When she was ten, my great-grandmother picked watermelons so she could buy shoes. Her education ended in sixth grade.
She married at age sixteen, and moved with her husband, and eventually their three children, to a series of mining towns. She started washing the miners’ laundry to help bring in money. Over the next several decades, she transformed the laundry business into a chain of department stores, pulling her family up the socioeconomic ladder.
My grandfather ran the flagship store. When my grandmother wisely realized that my mom got in trouble at school because she was bored, they moved to a nicer neighborhood with a better school.
A generation later, I came home from kindergarten and cried because my class did so little work. My mom disagreed when the principal told her, “Your daughter will have to learn frustration.” She and my dad didn’t want to take a loan from her parents, but they did, so they could move across town to a new house and a better school.
This past summer, when my older son turned six, my husband and I repeated the pattern. We left our beloved 1940s house near the park and moved a mile west, so that our sons could have a bigger backyard, and attend a public school with smaller classes and better test scores. Our new house has a front that only a mass-market 1960s builder could love. My paternal grandparents’ strong saving ethic, and my father’s generosity in passing on his inheritance, helped make the change possible.
The move continued my pattern of making career and lifestyle decisions that previously I would have disdained. Five years ago, when I dropped my older son off at a babysitter’s house, I wondered who would ever want to live in her neighborhood. Now I know the answer: us.
Raising two boys feels like living with big dogs. They need frequent exercise. It is hard to imagine life without our new backyard. The boys can run around independently and safely. We are no longer on the corner of a busy street.
My sons took the former owners’ birdhouses apart, and now use the wooden poles to climb the big tree. A six-year-old girl lived here previously, and they use her abandoned jump ropes and swing as rappelling gear. I see the alarm in other parents’ eyes when they watch our boys. One mom commented that she hoped we had a really good insurance policy.
Part of me is selfishly glad to see them occupied, and part of me believes in the value of their independent projects. I now understand why my mom was happy to let my brother spend hours digging a hole in the backyard so that he could make a swimming pool with a shower curtain. He also made a teepee out of scrap lumber and a clubhouse out of yard signs from my mom’s failed school board race. I didn’t come up with the ideas, but as the older sister I stepped in to boss.
I tease my husband about how he and his seven siblings were given make-work jobs like churning butter. One of the reasons we recently started composting was that it gave us an excuse to have the kids roll a garbage can around the yard. (Another reason was the mechanized apple at a children’s museum that told me, “I wish I was in a compost pile instead of this landfill!”)
Several galleries on my website have new photos (see links below), including images from both houses. When I look at the pictures I don’t feel the fatigue, irritation, full bladder, thirst, hunger, cold, humidity, mosquitoes or distraction that I did during the actual moment.
I have a dozen more years of education than my great-grandmother, and I won’t ever have an elementary school named after me like she does. But when I look at my pictures, I think of Clarence the Angel telling Jimmy Stewart’s George Bailey, “See, George, you’ve really had a wonderful life.”
Domestic Life gallery
The Bubble gallery
Father to Son gallery
More information about my great-grandmother, Bertha B. Ronzone.