The Journey to an Education
Grandma was sitting in the living room reading a book. She always seemed to be reading something. In her bedroom, the floor was piled high with reading material. She once warned me, “If you stop reading, your mind will get old.” She was 77 that Christmas. The broad range of her knowledge was welcome in most circles and she laughed easily after which she would dab at the corner of her mouth with a Kleenex.
I walked into the living room and flopped myself on the couch opposite her. She always looked the same to me: smartly dressed, her pure-white hair nicely groomed, the ever-present Kleenex poking out of the cuff of her blouse within easy reach. Dabbing the corner of her mouth with her Kleenex had become so habitual she was no longer aware of how often she performed this ritual. The removal of a facial nerve had left the right side of her mouth paralyzed and it tended to leak saliva.
Her name was Florence, but she was known affectionately to her children as Flossie. I was not allowed to call her that. The reason, I suppose, was the 64 year difference in our ages.
Florence Mabel Gregg was born in Plainview, Minnesota, where her parents had moved after trying their luck homesteading in Walnut Grove. She had lived near the Ingalls family and was 12 years younger than Laura. She was the daughter of a furniture maker and the granddaughter of a Mississippi Riverboat captain whose first name no one remembered and who had died on his boat, in 1850, of smallpox. He was buried at Reed’s Landing on the shore of the great River. It was probably her having been descended from that infamous Scottish clan leader, Rob Roy McGregor that made her the proud lady she was. She had earned a Master’s Degree at a time when women didn’t usually attend college at all. She had successfully raised 5 children on a teacher’s salary after the untimely death of her young husband. Her proudest possession, and one that never left her person, was a pocket watch given her by her father, engraved with the date of her 21st birthday: May 21, 1900.
This was my grandmother. She had been in and out of my life all my life as she moved between her various children’s families, staying a few months with each one.
Grandma put down her book and turned to me. Her face and seemingly frail body betraying the twinkle in her eye as if she was always forcing her aging body to admit that it housed a young woman’s adventuresome spirit.
“How is school?” she inquired, a very logical way for a retired school teacher to begin a conversation with your 13 year old grandson.
Truth is, I hated school. It’s not that I hated learning. I just hated school. Everything about it made me feel dumb and I hated feeling dumb. My emotional maturity had been slowed by my father’s untimely death when I was 2, but my mother had to work to support the family and paying for a babysitter was not within her means. So, she had put me in 1st grade two months after I turned 5, and a few years later, the school principal talked her into skipping my 4th grade entirely. I was in 9th grade at age 13, but with the maturity of a child much younger.
To her question, “How is school? I answered, vaguely, “It’s OK, grandma.”
“What are you learning?” She was a schoolteacher, after all. This was what she wanted to talk about.
“Well, you know,” I answered. “Thanksgiving is next week and we are learning about the Pilgrims.”
“That’s wonderful,” said Grandma, gleefully, finding a topic she loved and that we could share. “Tell me what you’ve learned about the Pilgrims.”
Of all the things my 13 year old brain cared about, included in that were definitely not the Pilgrims. Unfortunately, I heard myself tell this to Grandma.
“I don’t care anything about the Pilgrims, Grandma. That was ancient history.”
A perceptible change came over my grandmother’s countenance. The previous look of inquiry and interest was now a look of disbelief. I knew I had said something very wrong, but, as with most things I said or did at that age, I was confused as to what it might be.
Suddenly a light appeared in grandmother’s eyes as if she had understood something important that pleased her. Slowly she nodded her head and she said, “I see”. Then, she picked up her book and began to read where she had left off. Thus ended our conversation, such as it was.
I went through Thanksgiving and Christmas without another talk with grandma and she finally left and went to stay with one of my aunts.
The end of the school year was approaching. My mother said, “I have bought a canvas tarp. I want you to spread the tarp on the driveway and paint it with the waterproofing paint I bought.”
“Why?” I asked. “What would I do that for?”
“Your grandmother is taking you somewhere,” she said. “She will be here to pick you up the day after school is over.”
I was taken aback. “Taking me somewhere! Where?”
“You’ll see,” she said with such finality, I knew that was all the answer I was going to get.
Saturday morning I spread the canvas on the driveway and painted one side. The southern California sun soon had it dry and I turned the canvas over and painted the other side. By evening, it was dry and waterproof. My mother took out an old suitcase and sat it on my bed. She then dictated the clothes I was to put in it. She avoided all my questions about where I was going with Grandma and how long I would be gone.
The last day of school was most students’ favorite day of the year. It was always my worst because that was the day I received my report card and my grades were always pretty bad. I never saw the point of school. I intuitively knew that most of what I was required to learn had little meaning to my future and was probably meant mainly to fill up the days rather than actually make me a smarter person.
“Pilgrims. I don’t care anything about Pilgrims, grandma. That was ancient history.”
The next morning was Saturday and I awoke to the realization that I had a whole summer ahead of me without school. Since I lived on a hill above the Pacific Ocean, I envisioned three months of body surfing and, generally, being lazy.
During breakfast, my mother announced, “Your grandmother is here!”
My heart sank. “Oh, yeah,” I said as the future began to dawn on my awakening mind, “I’m supposed to be going somewhere with grandma!”
On the back seat of Grandma’s 1948 Chevrolet was a large Coleman cooler on top of which sat a very old Coleman stove. The rest of the back seat was filled with sacks of groceries and more camping gear. Grandma opened the trunk. It was a good thing I had folded my tarp as tightly as I did because there was just enough room in the trunk for it and my little suitcase. The rest of the trunk was stuffed with more camping equipment: a Coleman lantern, a large canvas tent, other odds and ends.
