Twenty seven years ago today, I was at work when my boss, the owner of the printing company for which I worked, opened the door to the graphics room and told me I had a phone call. It was early afternoon and I still had an hour or so of work yet. No one usually called me at work. As soon as I heard my brother’s voice, I knew. I knew because that was how I had envisioned it happening a week or so before. It wouldn’t be my mom calling me or anyone else – it would be my brother. The words he spoke brought forth too many polarizing emotions. I didn’t have to wonder anymore about when it would happen. I knew that a life lived had been to the absolute fullest. I knew that while everyone else in the family would be falling apart, that I would draw on my inner strength and remain strong for them. This woman we spoke of had been a constant in my life since birth – the only grandmother that I knew. When it seemed that my life was falling apart throughout different periods, she was my champion. When I was at my absolute lowest and disappointing everyone else, she hugged me and let me know that no matter what she wouldn’t be mad at me and would love me unconditionally. Walking into my grandparents’ apartment later that evening and seeing my grandfather all dressed up in a suit – for he had been waiting to go see his beloved wife – stabbed my heart. My mother expressed that my grandmother had really wanted to see her newest great-granddaughter, my baby, just a little over a month old, and had never gotten to. I broke down in grief.
Within a week the family gathered to remember this matriarch of our family. We laughed and we cried. Six of us – grandchildren and great-grandchildren – were pallbearers. It was such a cold day – the day we carried the casket out of the church into the waiting hearse. Snow covered the ground. We traveled to the cemetery and had a final service in the chapel. It would be several more years before I went to the gravesite. When I did return, it would be to visit not only my grandmother and my mom’s baby sister, but also my grandfather, who wasn’t able to go on after the love of his life was gone. He passed away a year less a day after she did.
Like me, my grandmother was a child of divorced parents. When I was young and going through the rough patches of my parents animosity, she would always comfort me and tell me she knew what I felt. As a young child, I used to spend weekends with my grandparents. I was the youngest of their eight grandchildren – by fourteen years – so to say that I was spoiled by them is an understatement! In my defense, I never asked for them to spoil me and in their defense, during the time the others were young and growing, my grandparents lived in Germany and were always traveling due to my grandfather’s military duty or for pleasure. They missed a lot of holidays and birthdays with my siblings and cousins.
Vesta Christena Wilt was born on May 7, 1898 in Noblesville, Indiana to Joseph N. Wilt and Martha Jane Stern. She was the oldest girl and fourth child. Another daughter and son followed her. Before she was 12, her parents had divorced. Her mother married her widowed brother-in-law, Frank Clawson. The family moved from Noblesville to Anderson, Indiana and on Easter Sunday 1916 she met the man she would spend the rest of her life with. Vesta dated Glen Roy Johnson for several months and the two got married at Martha and Frank’s house on Christmas Eve 1916. The following December their first child, a son named after his father, was born. As the years went by the family added their first daughter, Genevieve, and then a second daughter, Mary (my mother), and lastly baby Lois Evelyn who was born prematurely and died just a little over 2 months later.
My grandmother knew her own heartache. She was separated from her beloved Glen for quite awhile while he went to training for the Signal Corps and then went overseas to France during WWI. She had been separated from her mother and two youngest siblings after Martha moved to Oregon before my mother was born. She lost a baby and then much later watched her oldest daughter suffer from a brain tumor and ultimately succumb to another inoperable one. She lost the father that she hadn’t seen for so long without having that estranged relationship mended. As the years wore on, she watched her youngest daughter struggle and grieve for the end of an almost 30 year marriage. She lost her mother and three brothers. She sat by her husband’s hospital bedside for months as he recuperated from a blood cot on his brain that he had suffered in a fall.
Then her health began to fail. She wasn’t a stranger to health issues – having one ailment and surgery or another throughout her adult life. But after she broke her elbow in the early 1970s, she was never as healthy as she had been. All too soon she was experiencing a heart attack every three months. I was very scared about losing her – not only for myself but for what it would do to my mother. After hospital stays and a change in her diet and medication, it seemed she rallied from the heart issues (although they were still there).
The family would gather for a surprise birthday we had for her at our house. She was so surprised when she walked in through the garage to the dining room and most of her family. Then there was the 60th wedding anniversary celebration at their apartment complex. Long time friends, church friends, military friends, and the family and extended family came to honor them. We were only missing one of my cousins and her family.
I moved away for awhile and when I returned back to my hometown, I realized just how she had aged – my grandfather too. I knew that as the years had ticked by, time was winding down for their life among us. My grandfather had been the one who had several health issues before I had moved away and I guess I had thought that he might be the one to go first. Then she was hospitalized and then again several weeks later. That visit was one she wouldn’t return home from. I learned later that she had told the apartment manager as the EMTs were wheeling her to the ambulance to make sure her husband would be okay. Did she know she wouldn’t come home? Did she decide that it would be okay to go if it was her time?
My grandmother – Vesta Wilt Johnson – born on May 7, 1898 – died on January 19, 1984. My grandfather – Glen Roy Johnson – born November 21, 1898 – died on January 18, 1985. They were the glue of the family. There are times during holidays and celebrations, the family left an empty chair – in honor of our grandmother. Our Beloved Nana – the woman whose “grandmother” moniker I have assumed for my own grandchildren – the woman whom I will never live up to as a grandmother – the woman who is always beside me in times of trouble – smiling and cheering me on.