What Would Grandmother’s Job Be?

My grandmother, Helen Marshall Smith, was born in 1914. Like most women of her generation her career opportunities were limited, and like nearly all women in her socio-economic stratum – Southern working class – her educational opportunities were nearly non-existent.

One more fact to note: she had polio as a child and that, plus some sort of hip issue I never fully understood, meant she spent most of her life on crutches.

I thought about Grandmother the other day as I wandered around Denver Botanic Gardens with my Nikon. One of the horticulturists was doing some planting in the Fountain Beds on the south side by the Science Center. Sitting in the dirt, broad-brimmed hat and long sleeves to protect against the sun, seemingly unaware of anything in the world besides the garden and the plants…

Grandmother loved to garden. North Carolina summers can brutal – temps in the 90s and humidity, too – but she didn’t care. In her 60s, crippled, she’d be outside standing on her head in a flower bed and there was nothing you do about it. We wanted her to be happy, but we didn’t want her to die of heat stroke, so my grandfather and I would try and encourage her not to overdo it.

Without much success, I should note. She was worried that the home and garden club would spring a surprise inspection just at the very moment she let her guard down (this was the reasoning I got for why I had to make up my bed and sweep the carport, too).

Her favorite flowers were marigolds and irises, and whatever societies there are dedicated to their cultivation and preservation ought be to naming new variants after her.

I’ve sometimes wondered what kind of career Grandmother might have pursued if she’d been afforded the kinds of educational opportunities I had – opportunities she sacrificed to make sure I had. She only made it through ninth grade, but she was really smart. She read, she knew things, she dialed in on stuff that mattered to her family (like nutrition, for instance). She taught me to read – I was reading and writing at a fourth-grade level on my first day of school thanks to her. I might still be teaching if even half my college students had been able to write as well as she could. There’s no telling how much of my smarts I owe her – I inherited some bright genes, for sure, and any ed expert will tell you at length about the value of early childhood reading.

Maybe she’d have been a teacher. She’d have been a great one. Or maybe an accountant. Or a marketer or project manager or a dietician or a lawyer. It would have come down to what she wanted to do, I imagine, because she had the brains to be whatever she liked.

There’s no way of knowing, but I do suspect if she’d been with me Saturday she’d have paused and watched the woman planting in the gardens. The whole day and everything about it would have made her happy.

And maybe in another life she’d have been that woman, alone with the flowers and the dirt and the sustaining inner peace that has eluded her grandson his whole life.

Before the other day I had never photographed an iris. This is for you, Grandmother.

Bearded Iris, Denver Botanic Gardens


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  • Beautiful story. It is significant the impact of the idea of a woman’s place has had. My grandmothers were a study in opposites. Both born in the early 1920s. My paternal grandmother was dirt poor, married a sharecropper, until WWII and they got a job at Boeing. After the war, my grandfather stayed on there, but she was restless and managed several restaurants, was a sheriff’s deputy at one point, and stayed busy working almost to her death. My maternal grandmother was the stereotyped 1950s housewife who thought it was terrible that WWII caused all those women to work and then they wouldn’t stay home.

    • Given the times, I’m guessing your grandmother had a thick skin, a big attitude, or both. That deputy thing, especially – LE is a world that’s hard for women even now.

      WWII was a huge moment for women. It kinda kicked the excuses for keeping them home aside. It didn’t win the war for liberation, but it was a win.

      Now if we can get them to equal pay…

      • She was a big woman with a big personality! Red hair and I remember as a kid when she wore, say, a blouse with large yellow flowers, she would have yellow fingernail polish and eyeliner. If purple blouse and pants, then purple fingernail polish and eyeliner, and maybe even lipstick. We have no idea where she found that stuff in the 1970s.

      • She sounds like, as we’d say back home, a “character.”

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