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Posted: May 9, 2010 12:00 a.m.

Touching the Blarney Stone: Grandma taught me to walk

My Grandmother Cope would have been 112 this year. I miss her and everyday I thank her for the strength and character she gave me. To this day when I fall short, I feel I have disappointed her.

She was born in Charlottesville, Va., in 1898. Her father, my great-grandfather was a hauler. He was killed when she was very young when a wagon he was fixing rolled over him. My great-grandmother died soon after that.

My grandmother and her two sisters and a brother were placed in a new school for orphans located in the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains close to Charlottesville. Still on the wall of Miller School today is a plaque of some sort placed by my grandmother when she was a child that says "Ann Stratton."

She stayed in that school until she was 18 and received an education that was equivalent to a college degree today.

She first became a teacher and then one of the first women to serve her country, joining the Yeomenets during World War I, a move that was to pay off for her proudly in her later years. After the war she met and married my grandfather, Frank Cope, a very dashing Tennessean who served as a special guard to the White House during World War 1. They moved to Arizona and my mother was born in Phoenix.

I suspect she thought she would settle down to a long happy life of being a mother and a housekeeper in Arizona
But my grandfather received a serious head injury in a work accident, and although he was very talented, he never could settle down in a serious job after that. My grandmother had to become the breadwinner for a family that now included two daughters. So they moved back east.
She began a job working for the federal government in Washington, D.C. Over the years she rose to the rank of Chief of Teletype, which for women in those days was a remarkable responsibility and placed her way ahead of her time.

Being head of teletype for the Veterans Administration in the late 1940s and early 1950s was the same as being a head of the whole communications system for that department today. My grandmother retired in 1954.
I loved to visit my grandmother and grandfather during the summer months. I got in to watch wrestling (I can still remember Gorgeous George and Antonio Rocco), eat ice cream, drink soft drinks and stay up late. My grandmother wasn't the greatest cook, but on Sundays she would fix the best fried chicken, mashed potatoes with white gravy and lima beans you ever ate.

During the summer of 1960 I slipped under a lawnmower and cut a few toes off. I spent most of the summer of that year in the hospital while they tried to save my big toe. During that time I became a fat, spoiled, ruthless little brat.

Finally, in August the decision was made that my large toe was not going to make it. I soon went home to recuperate with my crutches and with the notion that I would not walk right again. I went to stay with my grandmother so I could continue my spoiled rotten ways.
My grandparents lived across the street from a big shopping center with a large drug store. That was the home of an old-fashioned snack counter where you could get the coldest lemonade and the best ice cream.
On my first day home, I was the center of attention of the kids in the neighborhood because of my wheelchair and of course every night I had my ice cream and drinks with my grandparents. On the third day I awoke to find my crutches and wheelchair gone, and in their place was a cane. I asked my grandmother about it. She told me it was time for me to start walking and that not doing so was all in my head.

I cried. I wailed. I threw fits and told her I could not walk right and I never would.

She told me that if wished to continue to eat ice cream or drink lemonade at her house I was going to have to walk over to that drug store alone and get what I needed. I looked across the street and that drugstore now looked like it was five miles away. I told her I would not do it, so for three more days my grandparents ate their ice cream and drank their drinks in front of me. In spite of every emotion I showed them, they refused to share.

The fourth day home was the hottest day of the summer and for some reason the air conditioning mysteriously didn't work. I finally had enough, so I grabbed that cane and dragged myself across that street with sweat pouring out of every pore.

Finally I dragged myself into that drug store, which was so cool, limped up to the counter and ordered everything I wanted until I got sick. My grandmother taught me I could walk and I could do anything else I ever wanted to do if I put my mind to it.

My grandfather died not long after that and my grandmother moved to Annapolis. When I was 16, I moved in with her. She had rules and I never broke them. She would wash my clothes by hand; sometimes hanging up clothes she determined weren't as dirty as I did. I never said anything. I just wore them again.

She talked to me about her life. She talked to me about how I should live mine. She encouraged me to save money. I wish I had listened to her. She encouraged me to be a gentleman at all times. I still say "Yes Ma'am" and "No Sir," even to young people.

She smoked about five packs of cigarettes a day, but she claimed she never inhaled. Every day she dressed to face the world wearing earrings and her fake pearl necklace.
I always wondered how I kept my job as a paperboy even though I sometimes slacked off; years later my former editor told me that grandma would call him regularly to chat over coffee and convince him that I was really a good boy.

At one time I was very overweight, not much different than now, and I told her I was going to go on some diet. She said that was silly and she would fix foods and the right proportions of them and I would lose weight. She was right, as always. I followed her directions and soon I was at the correct weight.

When I was 21, I married and moved away. It broke her heart. About two years later my grandmother and I went on a grand trip as we drove through Charlottesville and on to Tennessee to meet and see relatives I had only heard of previously. My grandmother was treated like she was the grand queen on that trip and I felt the happiest I had in years just being with her. It was our last extended time together.

Soon after that my grandmother told my aunt that she just couldn't handle things anymore, so my mother and aunt took her home with them. But, she wanted what she had earned being in the service, so she rebelled until she was allowed to sign herself in at Perry Point Veterans Hospital outside of Baltimore, Md. - a beautiful place located on the Chesapeake Bay.

My grandmother had a form of dementia, but she had made her mind up before that disease sunk in that she deserved to be waited on and taken care of for the first time in her life.

I went to visit her when I could. She continued to challenge me on everything in my life - sharp as ever. I complained to my family that she was OK and should be home, but she really wasn't.

She died in the early 1980s and was buried, in her own right, at Arlington Cemetery right next to my grandfather with her own tombstone and full military honors. When I go to Washington, I go to Arlington to visit her.

When things got rough in her life, my grandmother would pull out her yellowed copy of the Serenity Prayer and said reading it always put things in perspective for her.
Grandma, you were an inspiration that has driven my very soul. I never got to tell you that. And guess what - I looked up that Serenity Prayer recently and you were right, as always. It helped put my disappointments into a perspective.

You told me once that you believed in me, and that you were proud of me and that you felt I would do great things some day. I think I have not achieved all of your lofty predictions, but I am still trying. I hope you don't mind that for Mother's Day I wrote this story about you.

Those that still have their grandmothers and mothers here, I hope you will take a few minutes to tell them that you love them this Mother' Day. Or, if they have passed, take the time to remember everything you felt made them special.

T. Pat Cavanaugh is the general manager of The CovingtonNews.


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