by Amy Carr
Last month I spent an hour with my grandmother Pauline Swisher Ketola Rose, who is 105. I rarely see her. She lives in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, and I do not travel back there every year. In our hour together, she spoke so often of her love of nearby towns that I could not help but think of the Benedictine commitment to place.
I never spent great quantities of time with her, even as a child, when she lived only three hours away at the other end of the UP. She had 14 children and oodles of grandchildren. Always she was surrounded by many people.
Over the years she would tell me that she often just sat in her chair, thinking of us all.
The Finnish father of her 14 children died in a trucking accident when my mother was about 14 years old and there were still seven children living at home. She outlived a second husband.
In her 80’s, she took up with a man whom she’d known in the 1930s, when CCC work brought him to the UP. In their relationship, I saw my grandmother know a passion that led her to make time for someone special to her, even when visiting family members thought she belonged all to them. I saw her capacity for jealousy when her man would speak flirtatiously of anyone else. They lived together 10-20 years, watching Detroit Tiger games.
Grandma now has a small room in a house shared mostly with people with developmental disabilities and run by the wife of one of my cousins. When we arrived to visit her, she was sitting on the porch, her walker nearby. Across the street, dozens of prisoners were playing basketball behind barbed wire in a state correctional facility.
During our visit, Grandma sang now and again. Old popular songs. And in between them she mused on area towns.
“Grand Marais is a good, good place,” she said, more than once. It was a refrain. Grand Marais is an isolated county seat of about 1,350 people on a Lake Superior Bay. They have great fireworks on the 4th. “It is so pretty. It will always be there,” Grandma added.
“Seney sure has changed. Seney is gone.” Seney is where she raised her children. With fewer than 100 inhabitants now, it had more than 3000 in the bustling days of the late 19th and early 20th century lumbercamps. Hemingway used to fish near Seney, where his story “Big Two Hearted River” is set.
In her tiny room that is her home now, Grandma pointed to a dream catcher a grandchild had given her, made by a Native American man named Joe who lived near Remus — downstate in lower Michigan where Grandma had lived until her adolescence. Joe had the same first and last name as a boy she’d gone to school with in Remus. Perhaps the dream catcher was made by the Joe she know; perhaps by one of his descendants.
“Joe was a good man. The Indians were good, good people. Hardworking, decent people. I always got along well with Joe. We visited each other.”
When I left, this is what struck me: how Grandma Rose was a living flow of gratitude. Her new world was so small; there was no talk on our visit of national or international news, nor of politics. Grandma asked me little about my life beyond where I lived now.
But she meditated upon the places she had lived.
She did not speak of herself, or of her family, or of any ailments. She mentioned no regrets. (I did learn earlier from an aunt that she did get frustrated when told to turn the TV down; she would turn it off then, since she didn’t like to watch the Tigers’ games without hearing them too, her vision being poor). She did not seem to mourn anyone, or to be afraid.
What is real for her is the nearby world itself — its local textures and people. The good places that will outlast her.
Her way of being in our brief visit was a window into one meaning of a sense of place: unselfconscious adoration of our surroundings and its inhabitants.
A sense of place in which one’s own individual self is seemingly invisible, or matters most as a witness to the solidity and decency and beauty of the immediate world around one.
I learned from Grandma Rose that a sense of place can displace a sense of self. Or that a sense of place can draw a person past self-preoccupation, toward a steady awareness that what abides — beyond and in God — is a beloved corner of the world.
It would be blasphemous not to be joyous, not to offer praise.
My Grandma Rose and I may not know one another well. But in our visit last month she said in so many different ways — as God did at creation’s birth — “And it was good.”