An Interview with Grandma

By Jenny Harris

Sometimes I’m overwhelmed by mothering.

Bear in mind, I have TWO children.

By her count, my Grandmother has ELEVEN children, fifty-six grandchildren, and fifty-seven great-grand-children (with two more on the way).

Who better to ask for advice?

What follows are gems from an interview with Grandma Stewart in February of 2019.

A MIRACLE

According to family lore, Grandma gave life to eleven human beings with only half of an ovary. I checked the details with Grandma, and it turns out that the legends were right.

It was a miracle.

Grandma had endometriosis as a young woman, and doctors had already removed one ovary. When the doctor found another cyst on her ovarian tube, he recommended the removal of the second ovary. But her husband wouldn’t allow it. “Both his and my patriarchal blessings promised children,” Grandma explained. Because of his vision for their future, Grandpa wouldn’t allow the doctors to take everything.

So doctors only removed half of the remaining ovary. Contrary to medical expectation, Grandma then had her first child when she was twenty-two … and her eleventh when she was forty-one.

And yes, all on half of an ovary.

Grandma attributes this miracle to Grandpa’s faith. “That’s really why we had a family,” she said, “because of the faith of your grandfather and the feeling that there was a family for us.”

A LOSS

It’s hard to compare parenting two children in a small city apartment with Grandma’s experience of raising eleven children on a rural farm. My favorite story is every mother’s nightmare: a lost child.

Imagine Jerome, Idaho in your mind. Low hills, large plots of crops, and a small sprinkling of homes between large stretches of land. If I didn’t know that my Dad might read this, I’d call it “desolate.” But whether you love the farmland or hate it, the point is this: there was a LOT of it.

My grandmother was alone on the farm in Jerome when she realized that her two and a half year old was missing! Phyllis Anne, the oldest child, was gone. You or I could locate a child within short distance of a fenced yard, but Grandma had acres to search.

She got in the car and drove off in search of her toddler. After some time (it’s hard to say how long when you’re in a panic), the neighbors arrived with Phyllis Anne. They had picked her up nearly forty acres away from the farmhouse!

The solution to this scare was bright clothing and a faithful dog.

“After that I kept her in a red sweater,” Grandma said. “And we had a big collie dog whose tail I could usually see, and he stayed with her a lot.  As soon as [her brother] got big enough to play with, she didn’t ever wander off any more.”

PARENTING

My mom friends are constantly deliberating about how many children and how close to space them. The transition from one child to two is an especially fraught consideration. The idea of eleven children is unfathomable—amazing, beautiful, and definitely out of the consideration.

Grandma insisted that it actually helped to have a lot of children. “They care for each other!” she said. As one of her neighbors told her, “When they get out of diapers, you won’t know you’ve got them. They’ll just entertain one another!”

When I asked Grandma about teaching philosophies and discipline, she gave the simplest advice:  “Being consistent [is] more important than having lots of rules. Don’t give an instruction that you [can’t or won’t] follow through with.”

The hardest thing about parenting, said Grandma, was just realizing that her children were different. “I was always really surprised how different they were, and how they had their own personalities and weren’t anything like me,” she said. Each child was different from the others, different from her, just completely unique. No doubt that learning to listen and honor those differences was especially crucial in a household of thirteen.

Her advice to grandchildren and great-grandchildren who are parenting was this:

“You don’t realize how fast the time will go by. Enjoy every stage, every bit! There’s lots of hard things, but every day there’s lots of really fun, neat things: smiles from tiny babies, cooing, funny things that little two year olds do and three year olds. And just enjoy every special time.”

“And all of the times are special,” she assured.

LIFESTYLE

I think I betrayed myself as a self-entitled millennial when I inquired about “me-time.” This phrase probably meant nothing to my Grandma. I mean, she literally spent TEN hours in the kitchen each day, just to keep her family fed!

“I enjoyed doing it,” she insisted. “I probably would have enjoyed doing that as much as any other single thing.”

