Grandma epitomizes the progress of American women

Published 12:00 am Monday, October 30, 2000

My family and about 100 other people celebrated my grandmother a week and a half ago.

Monday, October 30, 2000

My family and about 100 other people celebrated my grandmother a week and a half ago. Not that we don’t celebrate her continued existence privately almost daily, but this was definitely an occasion: 90 years old and still going strong.

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In keeping with the Peterson side of the family, there was lots of coffee and a big birthday cake for Grandma’s 90th, plus lots of conversation and reminiscing.

For me, Genevieve Eileen (Test) Peterson epitomizes the women in America and the steps they’ve taken over the last century.

Born Oct. 11, 1910, on a dairy farm near Mitchell, S.D., she had one brother and one sister. They all went to school, and graduated from the high school in Mitchell. Her stories of riding to school in town first behind a team of horses and later in a Model T Ford show the progress from a mostly agricultural society into the industrial age.

She met my grandfather, George Eric Peterson, at that high school. They didn’t marry right away. Like a lot of other young women, Grandma went to normal school first and trained to be a teacher. She taught sixth- through eighth-grade at a little school in South Dakota for a year and then subbed at her old high school for a whole year, delaying her marriage from Christmas to June so she could earn some more money to buy household items.

"We were married right in the depths of the Depression," she said. "We didn’t know we were poor, everyone was."

I was flabbergasted when she told me that one of the first trips they took was to a doctor in Des Moines, Iowa, where she consulted with a doctor about family planning.

"I didn’t want to be one of those women who had eight children and then keeled over dead," she told me. "I had learned about birth control at a YWCA camp and we planned to use it."

They had my Dad three years later and his younger brother, Ralph, seven years after that. For the most part, Grandma Gen stayed home to raise them at their little house on Dover Street in Worthington, Minn.

Like my other grandmother, her teaching career had to end after she married.

She was a proofreader for the paper in Worthington for a spell, a skill I often wish I could call on here if only she lived a little closer. According to her, she can "spot a misspelled word at 30 paces.

The First Methodist Church has been an important part of her life. She worked there for 15 years after the kids were grown, coordinating their education program. Back then, from 1960 to 1975, there were a lot more mothers who could volunteer to teach on Wednesday afternoons and Sunday mornings. Nowadays, she said, she doubts she could find enough mothers not working on a Wednesday afternoon.

The church is still very much a part of Grandma’s life.

Sunday mornings aside, every Friday morning she has the "Methodist widows" over to her high-rise apartment for coffee. At 90, it’s a rapidly shrinking group of women, but they still manage to have a good time, even if only one or two show up.

We went as a family to church before her birthday party two Sundays ago and managed to fill two pews, a proud moment for Grandma I think, and for us, even if most of us aren’t regular churchgoers.

After she retired from the church, she took a part-time job at the city’s art center. She worked there for another 13 years, a second career that she retired from when she was around 80 years old I think.

"It was a fascinating job," she said. "I learned so much about the artists and their work when I was there. I still enjoy going to the exhibits."

To me, although it seems like she was always a woman with a strong character, it seems that Grandma Gen really blossomed the older she got. Never a wallflower, her good humor is legendary now. She certainly knows how to tell it like it is.

For her, the role of women has changed tremendously.

"Women were known only as somebody’s teacher, music instructor – there weren’t a lot of jobs open to women in those earlier days," she said. "You were known as someone’s wife or mother, not for what kind of work you did. Many times a woman was just known by who she was married to and what farm she lived on."

What next? For Grandma, there are still a lot of good books to read, letters to write, jokes to memorize, her first great-grandchild to get to know and another big party at 95 to celebrate.

She’s got the right attitude about life – it’s for the living. As people left her party two Sundays ago I heard her tell them: "You don’t have to come to my funeral now. You were here today."

Jana Peterson’s column appears Wednesday