I cannot think of anyone with a more infectious smile, warm spirit, or fierce personality than my Emma. Emma is my grandma. I have been truly blessed with four incredibly loving, inspiring, and wise grandparents. However, I have learned something truly progressive and invaluable about being a strong woman and partner from my Emma and her marriage to my Papa.
Emma met Papa, a young Jude Law doppelgänger when he was a few years into Seminary School and she had just started college. As the daughter of a Salvation Army officer, she was quite rebellious. She loved dancing, wore makeup, watched movies, and on occasion smoked a cigarette, all activities strictly prohibited in the Salvation Army. However, religion and spirituality remained a guiding light in their lives and marriage. Emma and Papa were married young, one year after they met. Emma gave birth to her first child at the age of 20. Papa finished Seminary school, accepted a position as a minister for his own church, and Emma dropped out of college to take on the role of the preacher’s wife and raise the children.
I am proud to say that, even 50 years ago, my Papa’s church was a welcoming one. It did not discriminate based on race or sexual orientation, which I understand is still uncommon in certain places. Emma and Papa always wanted a large family, but after giving birth to 3 children of their own they opened their home to several foster children. This led to the adoption of my wonderful Aunt and Uncle from China and Korea, respectively.
Emma never limited her sense of identity to that of a preacher’s wife. When her youngest children were in high school, Emma went back to college and graduated with her bachelor’s degree in psychology. She worked with disabled adults to help them find jobs and later decided to learn American Sign Language to become an interpreter in classrooms.
Thirteen years ago, my Papa was diagnosed with a terrible form of dementia called Primary Progressive Aphasia (PPA). It is a brain disorder that affects the language function, brain, and nervous system. Over the last 13 years, my Papa has lost the ability to speak, and was it not for Emma’s care every day, would not be able to live in their home anymore. The cruelest part of the disease is that victims of Aphasia are very aware of what is going on and happening to them, but they are unable to speak their thoughts or even perform simple physical tasks. Most victims of the disease are diagnosed at a much younger age than he was and only live six to seven years after their diagnosis, so my Papa and our family have actually been quite lucky.
Eleven years ago, Emma decided to learn guitar and has been taking lessons at Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago, and has become a rockstar. Twice a week, she drives to Chicago to take lessons, (now guitar and fiddle,) and frequently performs her songs at the Grafton Pub. In 2013, she recorded and released an album with her teacher and close friend Mark Dvorak. Along with her weekly musical lessons, Emma is a member of a women’s book group, quilting group, maintains a vast organic garden in the summer, and attends a weekly support group for families affect by PPA.
Emma has taught me what it means to marry someone and truly love them in sickness and in health. I cannot imagine building a life with someone for over 50 years, and then losing so much of the tangible aspects of the relationship over the next ten. My grandparents can no longer go out to eat at a restaurant, have a long conversation, travel the world, or even walk the dogs together. However, they still enjoy each others’ company and he still gets a kick out of her sitting on his lap.
Moreover, Emma has demonstrated the importance of caring for herself so that she can care for Papa. Her many hobbies provide a necessary escape from the grief of Papa’s condition and her support group provides therapy. She is able to participate in and do all she does because of the fortunate help from my family, old friends, and part-time caretaker. Papa understands her passion for guitar and its significance in her life. He sits in the audience at every one of her performances, her number one fan.
Emma has taught me a lot about being a feminist and being an equal partner to your spouse. Many women of her generation would not have been allowed to go back to school, change jobs, or explore any hobby at their will, much less while raising a family. The truth is that many of them required their husband’s permission to do these things. I am eternally grateful that my Papa encouraged her to pursue every one of her dreams whether it was college, sign language, ceramics or guitar.
Last summer she learned and performed a Kris Kristofferson song, “Thank You for a Life,” which she dedicated to my Papa. Whenever she performs it, she thanks my Papa for a life she calls happy and for the freedom and opportunities she had. He never told her “no” and encouraged her to express her independent thoughts as a woman, as a person. For that, I know my family will be forever grateful. The strength and independence she developed throughout their marriage has helped to make her a capable provider for him today.
Emma is simply one of the coolest people I know. She sings beautifully and plays guitar in a bar, she has an album for sale on iTunes, and she has remained a liberal even as a senior citizen. She is incredibly loved and admired by everyone in our very large family. I cannot wait to see all the ways she helps me develop further as a strong woman.