Beginning with her birth, my grandmother’s life was a well lived miracle. The times in which she lived were very challenging. But she lived long and left an impressive legacy. That is the miracle.
Mamma Jessie, as we called my grandmother was born a few minutes after midnight on February 14, 1900. Her twin sister had been born minutes earlier on February 13, 1900. Twins with different birthdays. It was a miracle for them to survive in 1900.
In 1900 thirty percent of all deaths were the deaths of children. 165 of every 1,000 children died before the age of five. So just being born and making it to age five was a miracle because the odds were not in the child’s favor.
The top killers in 1900 were infectious diseases; tuberculosis, influenza and pneumonia. Due to the lack of sanitation and regulation these diseases were rampant. Every family, rich and poor, experienced the death of a child. It was so prevalent that there was a name for it. It was called “the empty chair” syndrome.
So, for Momma Jessie and Aunt Essie surviving childhood was a big deal but there was so much more to come. While they were teenagers the country entered World War I and by time they were eighteen the world was experiencing the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918.
Can you imagine? Up until then there had been no “world” war. Wars, yes, but not wars that included most of the major countries in the world.
There had always been epidemics and infectious diseases. But not in recent memory had there been such a deadly pandemic.
Millions of people died during World War I, but more soldiers died from the flu than from battle. At that time the world didn’t understand germs and virus as we do now, so they were terrified of the silent killer. So, as a teenager my grandmother was dealing with war, quarantines and a pandemic.
Well by the time my grandmother had reached age of 29 the roaring twenties were over. She had just lived through the racial strife of that decade that began with the Red Summer in 1921. During those years’ blacks were terrorized and many black towns were destroyed. For blacks and my grandmother, the twenties weren’t so roaring.
Then she experienced the stock market crash of 1929. Her thirties were spent during the depression which was a tough time for everyone. She learned to do without and to make do.
By the time she reached her forties the country was involved in the second world war. Unlike the majority of women who were just entering the workforce in the 1940s, my grandmother had always worked. She worked hard and would eventually have her own business.
A lot happened in America from 1900 to 1945, and all of this would have happened before my grandmother was forty-five years old. And she wasn’t even supposed to live that long.
In 1900, the estimated life expectancy for White men was 46.6 years; for non-White men it was 43.5 years; for White women it was 48.7 years, and for non-White women it was 33.5 years. So, my grandmother and aunt were doing good if they made it to 34 years of age.
Aunt Essie, Momma Jessie’s twin died in November 1942. Reaching the age of forty-two wasn’t that bad. It was nine years more than expected. But family stories always tell how Aunt Essie didn’t have the healthiest habits. She drank and smoked but Momma Jessie didn’t.
After her twin sister died Momma Jessie still had four major wars and ten recessions yet to live through – 55 years.
By the 1950s Momma Jessie was a grandmother and had been married a couple of times. Her husbands were soldiers who fought in World War II and the war of the 1950s, the Korean War. It never did end.
In the 1960s there were numerous political assassinations and social upheaval in the country. It wasn’t until 1965 with the Voting Rights Act when my grandmother was 65 that she was guaranteed the right to vote and she still had more than thirty years left to live.
In my sixty plus years, I’ve seen a lot of turmoil and a lot of change. I’ve seen the country go through ups and downs. But I probably haven’t seen as much as my grandmother saw.
I know my life has been easier than hers. I know that I benefit greatly from social changes, technological advances and unearned good luck. I also know that there is a lot more change I’d like to see in the world.
I hope to have my grandmother’s strength. That is a strength that will get me through the rough times. She’s a great example of that. Just the memory of her life and what she endured inspires me.
I also have my grandmother’s prayers. So many times, things go my way and I know it must be because my grandmother prayed for me. I know throughout her life she prayed for her offspring to see a better world and I benefit from those prayers.
Finally, I’m glad I’ve got my grandmother’s genes. If she can double her life expectancy maybe I can follow her example and double mine. It will take all my strength and my courage. I will have to have healthy habits and be smart.
Like my grandmother’s, my life can be a miracle and a life well-lived. I just have to keep it all in perspective.