Remembering Grandma Boenish

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Namesake: I was born on my grandfather’s birthday and named after both of my grandmothers. My last living grandparent, the original Anna Boenish, passed away a month ago at the beautiful age of 99. With death oftentimes comes the reminder to recalibrate toward what really matters. After much contemplation, here are some highlights of what I’ve learned from this incredible woman.

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Grandma as a child on the farm with her sisters. She’s the second from the bottom.

A Brief Biography: Grandma was born in 1916 (at a time when women couldn’t vote) as the third of four girls. She was raised on a farm in rural Iowa and went on to teach in a one-room schoolhouse with her sister. She enlisted in WWII as a WAVES – a women’s only division of the Navy. During the war she met my grandfather in Hawaii while he recovered after being shot in Okinawa. She lived in Dyersville, Iowa for the last 58 years of her life – the town where Field of Dreams was filmed. (I bet you can hear it – “If you build it, they will come.”) She was the mother of 8 children, 16 grandchildren, and 6 great-grandchildren.

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A historical photograph of Grandma serving in the WAVES during WWII. She’s the third woman to the right kneeling.

The Wake: My Aunt Mary did an incredible job of putting together the wake. Walking into the funeral home was like walking into a mini museum exhibit about Grandma – complete with historical photographs of her serving in WWII, quilts she made hanging on the wall, and even a ten page college paper she wrote about meeting my grandfather. Aunt Mary said she wanted people like her adult children to come away with a deeper understanding of Grandma. I appreciate that the wake allowed anyone who attended to learn more about the different facets of Grandma’s life.

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Kindness: At the standard meat-and-potatoes meal after the funeral service, family friend Sue and I caught up while standing around the small tables and chairs at the local elementary school cafeteria. While the sermon at Grandma’s funeral focused on how she embodied a life of service, Sue said if she had to choose one word to sum up Grandma it would be kind. I couldn’t agree more. A nurse said she knew my grandmother was about to pass away two days before she died when she didn’t say “thank you” for the first time after being given her eye drops. My Aunt Penny said Grandma not only had a special gift for being kind, but specifically showing kindness to the person in the room who needed it most.

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A Thank You Note: Too often the people who don’t get enough credit for the incredible work they do are caregivers. My cousin who works as a nurse in labor and delivery and I decided to make a large handmade card for our extended family to write thank you notes for the staff at Oakcrest – the nursing home where my grandmother lived for the last five years of her life.

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Letters: When Grandma’s memory started to go, I noticed that one of her favorite things to do was read letters. She’d pick up a letter, smile the whole time while reading it, put it down, and then pick it up again ten minutes later as if she was reading it for the first time – this cycle would repeat many times in one day. Letters were a gift that kept on giving to Grandma, which is why I tried to write her about every other week. At the wake, when a group of nurses came through to pay their respect, one of the nurse’s eyes lit up when she saw my nametag. She said, “Oh Anna! I just loved reading the letters you wrote your grandmother aloud to her!” Handwritten letters carry such power.

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Grandma the Quilter: Upon retiring from being a school teacher, one of Grandma’s favorite hobbies was quilting. Even with sixteen grandchildren, it was normal to open up a box every few years around a birthday or holiday and see a quilt from Grandma. She cycled through the grandchildren and gifted each of us with multiple quilts throughout her lifetime. When I was in elementary school, Grandma gave me a quilt she worked on for fifty years – between 1936 and 1986. (You can probably imagine my mom’s eyes bulging when I opened this gift as a fourth grader, appreciating it, but having no clue what a truly incredible gift this was.) The fifty year quilt is made up of one inch hand pieced squares. Little did Grandma know at the time I would grow to become a quiltmaker, too. The family gifted me with such a prized possession – a photo album containing a picture of almost every quilt Grandma ever made. Check out some of the highlights of this collection (pictured below).

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Trying New Things: Last holiday season, my parents gave me a desk office calendar with a quote, memory, or photo written on each day – talk about an awesome gift. This entry shows my grandma riding a bike for the first time at the age of 84 when she hopped on the back of the tandem with my dad. I love the caption my dad wrote – “It’s never too late to try something new …” – which Grandma most certainly embodied.

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The Big Questions: While I’m sad my grandmother has passed away, what more could someone ask for than 99 years of a fulfilling life? I’m deeply grateful for the many wonderful memories we shared and the gift of carrying on her name. With her death comes the reminder of the bigger questions in life:

  • What matters most?
  • Am I worrying about things that are not that important in the bigger picture?
  • What new things do I want to try before I die?
  • How will I practice kindness, love, and being of service?

For the last few years, the one photo I have posted by my front door is one of my favorite pictures of Grandma (pictured below). It was taken when she was 31 years old holding her first of eight children. It’s a small daily reminder to practice embodying the best qualities of this wonderful woman.