I stepped back and looked at my mother and grandmother. This was not going to be any day-trip, and, it had been planned for some time.
“OK,” my mother beamed. “You guys have a great trip!” She kissed me and her mother and turned toward the house.
Grandma climbed into the driver’s side of the front seat. She motioned me to get in. I opened the passenger door and started to sit down. On the floorboard was a large block of dry ice, sending smoke from its top as if it was a smoldering fire. I had never seen a block of dry ice before. Grandma told me not to touch it as it would burn my skin, but I was to put a foot on the floor on either side of the block.
Grandma turned the key and placed the ball of her right foot on the starter pedal which came out of the floorboard to the right of the break pedal. She shoved her foot downward and the engine chugged a few times and then came to life. She put the car in reverse and we backed out of the driveway. I sat in silence as we drove toward the ocean at the bottom of the hill, and the highway that would take us somewhere still unknown to me.
We drove that way, saying nothing, until we turned east onto a highway marked “Route 66”.
Finally I pointed to the block of dry ice at me feet and said, “What is this for?”
“Air conditioning,” she said, and she grasped a handle coming out from under the middle of the dashboard and pushed it down toward the floorboard. As she did this, a flap opened up on the hood just in front of the windshield. A stream of air began flowing around my feet and over the block of ice sending cool air into our faces. I smiled at Grandma’s resourcefulness.
“Where are we going, grandma?” I then asked.
“Do you see that book on the dashboard? That is the map of our route. I will drive and you will navigate. You will tell me where to go to stay on our route. There are only two rules that we will follow: First, I cannot afford motels, so we will camp each night. When we camp, you will put up my tent. You will sleep outside in a sleeping bag on a cot I brought for you. You have waterproofed a canvas tarp that you will put next to your cot. The tarp is big enough to completely cover your cot in case it rains. I will cook and you will wash the dishes. I will wash our clothes.”
She continued, “The second rule is that when we visit a place, we will stay there until you are ready to leave. Is all that clear? Now, take the map and let’s begin our journey.”
I took the book from the dashboard and opened it up. There was a map of the entire United States with roads marked all the way from Los Angeles to the east coast. There were several smaller maps of various states with locations marked on each.
The next three months we camped every night but one (when we were forced by a tornado in Tennessee to seek refuge in a cottage). From time to time it rained during the night, but I never got wet. When the first drops began to fall on my face, I pulled my waterproof tarp over my body and the sound of raindrops on the tarp lulled me back to sleep.
Grandma took me to every historical site up and down the eastern United States. Williamsburg was my favorite and, true to her word, we did not leave until I was ready to go. We spent over two weeks there. Actually, Grandma spent most of that time at the campsite, reading, while I wandered the historic village pretending to be a colonial teenager alive during the most exciting, turbulent, and historically important time of the founding of our country.
By the time we left Jamestown I could have led tours. The same with Kitty Hawk and Ellis Island. And, yes, few 14 year olds (I had a birthday during the trip) knew as much as I did about the Pilgrims for I spent hours reading about them in the Plymouth library and asking questions of the re-enactors at the restored Plymouth Colony.
Grandma and I talked about many things that summer as we drove this beautiful land. And, although Grandma loved American history and had taught it for years, she never used our time together to teach but let each experience be its own teacher. That summer, Grandma turned 78.
Thirteen years later I sat by my grandmother’s bed as she lay dying. She had recently given up fulfilling a life-long dream of earning her doctor’s degree. Her diminished hearing had made it impossible for her to follow the lectures.
She turned her face toward me and smiled. She spoke her final six words to me: “There is so much to say.” This time, there was no need to dab the corner of her mouth.
A few days later I stood by her coffin as people began to file away from the graveside. I thought of those six words: “There is so much to say.” I told grandma that she was wrong, “No, Grandma. You never had to say anything. Your example said it all.”
When I had children of my own, is it any wonder that I could not raise them by conventional educational methods but that I had to do for them what Grandma had done for me? Much of their education was spent on the Oregon Trail, at Ellis Island, at Williamsburg, touring Israel.
“None of us have ever been afraid to venture beyond what is familiar to us,” my youngest son said to me recently. “We have been so many places, we are not afraid of anything or any place new. You did that for us.”
No, not I; it was someone you never met. A 77 year old woman who would take a 13 year old kid around America had to have been some kind of lady! She changed my life and my understanding of what education means; and she changed the lives of my sons.
Grandma visited us again the Christmas I was 14. I was now in 10th grade and my attitude toward public school had not changed much.
She had been there long enough to get settled in. I found her in the living room, reading. I flopped myself down on the couch across from her. She looked older than I remembered. I sat for some time until I finally had the courage to ask.
“Grandma,” I said. She looked up from her book.
I hesitated. Finally, “Do you think we could take that trip again?”
For a long time she sat, thinking. Her gaze went far away somewhere. But, even before she smiled, I saw the twinkle enter her tired eyes.
Slowly she responded. “Yes…I suppose we can,”
And, we did…
Chris Davis is the father of four grown children. He founded The Elijah Company in 1988, one of the first Christian homeschool supply companies. Since 2002, Chris has been taking homeschooling families to Israel annually through his company, Homeschool Travel. Visit his website, Homeschool Travel.