Remembering Grandma

My grandmother, Anne Sopko, was born Anna Collner on July 18, 1908. She weighed only three pounds at birth, and her mother was told by the doctor, “Don’t get too attached to this one.” Grandma died on November 26, 2007, at the age of 99.  Throughout her life, Grandma defied the limitations placed on her and made her way in a world that did not encourage the accomplishments of women.

It’s Not the Destination; It’s the Journey

As a child, Anna was somewhat of a troublemaker. When her family got their first car, her father began to teach her brothers to drive, but would not teach 14-year-old Anna. Stubbornly refusing to be left out, Anna took the keys to the car and went into the garage to start it up. She got the car in gear, but had neglected to open the garage door. After crashing through the garage door, Anna was eventually allowed to learn to drive. In high school, she dated the captain of the football team. He skipped practice so often to go out with her that the coach came up to her and told her that she had to let him come to practice because the team needed him.

Anne (which she always pronounced “Annie”) was an accomplished piano player, and played professionally, touring Illinois, Iowa, and Wisconsin with an orchestra (what today we would call big band). Her orchestra once opened for Glenn Miller. Music was always a big part of her life. After she left professional music, she played the organ at church, and gave piano lessons. The centerpiece of her living room was a beautiful baby grand piano that her husband bought for her. In the days before TV, Grandma entertained her family by playing the piano after dinner and leading family sing-a-longs.

Love and Losses

Anne met her husband, George, when he came to the house selling neckties door-to door. Anne’s family was Croatian, and George was Slovenian. For that reason, Anne’s mother did not approve of George as a suitor. Once when George came to pick up Anne for a date, Anne’s mother chased him away with a broom. Despite the challenges, Anne and George were married in May of 1933. They opened a business together, a tavern, and had twin daughters (my mother and aunt) in 1938.

Grandma suffered many losses in her life. A beloved older sister died of tuberculosis in 1918. She had given birth to triplets, but one daughter died shortly after birth from a heart defect.  A close friend was killed in action in WWII, a brother died in a car crash, and her parents died within three years of each other –  her father in 1944 and her mother in 1947. Her biggest loss, though, was the death of her husband in 1950.

No Rest for the Weary

After my grandfather died, Grandma was left with two young children. George had been sick for some time, and money was tight. At one point, Anne worked four jobs to support her family. Her full time job was at the military arsenal in Joliet, Illinois, a 50 minute drive (before the interstate system) from where she lived.  Her job was as an accountant, but since she did not have a college degree, she was not allowed to be promoted past a certain point. Twice during her time at the arsenal, she had to train her boss.

Since she had never had a chance to go to college, Grandma was determined that her daughters would have a college education.  Grandma lived frugally, and was able to send her daughters to college, where they both earned degrees in chemistry. My mother worked for the FDA until she became pregnant with me, and my aunt worked for over 50 years as a nuclear medicine technician.

Better Alone than with the Wrong Man

Always popular, Grandma had boyfriends after her husband died. She dated one man, Andy, for three years while her daughters were in late middle school and early high school. Everyone thought Grandma and Andy were going to get married, but when they began to discuss marriage, Andy’s family insisted that he ask her to sign over her house since he was taking on the responsibility of raising Grandma’s children. Grandma flatly refused, so she and Andy broke up.

In 1963, Grandma remarried. After the wedding, Leo changed and became abusive towards my grandmother. Though divorce was not uncommon in 1965, Grandma was a devout Roman Catholic, and Catholics did not divorce. After the abuse became intolerable, Grandma was advised by a priest to leave Leo, and she eventually had the marriage annulled, something most women, much less Catholics, did not do at that time.

Growing Old Isn’t for the Weak

Grandma’s great determination never left her. When she was 95, she fell on the bottom step of her basement and broke her hip. Crawling back up the stairs, she was able to call a neighbor for help. After the surgery to repair her hip, Grandma sailed through rehab. The nurses at the hospital were amazed at how quickly she bounced back. Many elderly people who break their hips do not recover, and a large number of them pass away within six months.  Grandma was back home within three months.

At 98, Grandma was no longer able to live alone. She had to give up the house she had built after the death of her husband, and where she has raised her children. Life in assisted living was hard on her, as her hearing and her eyesight were failing. As someone who never had problems making friends, Grandma could not hear or recognize the new people around her. Nonetheless, her indomitable spirit was there. Sitting in the lounge, she would sometimes comment, “Look at those old people,” though she probably had 10-15 years on most of them.

Finally, Grandma’s body gave out. Two months before she turned 99, she fell again, breaking her leg. Her bones were too soft to properly heal, and so she was confined to a wheelchair. Though she did well in rehab for a few weeks, she started to decline. On the Monday after Thanksgiving, 2007, she died surrounded by family, peacefully in bed. When my dad called to tell me she was gone, I could not fathom it, even though I knew she was fading. It did not seem possible that the incredible vibrancy that had been my grandmother could possibly not be there anymore.

A Wonderful Life

Anne Sopko was not famous. She did not change the world with inventions, wield great power, or make millions of dollars – things often associated with an extraordinary life. Rather, Anne’s life was extraordinary in how she faced the challenges she was given. For most of her life, women were not encouraged to be independent, outspoken, or educated. Anne always made her own way, said what she thought, and as a single mother made sure her daughters had the education she could not have. Anne also chose to make her way alone rather than compromise herself or what she had earned.

Maya Angelou once wrote “We may encounter many defeats but we must not be defeated.” Grandma was never defeated. She was a powerful example of an independent woman, and raised her daughters to be confident, accomplished women. Her spirit lives on in the achievements of her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, as she set a shining example of how to live life on one’s own terms no matter what happens along the way.

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