Interview with G.E.M. - Her Love for Others
(Only nicknames or middle names will be used in my interviews to help protect each person’s privacy.)
G.E.M, tell me a bit about yourself.
I’m an old woman with a young heart. Come spring, when redbuds and dogwoods flower, I’ll turn 89, Lord granting. Being out among God’s creations makes me happy. Even light rain is special. Mist reframes everything. If sunbeams break through, oh! expression fails me. When I walk outdoors, sometimes a cane is helpful. Indoors, it’s a hindrance to getting chores done.
If you look back at your life, to what were you most devoted?
I hope this doesn't sound like bragging. Most of my life has been spent in helping others. I discovered early in life that it brought me joy. The first half of my life, I was responsible for child care from the birth of my first sibling until my seventh child was grown; the last half has been end-of-life care for the aged. That seems to be God’s will for me. My second husband is my third patient, and I’m aware he may outlive me.
Tell me more.
I entered college the autumn before my 50th year, and after graduation, my teaching students with disabilities and kindergartners until retirement overlapped with care for the aged.
For example, my mother was able to do a few elementary things for herself as long as I had everything prepared for her. My first husband was able to be nearby during the day while I taught. But nights and weekends, I took over: paperwork and bills, baths, laundry, cleaning, cooking, shopping, and dressing her for shopping trips, visits to family, and church. Sometimes, it was necessary to take off work for medical appointments.
Worn out beyond words, at times, I had to find ways to give myself little breaks to regain strength and change perspectives: a memory verse, a prayer, a few lines of poetry, or a quick contact via phone or email with a friend. Somehow it all worked out around extra planning and preparations for my classes. I give God the credit. It just wouldn’t have been doable on my own. And yes, I’d do it again—no regrets.
I hear you. You have no regrets about all that caregiving.
Well, it wasn’t all work. We had fun along the way. Even more in summer when school was out and during holiday and semester breaks. Mom loved people, and her friends were so special to her. So we visited more, found places where Mom could be comfortable eating out, shopped extra, sewed, planned gardens, had some “humdinger” birthday parties with cakes, flowers, family, and friends gathering to share those with her. And we traveled. Oh, the places we’d go!
G.E.M, what do you suppose helped you the most as a child to become the human being you are today?
My grandmother cared for me most of the time during my first few years of life. She was firm but patient, kind, and loving. Though she loved people, she could tongue-lash the hide off them, especially her own young if they took to immorality. No excuses! She was there to help them if they really tried to do better. “People make mistakes and there are always consequences. Maybe they can never ‘live ’em down,’ but they can learn and do different,” she’d say.
Grandma’s parents lived until it was about time for me to begin attending classes at our one-room country school. I loved them and still feel rich from knowing them and being part of the huge crowd of cousins, uncles and aunts, and neighbors who joined the gathering. How Great-grandma and women of the family managed to prepare all that garden produce, field and wild meats in those huge iron kettles and dishpans for those dinners still amazes me! Finding enough serving dishes was a search operation. Wooden bowls and platters, even bucket lids, were used. Two of us might even have to share a plate. But sitting on the edge of the front porch, swinging my legs back and forth, eating and laughing with cousins—I was one happy kid! Family was important.
Many people today do not have such roots, especially young people. I believe it could make a tremendous difference in their lives. I hope memories of me will be a blessing to my young.
Yes, it sounds like you lived the importance of family every day.
I did. We lived with other Ozark Hills folks, mostly small farm owners or sharecroppers who took nearly all their needs or “make dos” from the land. We had no money. I remember the first change my dad ever showed me. He dropped a penny, and it fell through the cracks in our front porch. I had to crawl under that porch where the hound dogs slept and the chickens shaded during their rest from de-bugging our yard. Sometimes the hens laid eggs there, too. Nasty, dusty place. But I found the eggs, and I found that penny, too.
