Friday, July 5, 2013

A (Leftover) Firecracker of a Grandma

My Grandma would have been 123 years old today if she were still alive. A "leftover firecracker", as my mom used to call her. The day after Independence Day is when she is especially on my mind. Nearly 70 years older than me, Grandma passed away when I was seventeen. I had never lost a loved one up till then, so her passing was quite hard for me. I didn't just lose a grandma, I lost a buddy and lifelong friend. On the anniversary of her birthday today, I thought that it would be fitting to pay tribute to this wonderful woman and to share with you some of her stories.

Grandma, on her 82nd birthday - July 5th, 1972

Esther Victoria Herman came into the world in 1890, born in the farmhouse that her daddy built on the outskirts of the rural town of Chanute, Kansas. Esther was the third child and only daughter of Swedish immigrants and pioneers, Peter and Betty Herman. A family portrait taken just the day before her birth shows her parents standing in front of the homestead, just home from a 4th of July picnic. Her mother Betty is looking demure and huge with child, wearing a voluminous dark dress. Standing next to her all in black and looking quite solemn and stern is her Swedish mother, Bible clutched firmly in her hands. Grandma's grandma had just come over from the old country, perhaps to help out help with the children. She looked a bit frail to me for that, though. All I ever knew about her is that she would sit on the porch and shell peas. That's an important job, and probably a lot easier than chasing after little kids!

Peter and Betty, Arthur, Chester, Esther and
 Elmer Herman, circa 1895

Grandma would share glowing stories of her idyllic childhood in Chanute which sounded just like heaven on earth to me. Growing up on the Kansas prairie in the late 1800's, hearing her stories of adventure and misadventures with her brothers, the love of her family and a tragic loss, I came to realize later on in life that Grandma was my very own Laura Ingalls Wilder.

The house that Peter built, Chanute, Kansas

Though Grandma's little house on the Kansas prairie wasn't a log one but rather a charming Victorian farmhouse, she and Laura both both shared the blessing of having fathers that they adored, and Grandma always talked about her daddy, Peter.

Peter Herman

Peter Herman was a tailor, a farmer, a pillar of the community, and a hero in the eyes of his daughter. As he would plow his field behind his horse, little Esther was always close behind, following his big footsteps. Not surprisingly, there was hardly any man in her life, besides her husband, that could hold a candle to her daddy.

Elmer, Chester, Peter and Arthur Herman

Grandma and her brothers would play for hours outdoors, often getting into mischief and pulling pranks. Grandma would laugh as she told a story of how they buried an inedible cake in the yard that their aunt had given them, raving about how delicious it had been, to their aunt's delight.


Tragedy struck their family on a June day in 1905 when Elmer at age 11, drowned in a pond while attempting to save a drowning friend. Grandma often talked of her brother Elmer, her loss no less diminished 70 years later. Over the years, whenever looking at Elmer's picture, I wondered what he would have grown up to be. He was a handsome boy, with his father's strong jaw and a look of maturity for his young age. To give his life for a friend, he must have been a very special young man, indeed.

Esther Herman (far right)

Grandma had the distinction of being a passenger on one of the last voyages of the Lusitania, which sank in 1915. She would make occasional trips to Sweden with her family to visit relatives, travelling by ocean liner. Needless to say, I'm very thankful she avoided that disaster!


Grandma met and married my grandfather, Milton Christensen and in the 1920's they relocated to Los Angeles where they raised their two daughters, Virginia and Elaine (my mother). Grandma became a widow in the 1940's, raising her girls alone in their home in west LA. I have so many fond memories of her house there on Drexel Avenue. Sleepovers with Grandma were especially exciting when I would wake up in the morning to see her set of dentures smiling at me from the water glass beside the bed!

Virginia and Elaine, Los Angeles 1936

Grandma was in her glory when in the kitchen, cooking and baking for her family. I don't really ever recall her sitting down and actually eating a meal! She was continuously puttering in the kitchen, feeding her daughters and two granddaughters with her delicious home-cooking and homemade pies. I inherited my love of baking from Grandma (and also the gene that can sniff out the best deals on day-old cakes in the grocery store). 

Grandma in her new apartment
showing off her bread pudding ~ 1972

In 1974, my mom and I took Grandma on a train trip from Los Angeles to Kansas City. Grandma had often said to me, "Someday, I'll take you on a train to Chanute!" "Someday" came that summer when I was 16 and I finally got to see Grandma's beloved Chanute. We found the old homestead which looked very well cared for, and although the owners were not home, Grandma strolled around the yard, drinking in the memories of her happy, long ago youth. 

Staying with her cousin Annie in Kansas City, I fell in love with Annie's old house, the screened porch and my first sight of fireflies dancing in the dusk. Afternoon thunderstorms shook the old house, the smell of yesteryears in the faded quilt on the bed as I napped in the small guest room upstairs. Grandma and Annie talked and laughed like young girls again downstairs, catching up on the years. 

Grandma and Annie both passed away the following year. How thankful I am that we made that trip to Chanute. Grandma's childhood stories were my ticket on a time machine that would take me to a time and place that I longed to be a part of. Going there brought me closer to Grandma's past, and brought Grandma full-circle to the place she knew and loved her whole life long. 

Grandma, Heidi and Vicki, 1962

I'll always remember the sweet and spunky, stubborn yet generous and giving lady she was. Despite her advanced years, she had eyes that were as clear and bright as a blue summer sky. The vigorous love pats on the arm, and the drawn out "Whhhhhhaaaatt!!!" exclamations of total disbelief. The fluffy hugs, the dollar bill tucked into my pocket each time I came for a visit. The cute way she had of mixing up words in her Midwestern way, calling the Del Amo shopping mall "The Alamo" and "Jesterdee" for yesterday. Grandma was a Swedish Baptist and loved the old hymns. She bought my sister and I a brand new piano so that we could learn to play hymns, because "every young girl needs to know how to sit down and play a hymn!"

Grandma had a way of making instant friends with total strangers, their arm in her tight grip as she told them proudly about her girls, whether they wanted to hear about it or not. Now that I'm a grandma with two grandkids of my own, it's my hope and dream to have the playful and loving relationship with them that I had with my own grandma. My childhood is hardly out of a Laura Ingalls Wilder book, but I have a legacy of love to pass down to this new generation of my family as I have had the quintessential model of what a grandma should be. 

Happy Birthday, Grandma!