For My Grandmother, Dorothy Guess


This post is part of the Tara Mohr Grandmother Power Blogging Campaign.I’d like to invite you to write your own Grandmother Power post, or share other posts you find inspiring! Cheers to all the Grandmothers out there!

I want to share a story about the woman who raised me, inspired me, and who I would like to send my love and gratitude to: My Grandmother, Dorothy Guess.

When I was in 7th grade, I took a trip to Canada with my grandparents. It was just the three of us driving up I-5 in their Oldsmobile 98; Grandpa driving, Grandma his ever faithful co-pilot, and me in the back, usually fast asleep from the lull of the motor. We pulled over to camp one night, and the smell of a crackling fire burnt the air as Grandma took out her comb and pulled me close to brush out my hair. I didn’t have ordinary hair (nor do I now); it was thick and constantly matted as the knots grew more tangled by the day. My mother would usually just brush the top, avoiding the areas underneath that really needed help, and wash my hair knots and all. But Grandma found the mass at the nape of my neck and set to it; she pulled and pulled and my head seared with red hot pain. I sat there with tears threatening my eyes until I couldn’t take the pain any longer, I grabbed the comb from her hands and I ran. When I realized what a bold thing I had done, I slowly walked back to our camp like a dog with it’s tail between it’s legs. “I’m sorry Grandma, it just hurts so bad,” I said sheepishly. Instead of getting angry as I had predicted, my grandmother turned to me, put her little arms around my waist and said “That’s okay honey, when we get home I’ll take you straight to the beauty parlor.” And she did.

The stylist combed and shampooed and conditioned and combed some more before she finally turned to my grandmother and said, “This thing is not coming out, if you want it out, I’m going to have to cut it out.” My grandmother cocked her head at me and said, “Your call honey, what do you think?” I didn’t even hesitate, “Yes please, whatever you have to do.” For as long as I could remember, my hair had been long and matted, with a knot sitting invasively at the nape of my neck. Every day, my mother would pull it back so tight it hurt to even nod, and she somehow always managed to avoid dealing with the knot. When I came home, pleased as punch with my new short haircut, my mother saw me and her eyes burned with fury. If looks could kill, the look on her face was the mother of all killers. She was furious at both of us. This was the moment when I realized my grandmother had saved my life, but in reality, she had come to my rescue many times before, and would many times after.

When I was five months old, my mother was hospitalized for a nervous breakdown (that’s what they called a major depressive disorder back in the 1950’s). Weaned immediately from my mother’s breast, my grandmother came to take care of me, my brother, and my sister for several months until my mother was well enough to take over, and we formed a special bond that would last until she passed away at the ripe old age of 103.5 years. She rescued me many times from my mother, who always was angry, by coming to visit and asking who wanted to come home with her and my Grandpa for a few days. I never hesitated to jump at the chance to escape and in time, none of my siblings even tried to get their share of equal time with Grandma and Grandpa.

Grandma was my role model on many levels. She was absolutely beautiful and remained so until her last years when she could no longer care for herself. She dressed smartly and was always put together with jewelry and matching clothing. She wouldn’t have been caught dead lounging around in sweatpants. (I wish I could say the same for myself!) Her beauty wasn’t lost on men either. She met my grandfather when they were in high school in Livermore, California. When my grandmother moved to San Francisco after high school to train as a nurse at Children’s Hospital, my Grandpa followed her and went to work for the Bell telephone company. He was determined to marry her (and I secretly think she was set on him from the start), but my Grandma used to taunt him by going on double dates with him, only she would bring another guy and would set him up with one of her classmates! In time, my grandfather’s patience and devotion paid off, and he married the love of his life. She said she had dated enough ‘fish from the sea,’ as she so fondly referred to the abundance of available men that she could get to take her out for a free dinner. Grandma really knew what she was doing!

Grandpa adored Grandma and never was this more evident than when grandma got tuberculosis (TB) when she was 26 years old. At the time, the treatment for TB was to enter a sanitarium and stay flat on your back for 24 hours a day with a lot of fresh air for two years. Not only could my grandparents not afford such a treatment center, but my grandfather refused to leave my grandmother, despite the doctor warning him that he might catch it as well. Instead, he built a room with open windows in their little San Francisco flat where my grandmother stayed laying on her back for two years. My grandfather went to work every day and came home to sleep beside her every night. My mother, then only two years old, was sent to live with a woman down the street. For those treacherous two years, she wasn’t able to come close to her mother, not for a hug, not for a kiss, not for anything. I can’t help but believe that my grandmother’s tuberculosis had a great deal of bearing on my mother’s depression and dysfunction later in life.

What I’m most grateful to my Grandmother for is that she made me feel safe. Even though she never talked about anything emotional, she was sensitive to my feelings and was always nurturing and supportive. When I grew up and moved away from home we wrote letters to each other regularly. I wish I had kept those letters just to hear her words and see her lovely handwriting.
I owe so much to my grandmother; she sewed most of my clothes until she taught me how to sew for myself. She never taught me by instruction, I learned from watching her. If it had not been for her I would have been out of fashion when I entered Junior High, (the worst thing that can happen to a 12-year-old girl!). My grandma also taught me how to cook. Like sewing, she never encouraged me to cook with her though. I think she was so fast at it that I would have slowed her down. Did I mention she was efficient? Never have I seen anyone get everything cooked at once, on the plates, and the pots and pans cleaned up before sitting down to eat the amazing meals. After many years of watching her fly around the kitchen, I’d like to think I have absorbed some her ability. Later in life when my former husband and I went to visit my grandparents at their self-made and highly successful mobile home park, I’d sneak to the kitchen to watch my grandmother cook. I’d find my husband in there with her, working side by side, flirting away. Yes, flirting! My grandmother in her 80’s and my husband in his late 20’s, leaning into each other, laughing, joking, exchanging playful banter, and just having fun. It was precious to watch them together, forming a bond that would remain unbroken, even after our divorce.

My Grandmother accepted me for everything I was and loved me unconditionally. She was there for me through big life choices and supported me in all my endeavors. When the love of my life didn’t come back to marry me I wanted to go to him in London. I told Grandma I was so in love with him and really wanted to be with him. Surprisingly, she said, “You go get him honey. You have to go after what you know you want in life.”

A few years ago I went to a psychic to see what might be ahead for me in life. Grandma showed up with Grandpa standing behind her, supporting her as he always had. She let me know she had been watching over me since she passed on and was so proud of me, what I had been doing, and how I had turned out in life. Whenever I feel discouraged about my life I think about my Grandma and remind myself that this wonderful, inspirational and spirited woman who helped me to become the woman I am today, is proud of me, wherever her spirit may be now. She still lives on in my heart and sometimes she comes to visit me in the form of birds or mice. Just knowing grandma is still around, and is still supporting me as she always did, has brought me such a sense of peace. Whether it was a much-needed haircut, or a weekend of sleeping on her porch, Grandma always knew what I needed and for that I am eternally grateful to her.

Eilise Ward