Until WWII, the Great Depression still held a terrible grip on us. Anything that we needed but couldn’t provide from row cropping had to come from trading extra hen eggs, hides of animals trapped or hunted to save our crops and to provide wild meat (if considered edible), and timber products such as stave bolts and crossties. If income was gained from the latter, it went for extra farm animal feed, maybe for shoes or coats or “long-handles”—underwear for the men who had to work outdoors in the winter cold.
The Great Depression had a grasp on the country. Whatever you knew in the Depression years may have become the norm for you.
Yes, I was not alone. Every girl learned to cook and sew. The outgrown clothes and those of deceased family and neighbors were remade for others, mostly by hand. Then feedbags came on the scene, and most of my clothes were made from those. Sugar and flour began to come in good cloth sacks. At first, the dye was difficult to bleach out, and my undies were falsely labeled “sugar” or belonged to somebody named “Martha White.” Few owned treadle sewing machines. Nearly every family had handmade quilting frames which hung from the ceiling. I learned to piece quilt blocks and do quilting long before my teen years.
Another memory includes recipes—treasuring and passing them on to descendants or swapping with friends, even giving them as Christmas gifts—often with samples of the recipe! I also recall my grandfather having a shoe last for shoe making and mending. He made shoes from home-tanned animal hides.
It was another way to live, wasn’t it? I’m fascinated, G.E.M., because I grew up as a town/city kid, but you were a farm girl.
Guilty! I was a farm girl. In our community, folks “traded” work or worked a day for a bushel of turnips or other produce they could use. Of course, they worked longer for a pig or two. Cotton chopping and picking—those chores were usually done by families helping each other.
People depended on each other.
They did. Neighbors were especially close during sicknesses and in times of grief. The lesson of caring and helping others came naturally to me from observing and from helping. My parents assigned me chores for aging grandparents, uncles, aunts, the widowed or ill of the community. I milked their cows, carried wood and water, cleaned and helped Mom do their laundry and ironing. Sometimes, I had to walk a mile or two to their homes. Then, when finished with their chores, I’d hurry home to do ours.
I’m curious about what you miss the most about that period of time.
Probably the power and personal growth that comes from overcoming obstacles in the closeness and support of families. In all fairness, though, I still am blessed by an ample supply of it in my own young descendants. Thankful, too, because I am clear that my own stamina is decreasing with the years. But who knows what’s ahead? Perhaps even richer experiences, maybe beyond all imagination.
G.E.M, I’ve known you as a woman of letters, a poet, an encourager. You have a gifted way of tapping into common experiences with precise language. Where does that come from? Were there sacrifices to be made?
I married at 18, “throwing away” my high school scholarship, folks said. It wasn’t until my seventh child could drive that I used that scholarship and entered college just before turning 50 years old. I had helped teachers, even taught some classes for the government at my children’s school for a few years. My first year of teaching was Kindergarten at Lincoln, in NW Arkansas.
Then my mother became very ill before the next school year. A couple of weeks with her wasn’t enough; she needed constant live-in help. So much for my dreams of more teaching, a couple of more years of college, and our first new house. Mom’s needs were more important. So, my husband and I left our place on Hoot Owl Mountain, our young families and friends, our aspirations, and we moved in with Mom in Sharp County. It was tough. A few of my childhood friends still lived where I grew up, but I had shared so little with them in their young family experiences. It was lonely. But I refused to look back and wish. God never failed me.
So, you came back to your roots, and God did not fail you. Where do friends and community now fit into your world?
Just next below “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” they are my world. If I were not blessed with family, there would still be a family of church siblings, friends, and neighbors.
Beautiful. That’s closeness. What would you say, G.E.M., to people who are afraid of aging? Do you have a message for them?
Oh, I don’t want them to live in fear but in anticipation. Sure, like every stage of life, aging comes with its problems. But it can hold many blessings, too. Who knows what will be found just around the bend? Many happy experiences have “snuck up” and surprised me. If it proves not to be happy, there’s the next time. Good or bad, you need friends to share it with. Keep making friends. Keep being a friend. But allow others space to be imperfect humans. If you get tripped up and a skinned knee, don’t quit and rob yourself. Don’t withdraw in disappointment. Keep traveling and find out what’s around that next bend in your road.
