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Life lessons from my badass feminist grandmother

When I was very small, we would travel to Pittsburgh the day after Christmas each year to visit my grandparents. I knew my grandmother Elsie was a nurse and that she took her profession very seriously. I also knew she was “in charge” of her floor, which was for cardiac care. Grandma often worked on Christmas Day so she could take off a few days when we came to visit. I always looked at the bloody, gory pictures in her nursing magazines, dreaming of the day I could become a nurse and be just like her.

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For as long as I can remember, my grandmother has been my role model. She was heavily involved in my life and has always understood me in a way my mother never has. I still associate her with basically every good memory in my life, and I credit her for my personal strength — and probably my brains. I got some good genes from this lady.

I have always known that my grandmother had an interesting life story, just like I’ve always known she wasn’t quite like other grandmas. At 85, she still has an edge. She’s beautiful, with perfect skin and big brown eyes. She’s thin, her clothes neatly tailored (she is a skilled seamstress). Everything she eats is heart healthy, and her portions are moderate. Her house, which she shares with her husband, is immaculate, though she doesn’t employ a housekeeper and is insulted if you suggest she should get one just to help out.

Elsie was what some people would refer to as a “battle-ax” nurse — she learned how to treat patients in a nursing school run by nuns. Even now, she has little tolerance for arrogant doctors or inexperienced nurses.

I recently called to ask her about how she decided to become a nurse. The question seemed simple enough, but her answers were more interesting than I could have imagined. Fortunately for me, Elsie’s memory is sharp.

Elsie Mae Brown was raised in Oil City, Pennsylvania. Her father died when she was 5, leaving her mother to raise Elsie and her sister Jane. My great-grandmother, a waitress, was unable to make ends meet, so she sent my grandmother to live with her grandparents, my great-great-grandparents.

She told me that watching her mother struggle, even from a distance, made her determined to support herself, so she enrolled in a school that was a bit farther away and took academic-track courses through high school. She learned how to run a farm and a house from her grandmother.

In that time period, some women did go to college, but she said if you didn’t have the money, there were no loans to be had. She decided to apply to nursing school and was actually accepted into two but chose St. Francis so she could stay close to her grandmother. Her grandfather had passed away several years prior.

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My grandmother graduated at the age of 21 from St. Francis. She was not yet married to my grandfather and decided she would live at Municipal Hospital, where she had done her clinical in infectious diseases. Living there, near the smell of the monkeys from the lab, is how she met Dr. Jonas Salk.

Elsie enjoyed working with the polio patients and freely admits to allowing Dr. Salk to inoculate her early on in his development of the polio vaccine. She recalls that her shifts were 12 hours long, and she would work in a single room with five patients on respirators. She told me that after watching people die, she had no fear of trying the vaccine.

She shared countless stories about pregnant women and children dying of polio, detailing how an iron-lung machine pulled air into the lungs and pushed it back out. She also explained that if the patients were well enough to be removed from a respirator, they would be moved to rocking beds.

Naturally, I was curious to ask how she felt about the anti-vaccine movement.

Her short answer: “They’re crazy. Obviously, they have never witnessed someone die with polio or measles. Maybe if they witnessed how horrible these diseases are, they wouldn’t be so careless.

“With any medication, a certain percentage of people will have allergic reactions. The same with food. Would you rather your child suffer with a preventable disease than spike a fever? The whole thing is ridiculous.”

In November 1951, she married my grandfather and moved out of the hospital. My mother was born in the spring of 1953. My grandmother took six weeks of maternity leave and then returned to her night shift — by this time she had been placed on a nursing floor.

Working nights while my grandfather worked days saved them money on babysitters. I once asked my grandmother about the fact that she had five children and never stopped working. She told me she never looked at it as an option to stay home.

Elsie knew she was in the minority as a working mother. She told me a story about my youngest uncle refusing to make his bed one day. When she asked him why his bed was unmade, he told her the nuns at his elementary school said other mothers didn’t work and he was not to be doing “servile work.” 

As you can imagine, this did not go over well. That bed got made, and the nuns at that school got a visit from Elsie. I dare say it never happened again, and to this day the beds in her house have hospital corners.

When queried about having a large family, my grandmother explained that larger families were more common then. She often remarks that she only tried to get pregnant once, the other four happened because she was a “good Catholic girl.” My grandmother has always been remarkably open about issues such as family planning and birth control.

Naturally, I asked about her experiences as a nurse before the passing of Roe v. Wade. She told me it makes her sad to think about how some women suffered, recalling young women dying of blood infections. She tells stories of women beat up by men in hopes of ending a pregnancy, noting that men always dropped off the women at the hospital and then disappeared. “The men disappeared,” she kept repeating.

In terms of birth control, my grandmother is all for it! She thinks people should limit their family size, because in her words, “The earth cannot sustain all of these people.” She was the first person to tell me that having my only child was a good decision.

When asked for her thoughts on health care in this country right now, she said she believes health care should be a basic human right, that quality medical care should not be tied to economic status. Interestingly, Grandma lamented that RNs do more paperwork and computer work now and less patient care.

I asked if she were a young woman today, would she go to medical school? She said perhaps she would. “But you know I don’t always like doctors.” (I forgot about her history of intimidating medical personnel.) Instead, she says she would likely become a nurse practitioner.

After interviewing her for a bit over an hour, she told me she had plans and had to get off the phone. She is terribly busy being retired and taking care of my grandfather. Listening to her clean as she shared her story, you get a sense of the girl she once was. You can tell why my grandfather fell in love with her: her brains, her sharp tongue and the critical but yet understanding way in which she evaluates the world.

I love her for all the same reasons. I love the duality of her strength and her softness, the way she can take her life experiences and explain exactly what is wrong — and right — about our world.

To give a better idea of why I admire and love her and sum up what makes her such a funny, obstinate and beautiful 85 year-old feminist, I thought I would end with some of my favorite quotes of hers.

Grandma’s thoughts on the world around her:

  • When complimented on her perfect skin: “I wash my face with the same soap I use on my feet.” 
  • When I was 15 years old: “The bad girls are not the ones that get pregnant, it’s the dumb ones.” 
  • Talking about raising five children: “I feel that I was not able to parent all five of my children as well as I could have — there were too many of them.” 
  • On the death of Justice Antonin Scalia: “If there is a hell, I hope he is suffering as much as his wife did bearing nine children.”
  • To my mother after being widowed: “We come from a long line of very strong women — you will persevere.” 
  • A general comment overheard at dinner: “I am so tired of old white men running the world.” 
  • In reference to Donald Trump: “I won’t dignify his existence by talking about him.” 
  • On drug addiction and religious zealots: “People with problems always look to either drugs or religion.”

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