My great-grandmother Ruby Peck died Feb. 26, 2017 at the age of 103. For most of my life she lived alone in a small house set amid the rolling hills of southern Pennsylvania.
My great-grandmother was a rock-ribbed Republican who voted that way because the GOP was the party of Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant. These men were not abstract figures to her. She lived closer to their era than we do now to John F. Kennedy.
Grandma Peck just missed her March 18 birthday. She also missed Women’s History month, though I think she would have been OK with that. My great-grandmother didn’t need a history month. She lived most of it first hand.
Her daughter Pauline, my grandmother, was the only of her children to move far away from her. My grandfather whisked her to a life of luxury in a little iron ore-stained white house in Keewatin, Minnesota. So our branch of the family didn’t see my great-grandmother very often.
I remember Ruby and my great-grandfather Jobe visiting Minnesota when I was very young. When I was 12, my grandparents brought me out to Pennsylvania for a weeklong visit with my great-grandmother. I thought it was funny how she talked about “doing the *warsh* and those folks up in *Warshington.*
She thrived as a widow on her own, and would the rest of her days. She did her own cooking and cleaning. Drove well into her ‘90s. The only real hardship she suffered was losing most of her eyesight and hearing. Though her mind, full of opinions, remained sharp. She played an active role in her church and in the lives of her family.
Even though I didn’t see her much, she remembered me up in the woods of Northern Minnesota. One letter arrived during my freshman year at college.
“I’m not sure a young man and an old woman have something in common,” she wrote. “But we’ll find out!”
She had talked to my grandma, who had told her about my plans to conquer the world by the time I was 30.
“I never went to college but did graduate from high school,” she wrote. “That was 67 years ago! [This was in January 1999] Won’t need to tell you that times have changed since then. Very much so. But I’m glad I’ve lived in the span of years between the horse and buggy until now. But keep the good works, study lots, learn all you can. Then perhaps you will reach your dreams. Maybe become Governor, Senator, maybe even President!”
Grandma Peck became part of the first graduating class at Warfordsburg High School in 1931. (She was the also last surviving member of the class). Before high school she attended a one room school. She lived at a time when women typically stayed home to raise families. With the Great Depression in full swing, college simply wasn’t an option. She made the best of her life just the same, encouraging her descendants to do what wasn’t available to her.
Less than two years later I was getting married. Another letter arrived in the mail. Though I’m still trying to track down the original, I remember its content very fondly. She offered the usual congratulations and a small amount of advice. Then the remaining two pages simply described her wedding.
Hardly the showy affair of today’s nuptials, Ruby and Jobe were married June 5, 1933. She described an informal gathering of family and community members. She picked her dress for its practicality, for she would wear it often for many years to come. An entirely different set of traditions were common at the time, including the practice of raising the bride and groom up in the air on chairs, gently bonking their heads on the ceiling for good luck.
She approved of our decision to get married in a small outdoor family service. I’m proud that I still have the suit. It, um, almost fits.
As it got harder for her to see, Grandma Peck wrote less in her annual Christmas cards. One of the last messages she was able to send was this:
“It must be nice, back up there in the woods and the lake,” she wrote. “Enjoy it all while you can. All too soon the boys will be grown and you will wonder where the time went.”
It goes fast, I’ve long since confirmed. Great-Grandma Peck lived a century in the blink of an eye. And she lived as an example of dignity and love. She reminds me that history is lived by people like her. People like us.
Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, March 26, 2017 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.