic. Even during my early teens, my image of “Granny” was still limited to childhood memories.
When I was in high school, my mom said that Grandma ought to write her memoirs. This struck me as odd. I had never considered Grandma in a historical context – she was just my mother’s mother, the lady with the cat and the cheerful smile.
As a child, I eagerly accepted Grandma’s company and the sugar-coated foods she offered. When I visited her Dexter farm, she always had a bowl of malted milk balls or jelly beans easily accessible to my young hands. (She still does.) Grandma cooked real chocolate pudding and memorable holiday dinners complete with to-die-for dinner rolls.
She enjoyed coming to soccer games and plays that I was in. Her optimism showed through in everything she did. Perhaps the most obvious examples are the names of my mother and my aunt, Joy and Gloria.
I’m glad I had such an idealistic image of my grandma Doris Neal for so long. She was the perfect grandmother–supportive of me and ageless. But the image changed when I asked mom why she thought Grandma should write her memoirs. I grew up a little when she told me.
Mom told how Grandma, then Doris Wilson, was born in a little wooden house during the First World War, the third of [ten] children. Her family moved more than 20 times after losing land during a slump in farm prices after the war and during the Depression.
The Depression was not kind to her family. Whooping cough took the lives of the baby twins, leaving seven children. When I learned how responsible Grandma had felt for her four younger siblings, my respect for her grew. They often ate squirrel or rabbit for dinner. At least once, they only had bread, brown sugar, and water for supper. She never got to go to college, although she got good grades.
Then came World War II. Grandma married a flight instructor who just as the war ended was a B-29 commander scheduled to fly missions over Japan. All five of her brothers served during the war and three never came home – a loss that devastated her family.
She had never let on about any of this to me. Over the months of thinking about Grandma’s history, I have developed a great respect for her.
This woman – who had gone through a lifetime of hard work, hardship, and loss, was the same Grandma who had cooked her special spaghetti for me and came to my choir concerts. She was the amiable grandma that I had always known but was only just now beginning to really see.
Grandma is still as good-natured as ever. We chat over our favorite soup at a local restaurant or play a quick game of cards or try to keep her farmhouse lawn under control. She doesn’t even grab the car’s seat cushions anymore when I take a corner a little too fast with her car.
And after all this time I have yet to hear a gloomy word from her. Those who deserve praise and respect are those who quietly endure under extreme circumstances and still manage to radiate joy to others. I believe my grandma is such a person. She continues to reinforce my belief by quiet example.
The Des Moines Register, Friday, September 15, 1995.
Tribute for Doris Wilson Neal at the Plaza of Heroines at Carrie Chapman Catt Hall, Iowa State University.