Back & Sad

We all have goodbyes we have to say. Some are harder than others. This one is harder than I thought it’d be. DSC_5845_filtered

This is a picture of my grandmother, Helen, back when she was a girl. By the looks of it, a teenager. This was her horse, Paint, that she rode to school. She was born August 28, 1926 in Spearfish, South Dakota. She was the youngest child of Harold Dewitt and Pamelia Arbuckle Sloan. She was raised on the homestead ranch her father started 40 miles northwest of Belle Fourche, South Dakota that included the corner stone of South Dakota, Wyoming and Montana. It was a working cattle and sheep ranch with the nearest neighbor miles away. Through third grade she rode triple horseback with her two brothers to a one room prairie schoolhouse. Then, as was the custom for all the “ranch kids”, she lived in a school-girls boarding home in town, only going home on the occasional weekend and the summer.

She had what we would call a “hard-scrabble” childhood. Certainly none of the luxuries we know today, but not even those known in her time. It always sounded to me like Little House on the Prairie, but in the 20th century.

Back last fall, grandma (or G’ma, as she always wrote when she signed something to me) got sick. It was some sort of gastrointestinal thing that she didn’t get taken care of and it grew. My parents were out of town and by the time they got back, she was in the hospital. She was so weak and it took so much work to get the infection under control. After months of nursing care and the realization that she wasn’t ever going to be back the way she was, she died on Saturday, May 16th, in the evening.

Y’all – this is hard. Here I am, a writer, needing to get out what’s inside me about this magnificent woman and I’m stymied. It’s stuck. She was my last surviving grandparent. She was someone I admired, respected, and aspire to be more like. And I cannot find words that are good enough for her.


Grandma Helen and my brother, Andrew, at my wedding in 1995.

I slowly came to know her when my mother met and married my stepfather in 1979 (maybe I met them in 1978, not sure now). I always thought she was amazing. I didn’t fully understand her, because she was a different kind of person. While I and my maternal family were more “emotions on the surface” kind of people, she was not. She was practical, intelligent, and while I know she had emotions, she didn’t wear them out in the open.

You know how I know she had them? Because this divorced woman with 2 kids – one teenaged, one tween – married her eldest son. It was the late 70s – a time when divorcees were still looked at somewhat askance by society. That they were gold-diggers or just looking for a father for their kids. There was still a stigma – not a huge one, but it was still there.

Many mothers looking at this situation would be displeased. They would think their son “deserved better”. At the very least, they might look at their son’s new wife and stepchildren as HIS family, not theirs. This, thankfully, was not the kind of woman that Helen McClain was. She was the opposite. She welcomed my brother and me. She told stories. She played card games with us. But mostly, she just showed us grace and common sense. She lived modestly – even frugally – in a way that today’s environmentalists would view with awe.

Helen graduated as valedictorian of her 1944 high school class. She then went to University of Nebraska. Going to college wasn’t unheard of for women at that time, but women furthering their education in chemistry and bacteriology was, well, unusual. She met my grandfather there and they were married a year before graduation in 1948. They moved to Chicago where she worked for Dupont and Loyola Medical School in their laboratories before leaving the workplace to be a mother.

Grandma with baby Henry in 2004

Over the past 7 years or so, since we moved back to our town where my family lives, I’ve taken to comparing who I am and what I believe with the example my grandmother has shown. I look back upon her wisdom & common sense and I know it’s affected me. I look at how she was so active later in life, walking every day, driving herself everywhere up until she got sick last fall, staying active and fit. That is how I want to be so I can not be dependent on others. She was constantly learning. For over 88 years, she learned. She sought out information. She was interested in what was going on in the world, what new ideas were out there, and that she didn’t know everything. She wasn’t content with the intelligence and knowledge she had – she wanted more. She not only wanted that for herself, she wanted it for others. And her final requests lived that out. She donated her organs and then donated her remains to science. She wished that, to the last moment she could, to encourage learning. Even down to the mortuary science students who might learn more in her cremation.

And what I’m realizing as I look back is that, in addition to all that, Helen McClain was a feminist. In the basic definition of the word – she believed in opportunities, choices, knowledge, learning, and independence for women. As a young girl riding her horse to school. As a young woman studying the sciences in college. As a newlywed using that education in Chicago laboratories. As a wife and mother, choosing to raise her children at home while still involving herself in things she loved like golf, book clubs, bridge clubs. She returned to work in the family business in her 50s as Business Manager (or Supreme Commander, as her business cards said). She helped begin a women’s investment club in our small town at a time when women weren’t exactly encouraged to learn about money. To my grandma, education and lifelong learning are the keys to a woman’s security and future. That is what she lived. She never stopped learning and she always encouraged others to do the same.


Teaching Maggie how to play a game at my mom’s 60th birthday celebration.

And she supported whatever her children and grandchildren chose to pursue. She came to every play, musical, and choir concert I performed in. A dozen years later, she came to all of my brother, Andrew’s. And, almost 20 years after that, she came to all of Maggie’s. I have no idea if she enjoyed a single minute of it. But she was THERE. She supported her step-grandchildren and step-great-grandchildren in the same way and with the same heart as with her biological grandchildren. She was an example to so many.

Well, I found some words. They aren’t good enough. They aren’t even adequate. There’s a lot I wish at this point. I wish our house hadn’t had so much sickness over the winter & spring so I could have visited her without worrying about passing something along. I wish I could have spent more time just talking with her. Considering the stories I did hear, I believe there were many, many more. At the very least, I will make a wish that I could grow to be more like her. That I could turn off more of my insecurities and unbelief in myself and turn on more of the security that comes with knowing who you are and what you’re capable of.

Thank you, Grandma. Thank you for being the grandmother I didn’t have. Thank you for accepting me for who I was, where I was, when I was. You are one of my few idols and I will miss you very, very much.