Emily S. Whitten: Real Heroes

Superheroes are great. Their adventures are fun to read about, they can be inspiring, and they can do really cool things. I love superheroes. But sometimes I like to remind myself that the most important heroes in this world are the real people without superpowers who live their lives well, make the best of bad times with quiet strength and little complaint, try to contribute to rather than detract from the world, are kind and caring and attentive and respectful to other people, are brave and determined when fear is telling them that may be impossible, and are comfortable enough with who they are to show it to the world. These are people who support and lift others up rather than tearing them down. These are people who make the world better.

My grandmother was one of these people. I lost her two weeks before we lost Terry Pratchett. So much loss in a short span can be devastating; but it can also bring home how very important good people are to us. When Terry passed, I was already writing this piece; and I wanted then to write it about Grandma and Terry – both heroes of mine. Terry’s death was so big for so many people, however, that talking about both of them then would have taken the focus off of my wonderful grandmother; and she really deserves as much focus as any of my other heroes.

Grandma was 94 years old when she passed away, and lived her whole life in the same small area in the middle of nowhere, Indiana (the town had a population of 149 people in 2010); much of it on a 60-acre working farm. She graduated from Ball State University’s first elementary education program and later went on to earn her Master’s degree in education. She was extremely intelligent and taught first and second grade locally for over forty years; and was known for her ability to recall students even if she’d taught them fifty years ago. Grandma’s students remembered her fondly and many, many of them honored her by attending her funeral services and telling our family how much of a difference she made in their lives. And in fact, I attended college with one young man she taught as a substitute teacher in her later years, who adored her and went to visit her sometimes and told me that she was his favorite teacher.

Grandma was a lifelong member and supporter of her local church, and seemed to know and care about everyone in her community, remembering the details they’d share with her about their families, their troubles, and their joys. She also served her community for years through leadership positions in the Order of the Eastern Star.

Grandma was an excellent cook and baked award-winning pies, and had a great sense of fashion and care for her personal appearance that she instilled in my mom and aunt and later, in us grandkids. She was pretty crafty as well, and painted many wooden statues, pieces of china or glassware, and pieces of clothing over the years (to this day I have the adorable little Precious Moments and other tees she painted for me when I was small).

She was also pretty crafty in her sly sense of humor and fun, and the mischievous sparkle she would get in her eye when making a sliiiightly risqué joke. She had a great spirit and good cheer. Most importantly, Grandma was always supportive of her family; she had high expectations, but also always encouraged us in our goals, and accepted us for who we were, caring first and foremost that we were happy and doing our best. She was also as self-sufficient as she could be, even in later years, mowing her own lawn into her 80s, and living in her own home until she passed away. In looking at everything she did, my grandmother truly had a life well lived.

And the story might end there, but I’ve left out one important detail of Grandma’s life. At age thirteen, my grandmother contracted polio. As a result, she had to spend a year in the hospital; and was then affected for the rest of her life by post-polio syndrome. When she attended Ball State, it was on crutches – and at a time when universities were not well equipped for disabled students. For the remainder of her life, she had to wear a brace on one leg, and was impaired in her movement. Later in her life, she had to use progressively more assistive equipment to get around – including, eventually, a motorized cart to move around her own home.

The difficulties my Grandma faced due to polio and its aftereffects were not minor. She had limited mobility, experienced chronic pain, and had to adjust to living her life in a different way than fully able-bodied people. That could have led some people to be dispirited, negative, or bitter, or to accepting limitations on their goals and dreams. But my grandmother was stronger than that.

She went to college, despite the difficulty. At Ball State, there was a requirement that students take physical education; something that would have been very difficult for Grandma. But did she throw in the towel? No; instead, she learned how to swim and became a member of the synchronized swim team! In her adult life, she lived on and helped care for a farm out in the country, shared a full life with my grandfather and raised two daughters, and had a long, successful, and meaningful career. She excelled in her hobbies and gave back to her community. She seldom complained, kept a cheerful attitude, celebrated the joys and achievements of the people around her, and supported her family; even, for example, traveling with some difficulty to attend my high school graduation in New Jersey. And she created, on the farm, an atmosphere of love, acceptance, and contentment that made the house a home and a favorite gathering place for family.

Truly, my grandmother was an exceptional person, and one of my personal heroes. I was very fortunate to know her (and my other wonderful grandparents) for as long as I did. And I think it’s important to think of her; and of Terry Pratchett; and of others from all walks of life that we know and admire for their kindness, giving spirit, strength, innovation, or other excellent qualities when we think of who the heroes really are.

This is not to say that I don’t still love superheroes; but sometimes, it’s good to take a break from fantasy and look around at our realities. Sometimes, they are better and we are luckier than we realize.

So let’s all take a moment to be thankful for the real heroes in our lives; and until next time, Servo Lectio!