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This post is the type our group-writing coordinator @arahant describes as “your chance to bring up topics seldom covered on Ricochet.” Parts of it may be hard to read; they were hard to write. Ultimately, it’s a story of honor, triumph, and most of all, great love.
There are two aspects of this month’s writing theme, zeal, I hope to bring out in this story: great energy or enthusiasm in pursuit of a cause or objective; intense emotion compelling action.
Like many, I don’t usually share online copious identifying details of myself, family or friends. For this story, a true one, I will because for some things detail makes all the difference. So pull up a chair, people, and let me tell ya ’bout my maternal grandmother, Helen Eliza Sulser, born to Floyd and Martha Mae Sulser in 1910. She grew up on a farm in Franklin County, Illinois, the oldest of three children who were born seven years apart from each other. Grandma Helen, or Grammy as I often called her, adored her brothers Stanley and Mayo, but it was Great Grandpa Floyd who called her “Sister” as country folks sometimes do female family members.
Great Grandpa Floyd worked the coal mines for extra money in addition to being a full-time farmer. He was strong as an ox and looked sorta like one now that I think about it, being on the short side and thick in the chest and arms. Mama gets a kick out of telling the story about going with him when she was a child to buy a new vehicle. When he’d picked out the one he wanted, the young salesman made an assumption based on his overalls and well-worn work shoes and asked him, “Which of our credit plans would you prefer, Mr. Sulser?” Grandpa Floyd responded deadpan, “Will cash be alright with you?” and proceeded to write a check for the full purchase amount. That puckish humor didn’t pass to my Grammy, but his twinkling blue eyes, perseverance, honesty, and sense of honor she got in spades.
None of the Sulsers were afraid of hard work, and Grammy did her part to make sure my brother and I were acquainted with the concept of work as well. We knew when we were able to visit her and Grandpa on summer vacations that we’d be working hours in her garden, helping her hang sheets and towels on the outside clothesline, picking and canning fruits from local orchards. All worth it for the privilege of just being with her. Grammy loved on us like nobody else; she gave the best hugs and smacking wet kisses around. Her homemade fruit pies, applesauce, and peach ice cream had nothing to do with our helpfulness. Really.
The only work I ever heard my grandmother complain about was hating to get the eggs from the chicken coop as a young girl. She didn’t like it when the hens pecked or the rooster sometimes got mean.
Once I recall casually telling Grammy about a friend in first grade who didn’t want to tell his dad about something he did wrong because it was hard to say out loud. She put down the spoon she was using to stir a heavenly smelling pot, wiped her hands on her apron, came over to me and sat down. I remember the feel of her work-roughened hand on my cheek as she took my attention from my crayons, focused her blue eyes into mine and said, “You must always tell the truth, no matter how hard it is.”
It wasn’t until this last week when, in the middle of some news report about Christine Blasey Ford’s allegations, my mother quietly said, “Mom was raped when she was a young teenage girl,” that I learned how familiar my grandmother was with telling the truth even when it was hard. Shocked doesn’t begin to cover how it felt hearing of a devastating crime against a grandmother I thought I knew.
Corn grows high in southern Illinois. High enough to shield the husband of one of Grammy’s cousins when he cornered her in one of Grandpa Floyd’s fields and violated her with no one around to hear her cries for help. I imagine he thought as a young 13-14 year old that she’d say nothing, be too ashamed and not want to upset the family.
Grandpa Floyd was the first one to see her walking home from the fields after it happened. Somehow my grandmother told her father everything. Grammy said when recounting the story to my mother that she could see him shaking with rage and thought he wanted to kill the man. Instead, he gently picked up Grammy, carried her to the house, sat down in a rocker with her on his lap and let her cry silent tears into his shirt. His only words were to ask her after a while, “Sister, are you ready to talk to the Sheriff?”
With Great Grandpa Floyd’s silent support, Grammy told the county sheriff the details: the who, what, where, and when. She came home and was finally able to clean the evidence of rape from her body. Next morning she got up early as usual to complete her chores. When Grandpa Floyd asked her if she wouldn’t rather Stanley get the eggs for her she said, “Chickens are my job and I’ll do them today.” She knew Grandpa Floyd needed her help with my Great Grandma Martha heavily pregnant with Uncle Mayo.
The cousin by marriage was arrested. My 13- to 14-year-old grandmother sat in a courtroom with her rapist in front of her and testified against him. She lived in a rural community, so the trial and story of what was done to her was in the paper and talked about all over the county. The man went to prison for many years. My great grandfather’s intense rage and desire to avenge his firstborn and much-beloved daughter ended in justice. Years later when my mother asked her why she decided to do what she did, Grammy replied, “He was bad, not me. And I didn’t want him to be able to do to another girl what he did to me.”
Dear God, if that’s not determined pursuit of an objective — zeal — I don’t know what is. This country was built by people like my grandmother. Men and women of courage, not afraid to face down and put away wickedness. We owe it to them to confront and defeat those who want to twist our nation’s heritage into a parody of truth and justice by gender/race/class.
For the record, my grandmother not only triumphed over evil done to her, she thrived and lived a full life happily married with two daughters. six grandchildren, and several great-grandchildren whom she lived to see. I recall her saying to me with a smile on her face I thought funny looking at the time. that she’d married the best looking man in two counties. Grandpa sauntered in and asked, “Just two counties, Helen?” I left them to it when the mushy stuff started. Obviously, she didn’t let what was done to her as a young girl define her marriage. Yeah, Grammy!
I debated about writing this story; it’s not the sort I normally read in group writing entries or anywhere else in my time on Ricochet, come to think of it. In the end, immense respect for my grandmother and my own intense, compelling emotion meant I couldn’t not tell it. Mom thinks Grammy would be okay with it, even proud. It’s not marked Members Only, either, because she’s not unique in her experience, and maybe her story will encourage someone else to be able to come forward to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth so help me God.
My young grandmother had more courage to confront wrong than many grown men and women on Capitol Hill have shown this past month. Knowing all about defending your honor, she would have listened to Brett Kavanaugh September 27, 2018, and known exactly what he was saying and why. I leave to you to imagine what she would have thought and said of Christine Blasey Ford.
I’ve always loved her. Now I’m in awe of her. I don’t have words adequate to express my grandmother’s honor, but in her honor, I’ll close the post with a song that always brings her to my mind.
They are faces in photographs, heads all held high
Not afraid to look life in the eye
They were women with backbone, keepers of the flame
With a spirit even hard times couldn’t tame
And I know that this same blood is in me
And I meet their gaze one by one
Eyes strong and clear, I still feel them near
These are the women I come from
The faith that sustained them is bred in my bones
I know what I’m made of, and where I belong
‘Cause these are the women I come from
What did life bring them, what pain did they know
Stories the pictures didn’t show
They were lovers of babies and lovers of God
With lessons and laughter in their songs
Did they dream better dreams for their children
As they prayed silent prayers in the night
“Lord make their way clear, and always be near”