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23 responses to Remembering Grandma Boenish

  1. Ann says:

    What a wonderful tribute. My mom passed away 6 yrs ago at the age of 82. At the reception following her memorial service one of the ladies of her bridge club said “your mom never said an unkind word about anyone”. Even as kids she would give us Thumper’s mom’s admonition “if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all”. I think your gramma and my mom would have been fast friends. Hugs, Ann

    • Thank you for sharing that story about your grandmother! It certainly sounds like they had similar philosophies and would have gotten along well :) Anna B.

  2. Sue says:

    Anna, I have come back twice this morning, read and re-read this post. It is so well expressed, and so touching, and I am sure Grandma Boenish is smiling at this lovely tribute. How wonderful that the family has made you the custodian of her quilting history…that is something to treasure. It was my own two grandmothers, one especially, who started me on my life-long sewing habit, and though they are both long gone now, I still feel them with me when I’m working. Well done and thank you for sharing these memories.

    • Oh wow – thank you for your kind comment and taking the time to read it twice! You’re right – the photo album is a definite gift. How wonderful to hear that both of your grandmothers were quilters too. Thanks for sharing! Anna B.

  3. Lola Baragary says:

    I enjoyed seeing your grandma at the EKLC in Dyersville. I went to Beckman High School with your aunt Susan and I saw her at Beckman a few years ago (would have been our 45th reunion) and they took a group picture of those attending. I took care of Grandpa Hans in surgery at Mercy in DBQ, At the cemetery they are either in the same row as my parents Maurice and Helen Willenborg ( first grave on the South side of the driveway). Please give my sympathy to Susan and also to you. Anna was a wonderful lady!!!!!

    • Wow! How wonderful to hear about your connections to Dyersville, Aunt Susie, and Beckman High School. Thanks for taking care of Grandpa too! He’s the person whose birthday I was born on. I never got the chance to meet him before he passed, but I’ve heard many stories about him :) To hear they’re all buried in the same row – what a small world. Thanks for leaving a comment with all these great stories and connections! Anna B.

  4. Tami Miller Schultz says:

    What a wonderful story! I had the honor to have Mrs. Boenish as my 1st grade teacher at Farley Elementary in 1981-82. She has always had a special place in my heart as one of my favorites! I loved her smile & heart!

  5. Tami Miller Schultz says:

    I forgot to mention, I was honored & pleased to find out that she was a Navy Veteran. I was a Dental Technician in the United States Naval Reserves for 10 years. Thanks for sharing your Grandma with all of us!

    • Wow Tami – I was absolutely floored to read this. Thank you so much for sharing that you were in her first grade class and that you both served in the military. I’m so grateful you found this post and shared your connection with her! When I read your comment to my boyfriend, he said, “That’s the best thing I’ve heard all day.” Anna B.

  6. Shelley (Coyle) Kromminga says:

    Your Grandma was my first grade teacher in 1976. I have to say she was one of my favorite teachers. She truly was a wonderful lady who made an impact on my life.

    • Wow! Two comments within a few minutes of each other about having Grandma as your first grade teacher. Thank you so much for sharing your connection with her! I am so grateful that you took the time to let me know. Anna B.

  7. Penny boenish says:

    Once again I am reminded of what I am grateful for- having had a person like Ann in our lives! thanks for the wonderful tribute. Penny B.

  8. Vicky Wunder Geers says:

    Thank you for your lovely tribute to your grandmother. She was a wonderful friend and a treasure to so many. I have read and re-read your post with tears and admiration for your family. I am amazed that you have chosen quilting as a career. Quilting threads run deep. I first met Ann through quilting and our group spent many wonderful hours together. The quilt that you received as a child was quilted at my house and the other “lefty” was my daughter. Those are special memories. I wish you continued success.

    • Thank you so much for taking the time to let me know about your connection to Grandma! Wow – how wonderful to learn she worked on the fifty year quilt at your house and the other lefty in the photo is your daughter! The moment I saw that picture in the photo album it instantly became one of my favorites – it’s such a lovely picture with a great caption. Quilting buddies are some of the best! Thanks again for reading the post and sharing more of the story with me. Anna B.

  9. Charlie Trowbridge says:

    Just saw the fb post of your new quilt and decided to check out the site. Following your heart just lets you shine through and it’s beautiful. This post about your Grandma is heartwarming and poignant but what I especially appreciate is the feeling of connection that emanates from both your writing and her life. In these divisive times it is easy (emotionally and cognitively) to forget or simply ignore our connection. Thanks for provoking these thoughts! …and good luck with your business.

    • Charlie! What a wonderful surprise to see this comment from you. One of my greatest joys with writing this blog is how it’s bridged connections with people I haven’t seen in years. What a small, beautifully interconnected world. Thank you for your kind comments. Wishing you a wonderful winter in Alaska! Anna B.

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