January 20 was the birthday of Bertha Webner, my paternal grandmother. She lived well into her 90s and, when she finally went to join her sisters in the Great Beyond, left some indelible memories for me and her other friends and relatives.
Bertha Webner, in her later years
Gramma Webner was one of those people who exemplified the complexities, and contradictions, of the human spirit. She was a fun, supportive person with a great sense of humor who was always patient with and encouraging to her grandchildren. She could laugh at herself, and the photo attached to this posting aptly captures the twinkle in her eyes and ready smile on her lips. At the same time, however, she was a judgmental person who could slice you into ribbons for a badly played bridge hand or a refusal to go to church on a pretty Sunday morning. At times, her sharp comments about cooking or housekeeping would reduce her daughters-in-law to tears.
Her life story is an interesting one. Born to a large family in Uhrichsville, Ohio, she was close to her four sisters, who knew her as “Buss.” Her life changed forever in her childhood, when she suffered an accident on a playground. She was up in the air on a teeter-totter when the child at the bottom stepped off; she came crashing to the ground and her hip was shattered. The doctors in her small town set the bone in a way that left one leg permanently shorter than the other. For the rest of her life, Gramma wore special shoes, one of which had a five or six-inch raised heel, walked with a pronounced hitch in her step, and was in constant discomfort.
She didn’t let her physical condition bother her, however. She had obvious musical talent, learned how to play piano “by ear,” and went to Bethany College to study music. Sixty years later, she could still entertain everyone at family gatherings with her piano playing. She played the piano for hours at Mom and Dad’s Ohio State football game parties and in the get-together the night before Kish and I were married. I’ve met many people with amazing talents and abilities, but Gramma’s ability to play the piano “by ear” ranks pretty high on the list. You could simply hum a song and she could convert it into a beautifully rendered piece that people just wanted to sing along to — whether they could sing or not.
She married my grandfather, had three sons, reared them during the Great Depression, and saw all three sons get advanced degrees. She was a wonderful cook who made great, old-fashioned comfort food like baked chicken, mashed potatoes, and tapioca pudding. The kitchen in her home on Emma Avenue in Akron, Ohio was a wonderful place for a kid, filled with mouth-watering smells and all sorts of pots, pans, spoons, and utensils to play with. For years, it was a family tradition for every birthday to be celebrated with an angel food cake that Gramma baked — a cake that was always partially collapsed on one side, to be (unsuccessfully) filled in by an extra lathering of sugary icing.
My grandfather got lung cancer when he was in his sixties, and she nursed him in their house as the disease took its inevitable, horrible toll. After Grampa died, she picked up and moved back to Uhrichsville to be with her sisters; they spent their days playing cards, gossiping with friends, going to church, and having Sunday brunch at the old Buckeye Hotel. Still later, after her sisters died, she moved to Reston, Virginia, where my uncle and aunt and their family lived. At that time, Kish and I were living in Washington, D.C., and on Saturdays we would go to her retirement complex and take her out to lunch. During those lunches she loved to share a laugh and a good story about family members — the more salacious, the better.
While she lived in Reston she had to be hospitalized, and everyone expected the worst. Her indomitable spirit carried her through, however, and during our visits she delighted Kish and me with her funny stories about the weird happenings and odd smells at the nursing home where she regained her health. There is no doubt in my mind that her sense of humor was one of the reasons she recovered quickly from a debilitating condition, even though she was in her 80s. She ultimately left the nursing home and moved back into her apartment at the retirement community, where she was later named Woman of the Year. When, well into her 90s, her heart and her health finally began to fail her, she was comforted by her strong religious faith and happy that she would soon be seeing her sisters who, she was sure, were waiting for her in a better place.
It’s hard to capture a person in a short blog posting, but I am not sure that I could capture Gramma in a tome the length of War and Peace. I just know that when I see her picture every morning I smile.