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  • Maggie Wheeler

A Woman of Substance


Gramma and Me, mid 1960s

Technically, this will be the last post I write in my 50s. By the time I do next week’s post, I will have reached the milestone 60 years. One of the challenges of this journey I noted early on in this blog is my lack of mentors and role models. Not lack, but personal shortage. My father died at 55, my mother at 58. When I started this blog 18 months ago, I was on the cusp of outliving both my parents. It adds to the job of working out what 60 means now, and what it could mean to you.


I would like to be remembered someday as a woman of substance. By that, I mean a woman who was really there, a rock, knowable, relatable, legendary in the family. One whose contributions to life continue on after she is gone, in terms of emotional and psychological legacy.


While I cope with the gaping hole of my early parental losses, I do have another ace left in my quiver. My maternal grandmother, Anna Heipel. Gramma lived to be 91 and it wasn’t an easy life for her.


Gramma came over to Canada from Germany to join my grandfather in 1929. My mother was 18 months old. They came here to leave the depression in Germany following the end of WW1, only to arrive in time for our own Great Depression. I have one family story of my grandfather coming home to lunch to eat a ketchup sandwich because that’s all there was, before returning to finish his 12-hour day. Eventually, they bought a house and had a business. Then my grandfather died in 1944, leaving my grandmother a widow with two children in high school (Both immediately left school to work to help with the finances.). Socially, she suffered being a German Canadian but never talked about it.


Gramma had had only a grade-school education (being a girl) and spoke little English as a new Canadian. She did, however, train in culinary arts when she went into domestic service as a teenager. With her husband and the business gone, she went to work to pay the bills, ultimately running the kitchen at a local restaurant for 27 years. Gramma retired at 72, and with her scrupulous savings and CPP, she continued to pay her own bills till the day she died at 91.


I find myself (to my delight) becoming more like her every day. Her sayings come out of my mouth, with renewed understanding. I’m sure that her “look” at some of life’s twists and turns flashes out of my eyes these days (along, many times, with that of my dad’s). The label she often used, “foolishness,” I can now also sling with Gramma’s edge to it.


Hope reigns supreme.


I was born the year my grandmother turned 60. Interesting swing shift there. Being 60 is now my job, and I think of Gramma at this age being the family matriarch. I do feel the inexorable changes happening to me that push me forward on the road to being a little old lady. I intend, with cues from my grandmother and Agatha Christie, to be a matriarch, a force of nature, memorable, and terrifying when necessary. Those are the rights of old age when it comes. Middle age is the time of renewed exploration and rehearsal. I am now the Gladys Kravitz of the neighbourhood (could chalk that up to my detective mindset but let’s be honest here…), and indeed already have an Aunt Clara doorknob collection (but that is another post altogether).


Yesterday, I climbed my first mountain to mark the milestone and the future I embrace. I’m stiff today but unbowed. I would love to sit down with my grandmother and talk about the current world situation. But, with a little thought, I do know what she would say about the pandemic, the economy—and my milestone birthday.


Got it, Gramma. And on to it.


I will do my best to be a woman of substance, just like you.

Talk next week,

Maggie



The Summit for 60: Blue Mountain, Charleston Lake August 15, 2020

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