For as long as I can remember, I have been fascinated with my Grandma’s parent’s story. This story, their story, it pulls at my heart, in a way no other story in my family history has. I feel compelled to tell it. I hope I do it justice.
“We are braver and wiser because they existed, those strong women and strong men… We are who we are because they were who they were. It’s wise to know where you come from, who called your name.”
His name was Theodore, but everyone called him Tates. Except her. Lydia, she called him Theodore.
They grew up just two miles apart. He was seven years older than her. She was the oldest of five kids and the daughter of a prominent farmer. He had one younger sister, named Lizzie and grew up on what I refer to as “the farm”, land that has been in our family since they settled in Indiana after immigrating from Germany in the mid 1800’s. He was raised by his dad and grandma, losing his mother when he was just nine years old.
They most likely met at the quaint little Catholic Church that has witnessed generations of baptisms, marriages, funerals, of my family. She didn’t finish high school. She had siblings to take care of and farm chores to help with. He finished high school, served in World War I as a corpsmen and spent a year at Indiana State Teacher’s College, until being called back to run his own family’s farm.
He was 23 when he went overseas, she was 16. He kept a diary during his time in the war. Many times throughout his diary he noted the letters he sent and cards he received from “L”, and that the prettiest name in the world was “Lydia.” He even sent her a silk handkerchief from Belgium.
The thought of returning home to her, sustained him, as he witnessed the horrors of that war. Him, writing under the shade of a tree, after treating battered and weary soldiers, women, children, all casualties of The Great War. Her, writing next to the garden, with the warm sun on her face and the gentle breeze blowing her hair. A million miles away from any battlefield.
They were married a couple of years after he returned and started the journey of building a home and a family. What is now the farmhouse we all know and love, started out with just three rooms. It had white plaster walls, and Lydia stenciled little bluebirds near the ceiling around the kitchen. She bore six children within those walls. Nursed babies. Toiled in a hot kitchen. Cleaned. Did the laundry, while her husband worked the farm, and then collapsed together at night, bone tired.
They loved. By all accounts, they loved. They loved each other, they loved their children and during a time when money and food were scarce because of the Depression, they became a sanctuary to more than one child who needed a home, food and a family to love them.
And then, she got sick. Not the kind of sick that should take a life. Not now. But then, oh the things they didn’t know. When her youngest child was just nine months old, and her oldest, eleven, she had been sick for six weeks with gall bladder issues. Her surgery was scheduled for March 28, 1933.
The last letter she ever wrote was to her mother, the day before her surgery. She wrote about the two hour trip to the hospital. The view out her window and how pretty her room was, freshly painted and varnished. She wrote about Albert needing a new hat, and hoped that her mom was handling taking care of the baby okay. She wrote about Theodore and when he might head home after her surgery.
She had every intention of seeing her children again. Of carrying on with life. Baking birthday cakes. Celebrating graduations. Weddings. Grandchildren. Three days after her surgery, a blood clot entered her brain, and she was gone. A 30 year old, mother of six. Gone. Forever. Because, then, they didn’t make you get up and move around after surgery to prevent blood clots from forming.
My grandma was 2 1/2 at the time. She very faintly remembers the coffin in the bedroom during the wake, kneeling in front of it and looking at her mother. That. That is the only memory she has of her mom.
Here’s the thing about love, in whatever form it comes in…romantic love, the love between mamas and babies, siblings, friends, sisterhood…love can and will move mountains. I mentioned Tates had a sister, Lizzie. And while the love story between Tates and Lydia is beautiful and then so tragic, the love of a friendship, a sisterhood, the bond of two women, it is one of the most powerful things.
Lizzie was a nurse. She wasn’t married and did not have children. We don’t know for sure what Lydia said to Lizzie before she was taken back to surgery, or in the days that followed. But we do know what has been handed down over the years. Lydia asked Lizzie to take care of her children should anything happen to her. They were not only sister-in-laws but dear friends. Lizzie was at the hospital before, during and after her surgery. She is who called Lydia’s mother and gave her updates.
And so, when Lydia passed, Lizzie rose up. She quit her nursing job. She moved back to the farm she was raised on and in to the house her brother and sister-in-law built. She became the mama bear, the keeper, the comforter, the healer, to SIX children who had lost their mother. She put aside her wants. Dreams. Ambitions.
Lizzie wiped every tear. Cooked every meal. Found a goat when the baby who no longer had his mother’s milk couldn’t drink cow’s milk. Made sure those children stayed together under that roof. She washed their sheets and clothes, scrubbed floors and made sure they ate their veggies.
She was a nurse, but acted as a midwife, delivering babies before the doctor could arrive. She went back to work at the hospital every weekend once my grandma was old enough to cook for the family. The doctor would send his driver out to the farm to pick her up on a Friday and she would return Monday morning. Not only mothering those children, but helping to contribute financially as well. Something almost unheard of during that time. She would eventually stand next to my grandma in the delivery room when it was time for her to have her first child, my dad.
Love. Lizzie embodied LOVE.
Tates was never the same. He worked and he worked and he worked. He never slept in their bedroom again. He loved his children. He held them. Read to them. Sang them songs. Sat at the supper table with them every night and took them to church every Sunday. Cried when his oldest son was drafted to WWII. He had a vineyard and he made his own wine. As the years passed he drank and he drank and he drank. He never spoke of her. He never remarried.
He passed out in the field behind the house they built on more than one occasion. The horses would make their way up to the barn, with plow still attached and Lizzie would know to go look for her brother. He passed out, under the stars, from exhaustion, too much wine, too much heartache, at the age of 61, for the last time. He developed pneumonia and died.
He died longing for her. He died loving her, of that I am convinced. He died with a broken heart that I believe was only made whole when his Lydia, his heart’s home, met him at the gates of heaven.
And Lizzie…Lizzie finally married. She married George, who was fifteen years older than her and in his 80’s at the time. He had been her companion for many years and patiently waited for her to be able to leave the farm and make a home with him. The kids were raised and having babies of their own. The promise we can only assume she made to Lydia, fulfilled. And when Lizzie passed through those same gates, oh what a reunion that must have been. The love between those two women. The loyalty. The sacrifice. When I close my eyes, I see Lydia, embracing Lizzie. Maybe she whispered “thank you”, or maybe it was “job well done”…or maybe it was simply, “I love you.”
“In the flush of love’s light
we dare be brave
And suddenly we see
that love costs all we are
and will ever be.
Yet it is only love
which sets us free.”
I hope you all feel love, give love, show love, embody love not just this day, when we celebrate love, but Every. Single. Moment. of your lives.
As always, thanks for reading.