Grandma Swearingen

I believe it was Mahatma Gandhi who said, “The best way to find yourself, is to lose yourself in the service of others.” For years this quote was carefully placed on the bulletin board above my desk at work, and the meaning behind it has undoubtedly been a guidepost for my career. But truth be told, I didn’t need a spiritual leader from India to teach me this. I had Grandma Swearingen.

Kathryn Pflederer Swearingen was my dad’s mom, and was the epicenter of our family. She passed on much too soon in 1981 when she lost her short but brave battle with pancreatic cancer. Even so, to this day, every Swearingen family gathering eventually results in the warm embrace of fond Grandma Swearingen memories. We really can’t help ourselves.

Grandma was tireless in her efforts to take care of the people around her. She embodied the notion that a stranger was merely a friend she had not met yet. But to her family, her service was unrelenting. Much to Grandpa Swearingen’s delight (“Fox” as she loved to call him), her kitchen was a virtual pie factory. But not just any old run of the mill pie factory–the kind that phoned you ahead of time to inquire about your particular pie requests. (Peach, thank you very much.) There is no question that Grandma took tremendous joy in the little things she could do for the ones she loved. She would wash your hair (even her adult sons lined up for this special treat), make you a fresh lemonade shake-up with real lemons (just like the ones at the Tazewell County fair), and loved to scratch the back of whoever was sitting next to her (hence the constant vying of myself and my cousins for this premiere seating opportunity.) My favorite Grandma Swearingen memory, however, were the hours upon hours we spent playing the board game “Payday.” At the end of each game, I exclaimed, “Again!'” and if her enthusiasm ever waned, I surely never knew it.

I look back now and I know that there was no way Grandma and Grandpa had much money. Grandma was an elementary school lunch lady and Grandpa was the janitor at the bank. But everytime they made the trek to our farm, Grandma came armed with a gift of some sort. A stuffed dog, that I promptly named Puffy and carried with me everywhere for years. A butterfly pin she found that reminded her of me, because she knew I loved to collect butterflies. Something fashion forward, like my first pair of clogs. And, even though she had never heard of Harriet Tubman, she had gotten wind that I was obsessed with this particular historical figure and she searched every bookstore in central Illinois until she found a book that fit the bill–no small feat, I am sure.

Grandma loved to laugh–most often at herself, and even in moments of confrontation her ways were as gentle as a warm summer wind. I remember a time when my mom requested I go to the basement to retrieve some canned goods for the approaching dinner hour. Being the self-centered brat that only I could be, this somehow enraged me and I proceeded to huff, puff and loudly stomp down and back up every rickety step to that basement. Grandma paid no attention to my bad behavior, and calmly looked at my mom and said, “Well, she might have a hard time doing it sometimes, but that Jenny sure can be a good helper.” Her words stung and startled me to attention. I was keenly aware that I had let her down, and that it was time for me to grow up and learn to serve my family just as she had done for her whole life.

The thing about Grandma Swearingen was, everybody felt like they were her favorite. The fact of the matter is, I think everyone was. Almost 30 years have passed since I last saw her, but her presence is always with me. I can’t imagine the woman I would have become without having known her. I just can’t thank her enough, and know that my service–to my family, my friends, and people with mental illness–is a meager tribute to the greatest woman I ever knew.

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