I pushed a little further. “Women today have a lot of luxuries,” I said. “We hear a lot about the products that you need to be a good mom. Or that you need to take time out for yourself. You’ve been a mom for a long time. What do you think is truly essential?”

Grandma thought for just a second and said, “Church.”

She meant it, too! “That was where you had your social activity away from home,” she explained. “And it was also where you got the spiritual things that you needed. And of course the scriptures.”

MARRIAGE

Research shows that the childbearing years can be hard on marriage. I only ever caught glimpses of my Grandparent’s marriage, but hindsight is a great teacher. “What do you do to keep a marriage strong while you have children?” I asked.

Grandma didn’t claim any expertise; in fact, she admitted that she didn’t necessary get things right. “I think the big problem with us is that we never did learn to converse, to really have the right kind of being able to talk to each other,” she said. She also acknowledged that spouses are just different. “Especially a man is different from a woman,” she said. “That’s the biggest thing about marriage, is just realizing that it’s another PERSON.”

The problem, of course, is selfishness. “We look at things the way we see, and we think it’s right,” she explained. “And it isn’t always. You just need to realize that somebody else has thoughts and feelings that are just as valid as yours.”  

CULTURE

Grandma was born in 1931, which means that she has seen the cultural pendulum swing a few times over. I asked what challenges she perceives her grandchildren having today.

She identified individualism as problematic. “[A lot of things you’re hearing] like ‘be yourself’ and ‘be your best self’ and so on are true—but they carry too far extreme,” she explained. The trouble, she said, is “wanting to be yourself to the point of not being thoughtful and kind and loving to somebody else.”

In addition to cultural concerns, Grandma’s biggest fear is watching a grandchild drift away from the church. I pushed her a little deeper here, because church activity isn’t something that all of us have chosen.

Gracious as always, Grandma said, “They may be drifting some, but I’ve never felt like they’ve gotten to the point that they can’t be pretty easily brought back in. That through love and example (and I think that’s what all of them have had in their homes) they’ll be alright.”

She followed it up by saying that there’s no way to influence each other “except through love and prayer.”

Love and prayer pretty much sum up Grandma’s life. I love to hear her pray for her family members—not every one is included in every prayer, but if you are sick or troubled or serving a mission, rest assured that Grandma is calling down Heaven for you.

GROWING OLD AND LIVING WELL

I turned thirty this year—still young, but I’m growing enough white hairs and sun spots to remind me of mortality. Grandma’s comments about aging have been comforting:

“I think as you get older and less ambitious and more tired, you just kind of accept what is and just be grateful,” she said. “That’s the biggest thing there is in life, to be grateful for what you’ve got! Be happy with things and try to look at trials as being builders instead of detractors, not as knocking down but as to build up.”

She wrapped up our interview with words that are still ringing in my ears.

Don’t waste the hard things!,” she said. “…Don’t waste pain. Let it do what it can do for us. And when we do that, I don’t think there’s as much agony. . . Trials and troubles and tribulations, they’re all part of life…[But] your own faith will sustain and help and keep.”

* * *

I’ve omitted a lot of lovely stories. If you want more details—or even if you just love the sound of Grandma’s voice—you can listen to the interview or read a transcription below.

Jenny Harris

Jenny Harris

Jenny is a star-gazing, book-clubbing mother of two. She has a Master’s degree in Human Development and Family Studies, which is mildly comical (but also a boon in parenting and relationships). Her kids will attest that she's crazy about reading aloud, time out of doors, and creative play. Her family's goal is the “abundant life,” as prescribed by Jesus. You can read more posts by Jenny here.
Jenny Harris

Jenny Harris

Jenny is a star-gazing, book-clubbing mother of two. She has a Master’s degree in Human Development and Family Studies, which is mildly comical (but also a boon in parenting and relationships). Her kids will attest that she's crazy about reading aloud, time out of doors, and creative play. Her family's goal is the “abundant life,” as prescribed by Jesus. You can read more posts by Jenny here.

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