Sounds like scripture: Do not be afraid. I think I heard you once say, “There are more important things than dust.” It made me smile then, and it makes me smile now. What does that mean to you?
Our soul’s earthly house is made of dust, and the dust will finally win and claim us—until the Lord returns for those who trust Him. While we still bear His image, while we have breath and ability, we should live in His love for others. Love is not what many people think it is. It is a gift with no strings attached.
Taking a cue from Grandma, I’m not much of an immoral enabler, but I’m still a lover. We yet have three of the divine gifts: hope, faith, and charity or love. Once we’ve left here and are with Him, we won’t need hope and faith anymore. But love will always be, and loving others is far more important than dust.
Big thoughts. It makes me think of the scripture that says, Love never fails. And because you seem comfortable being vulnerable, I’m going to ask another question. Do you have any suggestions for people suffering from loneliness or loss?
Pretty much like aging. Just lean hard on the One Who knows, understands, and has the power to cope with all things.
Some people fall into despair and depression after an illness or after retirement. I sense that you have not done that. Is that right? In fact, I sense light radiating from you. How have you managed to stay out of that black hole that so many have fallen into?
Actually, I have been in that black hole, and I don’t intend to go back. It’s bad. I had to do some of that “hard leaning” I spoke of earlier. I’ve never found any way to climb back up or stay out except by Higher Power, finding help in talking to Him, letting Him talk to me through His word (Bible), and aided by the love of others. Then I get my mind off my hurt, begin loving others and sharing His light and love again. Life is worth living, deprived-to-rich, hurt-to-loved. You see, the contrast of bad experiences heightens the joy of blessings.
I see. I also remember a note you sent me one time. It said, “There’s a plan for every life….” Along those lines, do you think God has a task for each one of us, even though some of us are in the third stage of life?
I do. And His plan for us will always be far better than any we can imagine. If we refuse to live for Him, we will never know what we missed. As long as we’re allowed life, there’s something worth doing, someone whom we can encourage or be an example.
And that gives meaning to our lives, no matter how old we are. G.E.M, if we talk about the third stage of life as being older than 65, what do you think that stage is all about? Achievement, reflection, teaching, mentoring, or what?
All the above, plus. We find all of those—plus—as we travel along and experience each moment. Are there only three stages? I know eternity is ahead and I’ll live that. However, this hasn’t been too bad, and I’m wondering if there’s another stage here!
I think there are several theories on the stages of life. Paul Zahl, author of Peace in the Last Third of Life, suggests there are three stages, and his theory fits for me, based on my own experiences, so that’s where my question arises.
G.E.M, did you want to live to be old?
My father once said he didn’t want to live to be old. I told him I did. If I lived all the other stages of life, I wanted to live old age, too. We both got our wishes. He and my only brother were victims of a car wreck. I’m still rolling along by the grace of God, and in spite of hurts, heartbreaks, and health struggles, it’s been worth it. I’d do it again, maybe better next time—but we don’t get to travel this way again.
You truly seem to carry an urgent message. Would you like to comment on that?
I really mean this: I think the main thing is to accept life as a gift and as a challenge. We need to live life, love others and ourselves—exactly as God does!
Readers, thank you for reading my interview series focusing on some remarkable women. Please share with those you know who might benefit. (Anyone can receive my blogs by scrolling down and signing up.)
P.S. A list of my published books follows after the beautiful drawing of G.E.M. by Mary Chambers of Jonesboro, Arkansas.
Drawing of "G.E.M." by Mary Chambers, Jonesboro, Arkansas.
Poetry Books by Pat Durmon
Prose by Pat Durmon
The story of Lee R. Farrier from Norfork, Arkansas, is Pat's first book of prose and a tribute to Lee, the town of Norfork, and its people. All profits from sales go toward a scholarship at Norfork High School.